Heads swivel. Forks clatter to plates. Up go the iPhones. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone blinks back bird’s eye chili tears as he flashes a lens flare smile, blinding the enclave of foodies brushing shoulders at long communal tables. I take the opportunity to study the manicured faces of the 30-somethings happy to shell out for an evening of tasting at Chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market. These faces are enthralled, expectant. The diners have come to be part of something big–something with a distinctly Los Angeles flavor: celebrity. We’re at Los Angeles Magazine‘s Top Chef Masters Premier Watching Party and Dinner.
When I read the event announcement from Night + Market, I jumped at the opportunity. I’d been meaning to check out the restaurant; that the event was for one of few current cooking shows I take seriously provided impetus. But my finger hovered over the RSVP button as I asked myself if I was making a mistake by participating in celeb chef fanaticism.
I watch cooking shows (good and bad) more than any other type of television program. I lean forward when Takeshi Kaga unveils the main ingredient. I am a long-time worshipper in the ever-expanding Church of Bourdain. But I avoid the foodie-targeted media events that happen often enough in this city and, by doing so, have managed to mentally separate the burgeoning celeb chef from the TV personalities and Hollywood A through D listers. I shy from the idea of the celeb chef even as I indulge in their shows because I hold almost sacred the image of chefdom gleaned from my childhood and my father.
On some summer days when school was out, I’d accompany my dad to work. We’d slip through the thick, sleepy pre-dawn pitch, rarely breaking the silence, stealth in his black Jeep. By the time we stepped into the kitchen, he would be ready to start the day and I would be ready for a nap. I slept in the pantry with the wholesale jugs and boxes and crates, inhaling the chalky, sweet incense of spices and salts. I’d curl up on the cot he stored in the narrow space and fall asleep to the muffled gong and chime of clattering pots on the other side of the door.
It’s not the flashy world of the television chef–of catch phrases and magazine covers and upbeat opening themes–I treasure most, but the hidden world of the everyday chef. The clandestine morning ritual, the cloistered intimacy of the kitchen, the cultish symbiosis of the line cooks. Whether at a fancy restaurant or a cafeteria, behind the scenes a kitchen was a kitchen and a chef a chef. They were the wizards pulling the levers, making magic, but always hidden by the curtain.
We’re all ears as Chef Kris describes the dishes on the tasting menu. Sticky, sweet, salty chicken wings, the assertive “startled pig” grilled pork dish, and a cooling papaya salad are among the Thai street food snacks we’ll sample. The dishes are everything I’d hoped they would be. They challenge the Western palate–they’re unapologetically spicy and pungent. The night is off to a great start, but I curl in on myself a little when everyone stops eating to cheer like high schoolers welcoming the home team as Top Chef Masters judge Lesley Bargar Suter introduces Los Angeles-based contestant Sang Yoon of Lukshon and Father’s Office and signals for the show to begin.
I also stop eating to watch the “cheftestants” leap out of planes, plummeting to their cooking stations where they scramble to create something that will keep them in the running. Watching the frantic scramble, I think about my dad leaving home before the sun rose and returning after it set, willing to eat anything at the end of a long night, falling asleep in front of the television. I think about how hard chefs work for a living. How they have to employ skill, militaristic order, and an almost reckless bravery to make their place in the world, even on television.
I grab another chicken wing, let go of my reservations, and decide to just enjoy the show. Whether lassoing hogs outside of a studio or trailing around an exotic locale with a camera crew, even with the door propped open, a kitchen is still a kitchen and a chef a chef. Still, I can’t help but feel luckier to have known the mystique of the man behind the curtain; to know that I, peeking in from the pantry, was once privy to some great and powerful secret.
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