.Kitchen Rehab

When the chef makes a house call, what about the electric stove?

In a futile and pathetic effort to minimize the stains around a tiny spare patch of carpet that the landlord unironically called the “dining area,” a little home decorating was needed. After all, this would be the first time a Professional Pastry Chef had ever set foot in this humble home kitchen. Most likely, it probably also would be the last — at least if the Alameda County Health Department had anything to say about it. So a rug bought at Cost Plus was used to hide the various wine splatters, furball offerings, and other stains too macabre to be mentioned. At least it was a start.

But aesthetics aside, Professional Pastry Chef Jenn Dunklee would need some room. Big problem, as there wasn’t much of that. Jenn herself had sounded confident on the phone. “Oh, I’ve taught in small apartment kitchens before,” she said optimistically. Still, it would probably help to move as many unnecessary, nonculinary items as possible: the bizarre and dusty collection of the thirty-plus hot sauces bought on a whim while honeymooning in Puerto Vallarta in 1996 would simply have to go. The next step would be to collect the mountain of recycling on the porch. The Husband swiftly sidestepped the collection of decaying vacuum cleaners and filled a shopping cart with beer cans and many empty wine bottles. Really, could this kitchen in this … this … hovel really crank out éclairs, cream puffs, and those cute little swans all filled up with sweet whipped cream?

At 12:30 p.m. on an autumn Saturday, Jenn arrived promptly for a class scheduled to start at 1 p.m. She wore a traditional white chef’s shirt, and Food Fetish desperately hoped her neighbors would think she had retained the services of her own personal chef. Bicyclists careened by as Jenn unpacked her City CarShare car. She seemed to have an entire kitchen in the backseat: shiny stainless-steel nesting bowls, a kickass hand mixer, and pots without scorch marks and with intact handles. And, of course, grocery bags filled with the ingredients we would need to make delicate pastries.

Much to her credit, Jenn didn’t blanch when she saw the kitchen. “This will be fine,” she lied confidently. The other students, Sonja, Lynne, and Michele, arrived shortly after 1 p.m. They were promptly ordered to select an apron and then shaken down for cash. The Husband, terrified at the prospect of a bunch of chicks gossiping and making French pastries, had fled the house hours before.

After making a batch of really strong mimosas, the students plied Jenn with questions. She was a native of Vermont in her late twenties, inspired to cook by her pie-making father. She attended the California Culinary Academy, has worked as a pastry chef at prestigious restaurants that include PlumpJack and the Purple Plum, and now hosts pastry parties. Group parties are forty bucks per person with a three-person minimum, and private lessons are forty bucks an hour. “Lately, I’ve also been teaching kids how to cook,” she said. Surely if she could teach cooking to a bunch of sugar-deranged nine-year-olds , she wouldn’t have any problem with four half-drunk women.

Jenn bustled about the kitchen and started to prepare the pâte à choux, the basic dough needed to make the éclairs and cream puffs we’d be creating later. While trying to concentrate on what Jenn was saying about how eggs should be whipped right away, Food Fetish actually was thinking dark and paranoid thoughts about the catbox. Although hidden in another room, the poo receptacle could still be detected if one of the cats decided to take a dump during class. And heavens, what about the bong? The bright red ceramic smoking device with its maniacal devil’s face was highly noticeable. That could be awkward. The hostess nervously scanned the room in search of the contraband, but discovered with relief that it wasn’t there.

Meanwhile, Jenn took little balls of the dough and carefully placed each one on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. That, in turn, provoked other worries, this time about the oven. Besides being ugly and avocado-green, it was electric. “Hmm, I’m not really used to cooking with one of these,” she said with a worried look furrowing her brow. But what other choice was there? The puffs went into the oven and a prayer was said.

After that, it was time for us to divide into “teams” and make the stuff that would go into the puffs. While trying to maneuver around the minuscule kitchen, there was a collective moment of clarity: the small kitchen was ill prepared for such … large-ass. With the exception of the slender Sonja and Jenn, whose rumps seemed of normal girth, everyone else had cultivated large and splendid booties. Our asses were like huge ocean liners capsizing everything in their path. Sonja tried to stay afloat, but she was in constant danger of being run aground by one of the larger ships.

Remarkably, however, there were no kitchen mishaps, although there were hints and warnings. When the eggs for the custard threatened to overcook and become scrambled, Jenn grabbed the pot and stirred frantically, saving the day! And when someone else almost turned the whipped cream into butter, Jenn gently but firmly restrained that person. After everyone took turns filling the pastries, class was over. The éclairs and puffs had all been stuffed with whipped cream and chocolate and vanilla custards. Jenn had shown us how to make a raspberry sauce which was gleefully drizzled over everything. The guests had greedily eaten a large amount of pastries.

After washing an enormous pile of dishes, Jenn packed up her utensils and shiny mixing bowls and said goodbye. Then the other guests left. The hostess breathed a sigh of relief and located the devil bong to celebrate.


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