“Christmas Eve in Malibu”

screenshot-2016-12-23-15-12-28During my earliest days as a chef — long before I even deserved to consider myself a competent line cook — I once found myself in Cher’s kitchen on Christmas Eve day, helping to prepare an early dinner for eight at her Malibu estate. For lack of a better term, it was one of those typical “Hollywood moments” (the common person’s brush with celebrity) that Los Angeles transplants tend to be so proud of at first.

Personally, I had already become totally jaded in that regard.

I had spent well over a decade in L.A. by that point, with many ups and downs, and thanks to various gigs in the entertainment industry, I could list dozens of encounters with celebrities. But my fascination with Hollywood had already worn completely thin by then (so thin, in fact, that I had left it all behind to become a cook, which really says it all).

Chopping onions in Cher’s kitchen wasn’t noteworthy just because she had won an Oscar, or because she was an early pioneer of auto-tune, or for any of those other reasons. The fact is, I could’ve been cooking for Kathy Griffin or Andy Dick, or any regular person for that matter. I was just proud of the fact that I was actually cooking somewhere, and getting paid a decent wage to do it.

For the past several months, I had been working nights as a short order cook in West Los Angeles, basically struggling to keep pace with a small, yet bustling dive bar called the San Francisco Saloon.

My nights at the Saloon were often long: the kitchen was open late, and my mornings usually began with a full day of prep work at Houston’s (now Hillstone) Santa Monica. I used to catch a half-hour nap between gigs, and then somehow battle through a marathon dinner shift at the Saloon.

My work schedule was relentless, but back then, I was eager for any kind of professional cooking experience. At some point during my hazy tenure at the Saloon (drinking on the job was allowed and encouraged), the owner of the bar introduced me to a caterer who occasionally worked for a handful of the B-list celebrities.

Every once in a while, this chef’s modest network of celebrity clients would foster a somewhat lucrative catering job, and I would gladly enlist my services, hoping to earn a little extra income. In those early days of short order cooking, a catering gig was a huge step forward for me: easier work, better hours, better food, more money.

• • •

Knowing what I know now, I suspect that I landed this Christmas Eve gig because no one else was willing to work during the holiday, but that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

The dinner itself was well within my skill set, since it was just a basic turkey dinner, complete with all of the requisite trimmings. Even as a novice cook, fixing mashing potatoes and making cranberry sauce was rudimentary work. And really, all things considered, my most valuable contribution to the meal was probably unloading the catering van on that rainy December day.

Given the fact that I was cooking for Cher, you might assume that I would remember more about the dinner than I did. But it was a long time ago — I barely remember anything about the day, except for the weather, and the fact that Cher had a stunning hillside view of the Pacific Ocean from her kitchen. Of course, the kitchen itself was also beautiful in its own right, with a giant professional range that could’ve easily been mistaken for brand new.

As for the other details, I also remember that Cher’s name was mentioned dozens of times before she ever appeared. I wouldn’t say that her employees seemed fearful or unhappy, but clearly, everyone in the house wanted to make sure that she was having a happy holiday. It’s understandable.

When Cher did finally appear in the kitchen, she exuded a commanding presence, although (as usual) I expected her to be much taller than she actually was. Cher had an aura about her that was completely unique and unmistakable, and it took me completely by surprise, to be perfectly honest.

Before becoming a chef, I had encounters with all sorts of celebrities during my dotcom days. I dealt with talent ranging from Willem Dafoe to Christian Bale, and even before that, just living in Los Angeles provided a litany of anecdotes.

I was once walking through an empty parking garage when I saw a girl coming towards me wearing a pretty cool vintage ski jacket. I was *just* about to compliment her, when I noticed it was Drew Barrymore. I seized up and said nothing, a moment that I regret to this day.

I’ve pretty much had a lifetime crush on Drew Barrymore, so that particular encounter has humbling, not that it would’ve mattered. She was into Tom Green at the time. But I still feel sheepish for having been starstruck. Moments like that one have proven to me that “star quality” is definitely a palpable trait, an attribute that transcends mere charisma.

Standing in Cher’s Malibu kitchen, I had to assume that Cher had carried this trait with her for her entire life, even long before she ever became famous. Her presence was undeniable, regardless of what you thought of her movies or her music. No wonder she was the basis for so much chit-chat around the house: She may as well have been The Queen.

After her one brief appearance in the kitchen, Cher retired to a separate part of the mansion for the rest of the day. I never saw her again. However, she did deliver my chef an old, hand-written recipe card for stuffing. It was the very recipe that her grandmother had used for years, and Cher wanted us to prepare the dish.

Instinctively, I had my doubts from the get-go.

For one thing, I knew that Cher’s grandmother had probably stopped using that recipe card years ago, and if she was like most grandmothers, she most likely made that entire dish from memory. Grandmothers cook from the soul. Who knows what sorts of adjustments or additions she had made over the years?

Or maybe she did use the card. Who knows? Regardless, the original plan was that my chef would cut and prepare all of the mise en place for the stuffing. Then, once everything was ready, Cher would come in, assemble the dish, and put it into the oven.

Many of my readers (especially those who fancy themselves gourmets) may dismiss Cher for this rather detached approach to cooking. But let’s face it, this scenario is the classic TV chef move. Do you think Emeril ever prepped his station while the audience was lining up for “Emeril Live”? I could easily understand how Cher, as someone who has been in show business for several decades, would prefer to just swoop in for the glory.

Except that she never did. As the ingredients sat waiting on the counter, someone on Cher’s staff instructed us to assemble the stuffing ourselves, and to go ahead and bake it off. Although this stuffing had seemed very important earlier in the day, we were told that Cher was occupied with something else. We double-checked to make absolutely sure that Cher did not want to be involved, and then we mixed the ingredients and slid the glass baking dish into the oven.

We set the timer, and began turning our attention to other projects.

When the stuffing was about halfway cooked, one of Cher’s assistants arrived and asked for a sample of the stuffing from the oven. Although it wasn’t finished yet, we were told that Cher was curious about how it was coming along. We obliged with a heaping spoonful of our work-in-progress, which was whisked out of the kitchen to another part of the house.

After a few minutes, the assistant returned to the kitchen with the spoon and a verdict: The chicken livers were not diced small enough.

• • •

I once had a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute who said that professional cooking has a lot to do with recovery: How well can you fix the situation on the fly when the unexpected happens? This observation is absolutely true.

Unfortunately, in the case of the stuffing, we didn’t have the time nor the ingredients to start over. Recovery, in this case, presented only one option: We were soon mining bits of chicken liver from a steaming dish of half-baked stuffing, then piling the tiny liver scraps onto a cutting board for further mincing. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t impossible, either.

After some effort, we returned the finely chopped livers to the stuffing mixture and continued to bake it. About twenty minutes later, the same assistant reappeared to procure another spoonful of stuffing, which was again hurried out of the kitchen.

A couple minutes later, we learned our next bit of troubling news: The stuffing had too much liquid in it. This information was a bit more dire.

Aside from possibly rolling the mixture in a giant piece of cheesecloth and somehow wringing it out, there really wasn’t much that we could do about an overly-moist stuffing. Sure, it would lose a little more moisture through baking, but the dish was just about done. It was golden brown and puffy, and we had reached our point of no return.

There was simply no viable recovery in this scenario. From a chef’s perspective, this can be somewhat defeating. In our business, a great deal of pride and self-worth is tied to rising up to meet the challenge. Cooking, for the most part, is a series of these challenges.

But despite being slightly demoralized, my chef and I tasted the stuffing and decided that it was actually pretty good. It was a perfectly competent version of stuffing, and we weren’t just being overly optimistic and positive. Objectively, it was fine.

Consider any two recipes for stuffing, and there are so many stylistic variations on this dish, to claim that one is “right” while another is “wrong” has more to do with personal taste than anything. Some folks like their stuffing slightly dry and crumbly, while others may prefer it more moist and adherent.

Personally, I could do without the chicken livers, but that’s just me.

• • •

Although this incident happened over 10 years ago now, I’ve recalled that dinner many times since then — usually every time I make stuffing for Christmas — and I have arrived at this conclusion: That day, we were simply doomed from the very beginning.

Given the origins of the dish — a cherished family recipe — there was simply no possible way that a couple of caterers were going waltz in and duplicate Cher’s grandmother’s stuffing, whether or not we had the original, hand-written index card, or any other specific set of instructions. The odds were simply stacked too heavily against us.

Cher, like so many of us who treasure family recipes, was in search of nostalgia. She craved a certain taste that would elicit fond holiday memories from her childhood. But recreating her grandmother’s stuffing note-for-note would’ve taken a Christmas miracle.

Family recipes are just that way.

They are unique, and at the same time, comforting and familiar. In fact, these dishes are very much like celebrities themselves: They seem to contain their own aura and their own star quality, never to be captured by others, and never to be duplicated.

1 comment to “Christmas Eve in Malibu”

  • I really enjoyed reading this. The stuffing recipe sounds good. I find it hilarious that her professional grade stove appeared brand new. Oh, the people with gorgeous kitchens and zero cooking skills!

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