As the international gastronomic community gathers for the quadrennial event known as the “Culinary Olympics,” which get underway this weekend in Erfurt, Germany, I recall the same occasion as being the serendipitous springboard for what would become the most extraordinary dinner of my life. And it took place far away from Europe.
It began with a dare. My maternal grandmother (and yes, I know, everyone brags about their grandmother’s cooking) was truly legendary for her talents in the kitchen. There is no one, and I mean no one, who tasted her wizardry who did not remain indelibly dazzled by the experience. (Desserts, especially, included.)
And so one night in 1992, in a year that also featured an installment of the famous culinary competition, my family and I were at a restaurant that we frequented often, eponymously named for its chef, Mark Militello, one of the celebrated founders of what was known as the “Mango Gang,” a group that led the charge in the New American Cuisine category which became so cutting edge and popular in that era.
As we raved about our meals as usual, I deliberately (and mischievously) asked my grandmother if she could match the amazing creativity that was so typical of Mark’s fare. As expected, her facial expression signaled subtle offense, with the implication, “…and beyond!” (Though in her mid-70s at the time, there was nothing dated about her approach to cooking — or life, for that matter. No tired rehashing of old recipes with her; she managed to surprise even more as the years went by.)
So I told her, OK – carte blanche. We would stage our own intimate evening in that year of the “Culinary Olympics,” with just one prerequisite: imagination. Wherever your genius takes you. I wanted this “Picassa” of the kitchen to let loose with free rein. My grandfather (a discriminating oenophile) and myself would follow her food choices for the wines.
None of us really knew what she would come up with, so the suspense was keen until the actual day came around that long-ago September. I could hardly contain the expectation as I discussed the line-up with her in preparation of printing the menus. (Original seen here.)
The wines were required to be up to the level of what the maestra would be serving, and what we assembled didn’t disappoint: from the Dom Perignon for the hors d’ouvres, to the Le Montrachet for a pre-main course fish, to a Chateau Latour for the entrée, and the Chateau d’Yquem for the finale. (Kind of extravagant. All the more fun. Those were the days.)
Five courses plus dessert. Spurred by the challenge, my grandmother’s muse propelled her to new heights, as she hit all the marks, the creative bull’s eye that was the whole point of the night in the first place. The sauces alone were to die for: Sesame and coconut for the mahi-mahi? How about basil and pistachio for the pasta? And that sweetly sublime mix of dates and guava for the rabbit tenderloin? It was a transcendent display of that bold instinct that characterizes all the great chefs: a daring talent for combining the unexpected and achieving magical results.
Needless to say, she nailed the “gold” that night.
I like to remember that special evening as our family’s own version of the famous film, Babette’s Feast. Except in our case it would be known as “Bibi’s Feast” (our nickname for her). As wondrously unforgettable as the creator herself…which is a story for another day.