The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

5_IMG_2801.jpgNo matter how humble they appear to be, nearly everyone who cooks likes to have their egos stroked.

Sure, cooking by itself is fun, but public appreciation is even better.

As Barbara Kafka once wrote, "Food is about loving and giving and performance and applause."

Yesterday, I cooked at a food event in Yolo County, where I knew there would be plenty of loving, giving and performance. I just wasn't sure about the applause.

Paul Canales, the executive chef of Oliveto, had asked me to fill in for him at a fundraiser for the Yolo Land Trust, a group that has been preserving farms in Yolo for more than 20 years.

My assignment was to make panzanella - tomato and bread salad - and grill a bunch of peaches.

It sounded fun. It also sounded scary. I had never grilled a peach before. I didn't know how many people would attend or line up at our booth.

Paul Muller.jpgI also learned I'd be facing some stiff competition -- including food from Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Waterboy, Mulvaney's, Grange and Lucca in Sacramento.

Fortunately, I had the faith of two loyal fans. Paul Muller, seen right, a founder of Full Belly Farm in Yolo and a longtime supplier of Oliveto, provided the peaches and a trailer grill.

My wife, Micaela, seen in the photo above, agreed to work as an assistant.

To our delight, the event was held in a shady walnut grove at the Elkhorn Basin Ranch, and the afternoon was as cool as an autumn morning.

The ranch itself is a story worth of a post. Several agencies and non-profits, including the Yolo Land Trust, combined to preserve the 1,500-acre tract and protect it from the development. The ranch sits east of Woodland, and a few miles north of Interstate 5, right across the Sacramento River from Sacramento International Airport.

When we arrived two hours before the event, Micaela and I thought we'd have plenty of time to prep our peaches and salad.

Of course, we didn't. People started arriving promptly at 3 p.m, hungry and thirsty. It was around then we learned that up to 500 people might attend.

"We can do this," I said to myself, trying not to panic. I brushed olive oil on the peach halves that Mickie had sliced, and started grilling them on a medium-hot griddle that sat above the flaming coals.

Soon there was a small line at our booth. Then it became a large line. Some people wanted to meet the Chef Apprentice. Others seemed attracted to the novelty of peaches on a grill, and wanted to know what I was glazing them with.

DSCN3774.JPG"Just a little mixture of peach juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and sherry vinegar," I replied.

It was a line I repeated a few dozen times. People really were curious.

(Just for the record, I neglected to mention the secret ingredient. It was sweat -- dripping from my brow over the hot fire).

People also gobbled up the panzanella. The night before, I had torn up three loaves of Bella Bru Pugliese bread, mixed them with basil-infused olive oil, and then toasted them in the oven. At the event, I sliced up red onions and cucumber, marinated them in red wine vinegar, and then mixed this concoction with a mixture of Full Belly tomatoes and the golden croutons.

All in all, it wasn't a bad swan song for the rookie. My friends and customers were satisfied, as was my ego.

Food is indeed about loving and giving, performance and applause. On Sunday, I enjoyed a bit of all four.

For a recipe on grilled peaches, go here. For a recipe on panzanella, go here.

Top photo by Paul Deering, bottom one by Stuart Leavenworth.

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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at

March 2010

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