The $80 Dinner Party
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We're driving in the pouring rain from San Francisco to a dinner party in the upper reaches of Sonoma County--driving and driving and driving, through Petaluma, beyond Healdsburg, passing the big iron gates of the grand wine estates and the beautifully planted vineyards behind them. Then the landmarks of wine-country luxury disappear and sheep and rocks take over.
We go past our last landmark, a mobile home, and up ahead see a hacienda with a big animal skull strung with lights on the front door. We've arrived at the house of Celia Tejada, vice president of design and brand direction for Pottery Barn. Her country escape, which she shares with her two kids, her brother Ivo, his two kids and his fiancée, was once a "ranchburger,"a one-story, '60s-style house devoid of architectural detail.
Yet the compound is remarkable. Celia bought lots of land--not just a few acres, which is all most people could afford in wine country, but 80 acres in the boonies. Starting with a waterfall, some African chickens (they're great rattlesnake catchers) and a handful of dreams, she is transforming the place into a kind of Spanish village like the one she grew up in. She's turned a car graveyard into a vineyard; she plans to convert a barn into a party space and a studio for Pollock-style painting; she'll use an Airstream trailer as a gypsy caravan for romantic parties in the moonlight. It isn't money that makes this fantasy seem possible, but passion. To Celia, thrift is a virtue. "You're much freer when you have less to spend," she says. "You can be fearless."
Thrift, in fact, is the theme of our dinner. Gary Danko, a great friend of Celia's, will cook a three-course meal that costs less than $10 a person. That would be a challenge for the average coupon clipper and is even more of one for someone like Gary, the chef and owner of the opulent restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. After so many years of toying with foie gras, perhaps he's forgotten what to do with zucchini. Or maybe his memory of what supermarket ingredients cost has dimmed (though that is less of a danger, since until two years ago he ran a restaurant called Viognier at Draeger's Market Place in San Mateo). Fortunately, he is right on the money. His menu costs $77 for a party of eight. Says Danko with casual confidence, "You take the humble ingredients and work with them. That's where technique comes in."
I scan the menu and find many of the staples I might pick up at the corner store, such as asparagus, lemons and potatoes. Nothing exotic: no Meyer lemons, just Sunkist, and no cheap tricks like substituting truffle oil for truffles. Just as Celia has relied on dreams to transform a derelict landscape, Danko relies on skill and imagination to transform ordinary ingredients. Take the potatoes. He uses both ground and whole cumin seeds to flavor potato cakes, then pan-fries them for a hearty crunch. Or consider the lemons. With nothing but milk, butter, sugar, eggs and flour, he devises a delicate dessert that combines two textures, a creamy top and a soufflé-like bottom. I wolf down two and wrap one up to take home. Creativity, it turns out, is a great substitute for cash.
While Gary is in the kitchen, Celia puts the finishing touches on her table, which is also an exercise in econ-omy. She pulls out a few things from her Pottery Barn collection, including sturdy white plates. And then she adds her own touches. As place cards she uses tiny chalkboards, which Smith & Hawken once sold as plant markers. At each setting she leaves a faux bird's nest, made of twig triangles with a moss center and a walnut "egg" from her own trees. She ties each napkin with string, attaching a multicolored message--IMAGINELOVEDREAMJOY. For the centerpiece she fills drinking glasses with branches of fresh bay leaves clipped from the tree that grows up through the kitchen floor and arches gracefully over the stove as though it were watching the cook.
Gary is ready to serve from Celia's custom-built stove island, one of her ingenious inventions. It has a stainless steel counter for chopping, a long troughlike sink and a huge, 60-inch Viking that looks out onto the dining table and living area, so the cook can be part of the fun. Here's the brilliant part: Behind the stove is a bright red wall that hides the other functional elements of the kitchen, including two dishwashers, an industrial sink and a refrigerator.
Celia's posse prowls around the table, hungrily anticipating Gary's food. These pals, friends for some 15 years, often eat together on Sunday nights. The comfort level is obvious--joking and cajoling replace dinner-party niceties. Celia is the charismatic leader, Ivo the self-effacing foil. Emmanuel Kemiji, Celia's ex-husband and a master sommelier and winemaker, is here with a few great bottles--the upstart 2000 Candela Chardonnay (a very affordable $22) and the high-end 1999 Miura Vineyards Merlot. When dinner is ready, everyone turns to eating, drinking and talking, simultaneously and nonstop.
Afterwards, Celia invites us on a walk to the waterfall. The road is muddy, so she offers boots to all, then leads the tour in a Burberry plaid poncho and a furry hat. The waterfall is beautiful even in the rain. She tells us how she bought the property and shares her ideas for its future, then invites us to dinner the next night--paella for 20.