Doing the Topanga Hustle

They first approached me about cooking for the elementary school’s silent auction a couple years back. This year, they meant it. And being that it was for the good of the kids, I agreed!

Glass candle baubles dangle from the oaks at 1909

Glass candle baubles dangle from the oaks at 1909

I don’t often do large events — when I cook for others, it’s usually private dinners — and the logistics would be a challenge. The event, 200 or so people gathered to eat, drink, bid on things they really didn’t need, would have a 1970s “Topanga Hustle” theme. It would take place at a local event venue, The 1909. (Beautiful place for a wedding, by the way, in case any of  you are walking toward that particular altar.) There was no stove, I was told, but there were convection ovens. When you do an event for that many people, you don’t really want to be cooking things in pans anyway. I would have most of the food prepared before the evening, and would simply be warming things up, saucing things, finishing things and plating thing.

Most years at the silent auction, there was a buffet. I prefer to not do buffets if I can avoid it — just the word, “buffet,” brings to my mind images of people holding trays queueing up on a cruise ship. I had begun sketching out my menu — four or five courses of small plates that would be hand delivered to guests as they mingled, or sat at dining tables. I had a good direction and was proceeding. And then I got the invitation to come check out the venue — where, rumor now had it, there was a wood-burning pizza oven. That would change everything!

The oven

The oven

I drove the couple miles up the road to the venue to meet my friends, Mariam and Catherine, who were co-chairing the event. The property was spectacular — a two-story, light-filled building set in an oak grove with descending terraced levels and an amphitheater — the kitchen was ample. And sure enough, there it was — like a jewel centerpiece on the emerald green of a large lawn, a sparkling new pizza oven, not yet even used!

How would that change my plans for the evening? I would make it a much more casual, “foodie”-type event. Gone would be my little composed plates, replaced by ordered randomness. Bowls of my famous porkcorn (aka bacon kettle corn) would greet arriving guests. I would prepare small bites — think Spanish pintxos or Venetian cicchetti — that might appear on a platter where you were standing by the bar. Or that you might have to seek out when a friend told you, “Wow, did you try that ****???” Most dramatically different, however, would be the oven. The new plan would be to set up my “kitchen” outside by the oven. And cook!

From the blazing depths of the oven (600-800 degrees, typically), I would slide pizzas and pull and carve rib eyes on the bone; I would oak-sear pork shoulders destined for slider-type sandwiches; I might roast whole fish, Tuscan-style, or giving a Tandoori-style blast of heat to a chicken. My imagination was running wild. And, best of all — for me and those standing nearby — I would improvise with whatever interesting meat, seafood and produce I might stumble upon that week in the markets.

Some of my previous wood-fired pizza work

Some of my previous wood-fired pizza work

I went back to my menu with a new fire in my belly — the 600-degree fire of a wood-burning oven! Instead of the fine-tipped brush of a Botticelli, I would paint with the mad improvisation of a Pollack. I might even get burned, but that would be okay — it’s all part of the job, folks.

By now, you’re all wondering how would (or did) it all work out? You’ll have to wait for a later post to find out. And for those of you hungry and able, I expect to see you there. I might have a surprise or two for you…

For tickets or to learn more, click here.


15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tinywhitecottage
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 03:01:06

    Oh my gosh! It’s a cliffhanger of a post. You have my full attention and I’m afraid I might miss the ending! 🙂 Love this…


    • scolgin
      Apr 25, 2014 @ 03:17:43

      Oh, you’re only hanging on in the voyeuristic hopes that it will be a train wreck… 😉

      (POST: “OMG, it was the worst night ever. I knew it had begun to go wrong — terribly wrong — when my hair caught on fire by the oven. That was just before guests began projectile vomiting after eating my house-cured tuna loins…” etc.)


  2. Kristy
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 23:43:52

    This is beautifully written and very enticing… please, may I make a request… NO PINE NUTS! I want to eat your food! Thanks, Sean!


  3. pal-O
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 04:10:43

    I already know how this will end. A wood burning stove in the center stage of Sean’s Food Theater? Are we talking wheelhouse? Drama? Cliffhanger? Me thinks unlikely! 8^)


  4. Jessamine in PDX
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 17:41:41

    Ohhh, that pizza oven is gorgeous! Hard to believe it’s never been used. Can’t wait for the follow up post when you break it in!


  5. Leo G
    Apr 30, 2014 @ 17:02:58

    You’ve hit pizza oven gold Sean. I am green with envy… I will be thinking of you on Saturday. I am sure its going to be an incredible evening.


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