The Anatomy of a Meal

It begins with a few sketches. Not physical drawings, but culinary ideas thrown down on paper — or in this case, a Microsoft Word document on the computer.

I’m speaking of my annual New Year’s Eve dinner, in which my wife and I host up to a dozen friends — many of them the same for more than a decade — and present a dinner of anywhere from eight to 12 courses.

Matsutake mushroom duxelles for course #5

Matsutake mushroom duxelles for course #5

The planning begins with a consideration of the time of year, and what sorts of things I have on hand or might be likely to find at the market. For example, I’ve usually just returned from my mother’s house in Sonoma, and often come back with pounds of prime wild mushrooms — as I did this year. I also recently cooked a goose, so my freezer is filled with goose rillettes, fat and demi-glaze. My mushroom purveyor will have fresh Oregon truffles, and I’ll incorporate other seasonal things like rhubarb, satsumas and rosemary blossoms. There will be no tomatoes or peaches.

Sometimes there will be a theme. Last year I did avant garde, the year before I incorporated Spanish influences in each dish. Yet another year — I can’t recall which — a Japanese thread ran through the meal. But most years, such as this one, I just create, free of boundaries.

"Fish & Flowers" from a previous year

“Fish & Flowers” from a previous year

From there, I’ll consider the flow of the meal. I like to begin with fancy small plates of things — caviar, usually, and sometimes Iberico bellota ham or fois gras, perhaps. As the dinner progresses, I’ll move through seafood, poultry, pork and steak, with a variety of vegetables weaved throughout, before arriving at dessert, typically sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, at which point there is often lively debate amongst the guests as to which course was their favorite.

Friends will contribute champagne, wine and other beverages. Sometimes someone will bring bread or cheese, which never gets used — the dinner is as tightly choreographed as a Broadway play.

Snake River Kobe flatiron steaks & quail eggs

Snake River Kobe flatiron steaks & quail eggs

After determining what I’ll be serving and in what order, that’s when the creativity begins. I’ve decided on caviar, for example — but then what? Last year, I served it with a poached quail egg, white truffles and tempura chives. What could I do differently this year? There are many things to consider — among them, taste and texture, portion size, color and composition. My mind goes to sturgeon — the fish that produces the best caviar. Perhaps I will create some sturgeon gravlax, and serve the caviar on top of that? Failing to find sturgeon at the fish market, I purchase instead a beautiful piece of white king salmon which I will cure with vodka. But what else to pair with it? This could be a fine place for my truffles, and I consider a white truffle creme fraiche. For texture I might add some fried, crispy slivers of scallion, and pumpernickel toast points for scooping up all the goodness.

Then, like a tiny lightbulb going off, an utterly incongruous inspiration enters my mind — black licorice! I will do a black licorice reduction which I will dot onto the thin slivers of salmon, the sweetness and complexity contrasting nicely against the salt and tang of the fish. Or, at least, so I hope.

Because none of what I prepare will I ever have made before. I will not try out the dishes first. I am flying without a safety net. I am, thankfully, past the point where anything I do is an abject failure. Some dishes are more successful than others, and periodically there is a misfire. I wonder if this year it might be the black licorice reduction.


I typically begin jotting down ideas a few weeks before the dinner. The menu will evolve depending on what I can find. I had an idea this year to serve fois gras, for example, with pickled tiny champagne grapes. But there are no champagne grapes to be found at this time of year, so the dish morphed based on some Seville bitter orange preserves I found in the cupboard.

Finally, the menu is set and I begin preparing — two days before — any sauces, reductions and other ingredients that can be done ahead of time. Then, and only then, does the paper and pencil come out, and the real, actual sketching begin, as I begin to compose what the dishes will look like on the plate. A drizzle of green oil down the side of the plate to complement the nasturtium leaves on the other side; a tiny salad piled tall atop a slice of hamachi; chocolate splashed like a Pollack painting across the dessert plate.

A sketch for one of this year's dishes

A sketch for one of this year’s dishes

I will spend the entire day of the 31st cooking, beginning in the morning with more sauces, garnishes, setting up my mise en place… And then, come 7 p.m., it’s showtime.

As I post this, I am in final preparations (as you might guess, I wrote this post in the calm well before the storm). In a few days, I’ll post the menu and photos of the dishes. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all!

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wine Guerrilla
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 00:45:47

    Happy New Year to everyone from Guerrilla country!


  2. Lisa
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 01:11:38

    Happy New Year from South of L.A. beach town!


  3. Andy
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 02:55:34

    You are way too complex for me, dude. I’m steaming crab legs, roasting asparagus and serving it with perfect sourdough and melted butter! (Melted, not “drawn”). It’s now about 8:00 pm, above was perfect, we are gonna snuggle and be to sleep by 9:00 pm. Our PERFECT NYE!


  4. Michelle
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 04:08:43

    Can’t wait to learn what you came up with. Happy new year!


  5. rachelocal
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 18:33:58

    So I guess you didn’t serve brownies for dessert??


  6. pal-O
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 13:41:57

    Happy New Year!! I’m thinking the licorice would be a challenge for me as it is on the top of my list of foods to avoid at all costs but, that said, it has also been one of those flavors that keep tempting me to give it a try over and over with the smae results. Heard it said that that is where crazy starts! Hope the dinner was great . . .


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