Things have been a little crazy lately. My most recent baking projects have been borderline failures, which is what happens when you rush and try to cram a bread project in those two hours between a meeting and a cooking class. Doh. I feel like I’m ping ponging from one gig to the next and my head is all foggy (stupid allergies.) I just can’t seem to finesse my blog posts in a way I like. Also, I’m incredibly lazy at times. It’s just been one of those weeks. I know, pathetic little sob story. But I’ve done some really cool things so I’ll share a good one since my focaccia didn’t turn out this week (hello, bait and switch.)
This weekend, I did the flat out coolest thing ever. Every May the folks at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in Oak Park, Illinois organize a tour, Wright Plus, of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. Surprisingly, there are a lot of them – eight were on the tour this year and there are many more on the surrounding streets and peppered throughout Chicagoland. If you’re a FLW fan, an architecture buff or just like to do interesting things, mark your calendar for next year – tickets go on sale in October. This year, the tour went through eight private Frank Lloyd Wright Homes and three landmark Wright buildings. It really is quite incredible – these homes are not open to the public and the owners have taken considerable care and expense to restore the architectural and interior design details as well as the garden spaces. People come from all over the world to experience this remarkable event. Check out the website for photos and more information.
The weekend was full of events, discussions, tours and special dinners. In five of the houses not on the tour, several chefs donated their time to cook fundraising dinners for the Trust. I was fortunate to assist Chefs Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto at one. (A quick note about these photos … of course I forgot my real camera that night. So these were snapped with my iPhone. Not the best but you get the idea. Ugh.)
Our dinner was in the stunning Arthur B. Heurtley House (1902) in Oak Park. Early in the evening, before anyone else had arrived, the charming owner shared a little history. The home was built on a gorgeous Oak Park street in 1902 and is one of the earliest examples of a FLW house in full prairie style. She and her husband purchased the house nearly 3 years ago in its nearly perfect present condition (smart people, these two.)
The previous owners had the home for seven years and spent the first 4 refurbishing, rebuilding and reconstructing with the help of the Trust to it’s original glory. Over the last 100 years many things had happened – it was turned into a two flat at one point, many of the original details had been altered or removed, there was water and structural damage and the general kind of repairs that plague an older home and a historic one at that. I can’t imagine anything moves quickly (or cheaply) when dealing with a national treasure. I read on Wikipedia that between 1997 and 2002, the owners spent 1.2 million dollars on a complete restoration. Eeeek but not all together surprising given the historical significance. After living in the house for 3 years they sold it to the present owners. I can’t even imagine. Maybe they needed a new project.
Inside, the details are magnificent with many of the features FLW is known for –beautiful woodwork, stained glass windows, and clean architectural lines. As is typical, the kitchen and dining rooms are on the second floor as is a wide airy veranda. (Not the most convenient when you’re lugging heavy boxes of food.) It is a magnificent house with amazing attention to detail. The kitchen in particular is fantastic with all the modern amenities (fridge, dishwasher) hidden behind beautiful cabinet fronts. During the course of the dinner, it was like a game of Concentration to find things. Conversations went something like this: Chef: “Where are the bowls?” Me: “Wait. I know I saw them. Hold on a minute. Nope. Nope. Oh! Here they are!” Chef: “Where’s the garbage?” Me: “I don’t know. Give me a minute.” Chef: “Where’s the freezer?” Me: “I don’t know! How about over here?” It was hilarious.
I’ve come to realize that when you own a historic home, it tends to own you rather than the other way around. I can’t imagine living in a house like this (ok, maybe I can.) What struck me the most was that it was very clear that the owners took great care with the home but lived in it as well. This was no museum. Sure much of the furniture was original or FLW reproductions but there wasn’t a “do not touch” aura floating about that I’ve noticed in other historic homes. It was well cared for but well lived in. It made me feel good.
My favorite piece in the home wasn’t FLW at all – it was the 1920’s refurbished Magic Chef stove. Isn’t it fantastic! The funny thing about this quirky little beauty is the oven thermostat is “ON/OFF”. Oh sure, there’s a little temperature wheel but it’s not the most accurate. You kind of fiddle with the gage and check the oven thermometer a lot. But the great thing is there were 6 burners, 3 ovens, a warming drawer and a few storage drawers! Great great great! I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
Cooking the dinner was a breeze and a great time. I’ve worked with this team for years – Executive Pastry Chef Gale Gand, Executive Chef Rick Tramonto and Sous Chef Erin Swanson – first at TRU then later at another restaurant project in the northern Chicago suburbs. We all get along great, synch well together and have a good time. In fact, I don’t think I’ve laughed as much at an event as I did at this one. I miss working with them daily though I have to say, without the stress of the daily grind, we definitely have more fun now.
As is the case with any event, most of the prep work had been done ahead of time (thank you Erin!) and we reheated, finished, assembled and garnished on site. As befitting such a glorious house, the menu was a bit fancy:
– hors d’oeuvres: tuna tartare on won ton crisps, crab salad on buttermilk crackers, beef tartare spoonfuls
– Hamachi crudo with pineapple emulsion, saffron aioli and a salad of white anchovies, cucumber and radishes in a citrus vinaigrette
– Lobster Risotto
– Braised Short Ribs with Truffled Mashed Potatoes
– Dessert Duo: Ricotta donut holes with fraise de bois jam; chocolate pots de crème with salted caramel and black pepper whipped cream
Here’s what I love about working events with this crew – they come prepared. Everything is ready to go, the equipment is all handy (never make assumptions about what the event kitchen will have) and they bring snacks. I cannot stress enough the importance of this last one. While waiting for the dinner to begin we made delicious little sandwiches with pretzel rolls (!), short rib scraps and saffron aioli. The waitstaff thought we walked on water. (Important to note: always feed the staff, leave good leftovers for the host and clean up after yourself. You’ll always be asked back.)
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: In all fairness, I was a little frazzled when I got to the Heurtley House that night. I was a touch hungover (ugh, those going away parties!), I had just taught a cooking class and had another one the following morning and my GPS system took me the most illogical way. Then I arrived, saw my friends and everything just melted away. All in all, it was a fantastic combination of events – a remarkable location with lovely owners, a great team that works well together (and enjoys working together) and good food. That combination can’t be beat. The fact that our dinner raised several thousand dollars for the Trust is even better. Plus I laughed hard and ate well. Sometimes that’s all I need.