“MY FATHER GAMBLED,” SAYS JOY. “HE WAS A HORRIBLE GAMBLER; THAT’S ONE OF THE REASONS MY PARENTS GOT DIVORCED. My mom was a hairdresser, my dad was a waiter. He worked at night. In the day, my mom would go to work. I was about five, but I have very vivid memories of this. We lived in Bergen County in New Jersey, right on the other side of the George Washington Bridge from New York City. Mom would go off to work and Dad would take me to New York.
We would go have a Chinese breakfast — dim sum, or one of those teahouses where you get rice soup and rice noodles and jasmine tea. After that, we would go to OTB — offtrack betting. I really know how to bet now; it sticks with you. But I watched my father lose a lot of money. He would lose at gambling, and then he would be in trouble with my mom. So, he would make a really nice dinner in order to be able to stay in the house. We were still in Chinatown, so before we went home, we would go to all the open-air markets and buy fresh fish and Chinese vegetables. My mom would walk through the door, and there would be this beautiful dinner on the table, and hopefully, he wouldn’t get into too much trouble. But eventually, he did, and they got divorced. His cooking didn’t save him.”
Joy never took up gambling, but the memory of those dinners stayed with her, working their way into her person. Later, Joy’s mother remarried — to another Chinese man — and the two set off on a career as restaurateurs. “They owned French restaurants, Italian restaurants, seafood restaurants — you name it, they owned one. But predominantly, they owned Chinese restaurants predominantly in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From the time I was a little kid, I was in restaurants. That’s really where I learned to cook, where I learned to get excited about food.” And for a kid in a Chinese kitchen, some of that excitement must have been purely visceral. “We would give our kitchen slops to the pig farms, and every year, they’d send a live pig. It would always be in the wintertime, and when the Chinese guys in the kitchen would kill the pig, they would hold it and they would crack its neck. Then they would have this big old pig on the cutting board, and when they sliced up the pig, all this steam would come out. They would let the blood drip out of it first, and they would steam the blood into blood pudding and slice it and eat it. Then they would take all the entrails out of the pig and wash them and eat them. That was, like, the best part.” Little Joy watched and learned. “I think that chefs are hams. They really like to show off, and if you show any interest in what they’re doing, they’ll stop and take the time and show you.”
Food became terra cognita, the thing that stays with you and sustains you. When Joy ran away from home at age 18, “in the middle of a snowstorm,” she headed north to her aunt’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I lived with my aunt in Tulsa for three months.” To support herself in her newly won independence, “I worked at a French bakery owned by Vietnamese people. They had far and away the most beautiful breads and pastries I have ever encountered in my life. They supplied a lot of hotels, but it was the early ’80s; it wasn’t a jumping time.” They had a huge oven, the kind “with the sliding, rotating racks. It probably could have baked a thousand loaves at a time. The bumpkin people in Oklahoma just didn’t get it. The women would come in wearing their mink coats and say, ‘Ah’d like a dozen of those crescent rolls.’ I loved working at that bakery.” But three months was enough time for her to cool down, make peace with her mother, and get on with her life.
In 1989, she decided San Diego might be a more interesting place to live than Albuquerque — she had a grandmother in Escondido and had vacationed here. But despite a lifetime around restaurants, she had trouble finding work in the local industry. “I wanted to work in a nice restaurant, whether I managed or tended bar or waitressed, and I wanted to go to the beach. Maybe take an extra class or two, continue to grow as a person. But when you move here from out of state, nobody wants to know you. You have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows some body.”
She ended up at Poseidon in Del Mar, “a busy, busy restaurant, but, you know, not upscale. Steaks, chops, seafood, salads — more of a breakfast and lunch place. I’d work from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eventually, I got another job at the Rancho Valencia Resort, so I’d work at Poseidon during the day and then go there to work at night.”
She got to know the manager at Poseidon. The manager knew the manager at George’s at the Cove. She landed a job managing the La Jolla restaurant’s Ocean Terrace Café. “That was a huge culture shock. La Jolla is not like the rest of the world. There’s this culture of people there: they live there, and you’re not really sure what they do, but they’re around and they have money, though they don’t necessarily spend it. I started working in La Jolla in ’94, and to this very day, if I go back to George’s on a Thursday night, I’ll see the same people, doing the same things. They’re having their cocktail or having dinner, shooting the breeze. Their life is the same.” She loved life in the Village, but it began to feel a little claustrophobic, and after a year, she began looking around for something else.
She ended up as the national sales manager for Hornblower Cruises. “I sell to the convention market. All the conventioneers that come to town need to entertain their guests, and hope fully, one of the best ways to do it is on a yacht. My goal is to find those people and sell them a party on a boat.” Work brought her south to the bay, and she started to think about relocating to be closer to work. Before that, she had lived in a “great apartment in Del Mar. It was falling apart, but it had a nice ocean view, and we were a block and a half from the beach. We could watch the sunset — that was the best thing about living there. You know that twilight time when the light changes? That’s the best time of day. It’s all about finding it; the sun is setting, and you’re get ting dinner ready or you’re having dinner. One of my favorite things about working for George’s was that I got to see that every night.” The “we” in “we could watch the sun set” refers to Ozzie, her former roommate and current friend in the kitchen (he works as the executive sous chef at the Rancho Valencia Resort). “We’re not romantically involved or anything. I’m always trying to find a girlfriend for him, and he’s got his eyes open for me.” Ozzie made the move to Middletown with Joy but found his new commute north as hellish as her commute south had been before. He moved back to North County soon afterwards, leaving Joy with an extra bedroom in her new home. (She has since acquired a roommate, who was invited tonight but will not be coming.)
Once upon a time, before Joy came here, the glass wall of this apartment took in a splendid view of the bay, the airport, and a slice of downtown. Now, you can still see downtown, but a new condo complex blocks much of the bay view. “I have a little bit of water,” says Joy, pointing to a wedge of blue off to the far left. “It’s not the same as one floor up, where you get the whole bay. It’s $150,000 more for the whole bay — the same type of unit. And I still have a view. I’m really happy here. I chose this building because I looked at a couple of different units that I could afford, and they were some thing like 700 square feet for $350,000. This unit is 1600 square feet. It’s not as luxurious; it’s not brand spanking new, but I didn’t care. I wanted the space, because I have all this stuff. It was either throw it away or find a bigger space.”
Joy likes her stuff, and there’s a lot to like. Once inside her new home, she set about settling in, beginning with a coat of decidedly unsettled yellow paint in the front hall and all around the trapezoidal main living space. Before, “It was all white.” I guessed canary for the yellow; the shade is actually named narcissus. Into this newly brightened space she moved several pieces of grand scale overstuffed furniture, dripping custom upholstery. “This is a great chair,” she says of a high-armed single-seater. “Sit in it. I got it at a consignment store in Rancho Santa Fe — it’s a reject from a rich person. Consign and Design on El Camino Real and Encinitas Boulevard; I bought a lot of these pieces there. Nothing really matches, but it all kind of goes.”
Smaller pieces fill in the space around the over stuffed seating — cabinets, bookshelves, writing desks, coffee tables — until the room quivers on the border of being crowded. One more chair, one more cabinet, perhaps even a few more knickknacks or mementos on a side table, and clutter would reign. Joy has managed to stop at enough for her 1600 square feet.
Asian touches abound, a nod to her ethnic heritage: a black-lacquered cabinet featuring a scene of bridges and islands and mountains. Three painted portraits depicting a young girl with a straw hat, a young boy sitting cross-legged, and an old woman. Embroidered scenes and intricately painted plates, both inherited from her grandmother. “This is just stuff from New Mexico, because I’m from New Mexico,” she says, pointing at some desert scenes in pastel shades on the wall. Family photos line the front hall, including several of her niece, Jasmine. But the bookshelves, deeply gastronomic, hearken to her more immediate ancestors’ professional leanings, and her own culinary passions. Gr eat stacks of Wine Spectator magazine dominate the periodicals, but there is a respectable collection of the food magazine Saveur and scattered issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food Arts, and Food & Wine. “I used to get Gourmet, but it’s more travel-oriented now. I like Saveur because it’s got more food in it, more weird stuff in it.” Food and wine books surround the magazines: The Oxford Companion to Wine, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, Wine Science, The French Laundry Cookbook, and Great Good Food by Julee Rosso. Outside of food, there are a couple of books on Lillian Hellman, and a fair amount of John Updike. “Updike is my favorite fiction writer. I think his books are time capsules; he captures the essence of a moment.”
The evening begins in the afternoon, with the setting out of a plate of cheeses on the main coffee table. “I like them to come to room temperature before I start eating them,” explains Joy. There is Emmenthaler, there is triple-cream Brie, there is dry-aged Gouda, there is Camembert and Maytag Blue. Well and good. But there is also a wedge of titilla, a Spanish cheese that would look like a Hershey’s kiss (or even the titular (titilla) if it were whole. And there is Comte, and “something odd, an English cheese mixed with Port. I bought it because I liked the color, and because I like to buy things that make people say, ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ ” The cheese hails from Whole Foods; the several loaves of bread that wait in paper bags to accompany them are from Bread & Cie in Hillcrest. There will be company tonight.
As the cheeses shed their refrigerated chill, Joy retreats to the kitchen, set off from the rest of the living area by a bar/counter, and begins the potatoes — au gratin tonight. “I was almost going to go bohemian on you and do some stuffed cabbage rolls,” but traditional fare won out. She softens butter in a microwave and smears it in a baking dish. “I’m not afraid of butter. I hate people who are afraid of butter. It’s hard to be a foodie without loving the butter — and the chocolate and the garlic and all the other stuff.” She washes the potatoes but does not peel them. Then she takes hold of a square-bladed Chinese cleaver — “I grew up using this; it’s the first knife I grab, and I have every knife you could imagine” — and begins slicing, drawing the blade back across the top of the potato to star her incision, then dropping the knife down to the board with a smooth stroke. She works close to her fingertips, keeping her knuckles flexed and drawing her hand back slightly with each slice. After 10 or 12 drops of the knife, she drops the blade flat to the cutting board, sweeps it under the accumulated slices, and shifts them into the buttery baking dish. She pays attention to her work but does not need to concentrate on it; she is able to both talk to me and welcome the evening’s first arrival as she cuts. The guest is Chris, Hornblower’s food and beverage director. He takes a seat next to me at the kitchen bar and joins me in watching Joy.
“Chris usually comes over and coaches me while I’m preparing.”
Chris denies it. “That’s not true!”
“I’m doing Gruyère and Emmenthaler in the gratin; is that okay?” The cheeses, shredded last night, sit in plastic bags.
“You always ask my opinion, but you don’t really want to listen to it. Joy, you put together some of the nicest menus. I’m so proud of you.”
Chris is proud of Joy, if not just for her menus, then also for her selling power. “I love wine,” she attests. “I think you have to love it to sell it. If you don’t love it, how are you going to convey the love? It pains me to see people drink house wine. When I’m at Trader Joe’s, and I see people going for the two buck Chuck, the Charles Shaw stuff, I want to scream out, ‘Don’t do it!’ Groups of people are coming here from all over the world; you don’t want them to come to California and drink cheap-ass bad wine. You have an opportunity to expose them to something more wonderful. If the bud get allows. It’s the same thing as being a waiter in a restaurant. Are you going to let your customers drink the house wine, or are you going to put the squeeze on them to enjoy life a lit tle more? You’ve taken the time to come out to a restaurant — drink a decent bottle of wine! In our case, you’re spending all this money on a great big lavish party on a yacht — it’s not going to cost you that much more to serve decent wine.”
Her own wine collection is pushing up against 300 bottles, distributed between a starter-sized wine fridge in the living room and a considerably more substantial glass-doored unit next to the kitchen bar. Both are stuffed, mostly with bottles dating from ’97 to ’00. Champagnes are up top where it’s coldest, sharing space with various chocolates. (“It’s the perfect temperature in there for them.”) A bottle of vintage Cristal champagne, the celebrity of champagnes and the champagne of celebrities, stands on dis play. “That was a gift from the last man that I dated,” she notes. Still whites and reds rub shoulders down below. The collection skews toward California (“I’ve got a lot of friends in the wine business”) but includes a few French Rhones and Alsatians to go with the imported bubbly. And she is an avid fan of the Laughing Magpie Shiraz/Viognier blend from Australia’s d’Arenberg winery.
She begins the evening by opening a bottle of nonvintage Gosset champagne, the first step on a long road leading to a magnum of 1997 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon, displayed upright and eye-level inside the cabinet. “I am a freak about wine and temperature. If a bottle sits too long in a warm room...” The Benziger is under some suspicion, because it has not lived its entire life under Joy’s care. It started out with her boss, Katherine, who will be joining us later tonight. “Katherine will argue about this when she comes in, but we met Mr. Benziger at work. I’m the one that sells Benziger wine, so when he sends a big bottle, who should he send it to? Um, me. But she was smart enough to give the guy her business card. I was, like, ‘No no no no no — that’s my wine.’ And she was, ‘No no no no no, he sent it to me.’ And I’m, I’m the one that sells the Benziger. You’ve got to fork it over.’ And she said, ‘Tell you what. Next time you have a dinner party, I’ll bring it.’ I just got it and put it in the cooler, and I hope it’s still good.”
After pouring a round of champagne, Joy layers potatoes and shredded cheese, potatoes and shredded cheese, until the pan is nearly full. Then she opens a plastic pint jug of Trader Joe’s heavy whipping cream and pours in some salt. She grates nutmeg in after it, then closes the jug and shakes it before pouring the mixture over the potatoes. “I want the seasoning to float through the whole thing.”
“Are you going to cover it first?” asks Chris.
“I would, then uncover it and finish it at the end with high heat so you get a nice crust on it. Before that, you want to keep in as much moisture as you possibly can.”
“Butter on top or no?”
“No, you won’t need any there.”
“See,” she says, turning to me. “He says he doesn’t tell me how to cook; I think he’s telling me how to cook right now.”
The potatoes go into the oven at 375 degrees. Joy walks over to the stereo to start a new CD. “You want to stick to female jazz vocalists?” she calls over her shoulder.
“I was thinking more Joe Nichols,” says Chris.
Joy puts on Ella Fitzgerald. “I like to listen to the same kind of music you hear when you go into Banana Republic and you’re shopping. Starbucks has great music. Do you like my new pan?” she asks, brandishing an enameled cast-iron brassier from Le Crueset. “I’m going to do my prime rib in here. It’s USDA Prime by the way — none of that cheap Select beef here.” There is a note of self-consciousness as she says this — she knows she is a foodie. “Look at the marbling on that,” she marvels as she unwraps the fat-laced roast, obtained through a friend in the food service industry.
“It’s a gorgeous piece of meat,” agrees Chris. “Holy mackerel.”
Joy pats the beef down with a towel and slices off the fatty cap. Instead of leaving the cap on to melt as the meat roasts, and instead of topping the meat with a lardon of finer fat, Joy will be using a high fat French butter, higher in fat than even Plugrá. The butter is almost chalky in its consistency and is exceedingly good. “I was going to make lamb,” says Joy, “but I wasn’t sure if everybody would eat lamb.” “Pork and lamb,” agrees Chris. “You and I always eat the obscure meats. A lot of people just — probably because they never had it cooked right for the different cuts.” Ozzie arrives, breezing in through the open door. “Grab a champagne glass,” encourages Joy. “We’re drinking Gosset. Get one of the nice glasses,” she calls to him as he wanders over to the blond wood china/crystal cabinet. “They’re on the other side. It’s my new Spieglau glassware.” Joy has a lot of glassware. “The last time I had a dinner party, we were having a really good time, and we were drinking quite a bit. I kept bringing more glasses out of the cabinet. I kept saying, ‘New wine, new glass — we’ve got to have a new glass!’ I forgot that the next day I was the person doing the washing.” (Crystal stemware will not survive the dishwasher and must be cleaned by hand.) “I was washing glasses for three hours; it was horrible.”
Ozzie pulls up to the counter with a flute of the new Spieglau. Says Joy, “I was buying Reidel” — the exquisitely shaped and excruciatingly expensive crystal stemware that claims to be varietal-specific in its design — “but now I’m buying Spieglau. I have Rei del on the table, but I like the shape of the Spieglau better.” Spieglau is also cheaper and a little more durable, but Joy says she’s never broken any of her Reidel. “I’m very careful with it.” Apparently, Ozzie is another story.
Says Joy, “My rule is, ‘Do not touch the glassware until the day after.’ If you’re drunk and you break it...”
“I was on probation for a long time,” says Ozzie, filling his glass.
“Ozzie wasn’t allowed to touch the glassware for a really long time,” Joy concurs. “We lived together for four years...”
“And I had to drink out of plastic cups,” he jokes.
“With the spill top on. He was only allowed to drink from the crystal on holidays, when I was watch ing him.”
Ozzie takes this joshing well, as well as Joy’s frequent requests. “Oz, do you want to grab some rosemary from outside? The nice soft pieces?”
“How much do you need?”
“Just enough for this roast.”
“Is there a time when you’re going to stop bossing him around?” asks Chris.
“No,” says Joy, dismissing the notion. “Ozzie, do I boss you around?”
“Yes,” he says with a smile.
Ozzie heads out through the sliding glass doors onto the balcony, where a fine potted rosemary bush is joined by two pots of basil and a couple of fledgling tomato plants. A small propane grill stands on the balcony’s opposite corner. Noise from passing trains and landing planes and the city-splitting freeway is prevalent here, as is the warm glow of the late-afternoon sun. Ozzie snips off two healthy sprigs of rosemary and heads back inside. As he closes the door, the noise — even the planes — fades to almost nothing, and we’re back with Ella, now joined by Louis Armstrong.
Joy is methodically smashing garlic cloves for the roast. Five...six...seven ...eight. “We aren’t afraid of garlic. We’re keeping the vampires away tonight.”
“I guess they’ll be showing up shortly,” snarks Chris, referring to the impending arrival of Katherine and company. It’s not a malicious dig; you get the feeling it was just too good a shot at his co-workers for him to pass up. Ozzie has brought a polystyrene cup full of demi-glace from the Resort kitchen. “I have some glace de viande and some stock for the au jus,” says Joy. “Use his demi,” advises Chris. “You can use the stock for deglazing,” offers Ozzie. “So I don’t need the glace de viande. You’re slowing up,” she says to Chris. “My glass is empty over here.”
Chris pours Joy another glass and admires the demi-glace. “It looks like the crude they’re sending from Iraq to Syria, for crying out loud. That’s the stuff you even hide from the chef. Let me taste it.”
Ozzie brought the demi-glace; he also made it. “When I was in Puerto Rico,” he says, “I had to get maintenance to put a padlock on my walk-in, because other kitchens would raid it in the middle of the night, just blatantly come in and steal my sauces.” His was the walk-in attached to the signature restaurant of a 1000+ room mega-resort; he opened and ran the place. “It was pretty funny. They couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do. First, it was a signature restaurant, and they wanted every thing frou-frou. Then they changed their mind and wanted a steakhouse. Then they wanted a Spanish cuisine place. Then, since it was Puerto Rico, they wanted some kind of Hispanic influence.”
“I was in there hashing it out until the executive chef moved on. I wanted to work with him, so when he left, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time to go.’ I had island fever; I said, ‘How far can I go? California!’ It’s been seven years now. I like it.”
“You guys busy?” Chris asks Ozzie. “Not at all. It’s been dead.”
“Nobody’s coming into town lately.”
“Thankfully, people get married. So that keeps us busy.”
“Next,” says Joy, “we’re caramelizing fennel and onions for the salmon. One of these fennels is for caramelizing and one is for my salad. You want to slice, Ozzie? He’s my kitchen helper,” she says to me. “You have to be a minimum of an executive sous chef to be my kitchen helper.” Ozzie eyes the cutting board. “Did you cut the meat on this?”
“No, just the rosemary and the garlic.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” He washes the board anyway, then begins work on the fennel. The first cut removes the knotty base of the bulb, the second halves the remainder. He rinses each half, then begins making quarter inch slices.
“Do you like fennel?” Joy asks Chris.
“No, not raw. I like it cooked.”
“I’m putting it raw in the salad.”
“I did fava beans last night.”
“You did? Fresh favas?”
“Fresh favas. I got them at this little market. They were good. You’ve been pounding me on those, and I finally did them. I did a nice salmon...”
“I have been whining about fresh fava beans.”
“Yes, they were really good.”
“Maybe I could do them for my MPI event.” She turns to me. “I’m also the monthly chairperson for Meeting Professionals International in San Diego. I plan 12 educational sessions for approximately 200 people at a time. I do the menus, I select the site, I find the speakers. The Hotel Del is great to work with. It’s industry networking; these are people who plan the big meetings for Qualcomm and places like that. We go to a site and say, ‘You’re showcasing your property to maybe 200 different meeting planners. What do you want to do to make sure this is a beautiful event?’”
Joy pulls out another Le Crueset piece — a giant Dutch oven, Ozzie’s Christmas gift to her last year. More butter goes in; this is where the onions and fennel will gently brown and sweeten. “I’m getting a little dry here,” she says to Chris, who empties the Gosset into her glass.
“Let’s leave it here so Katherine can see what she didn’t get to drink,” says Joy with a grin.
“She wouldn’t have liked it anyway,” counters Chris.
Joy’s glass is wet again, but her sink is less so. As she goes to run water for washing the salad, the faucet does the old buck ’n’ shudder, spitting out a few noisy spurts of water before going dry. “No way,” says Joy. “That’s not good. This happens every now and then; it’s an older building.”
“There was a sign in the elevator,” says Ozzie.
“Do you have bottled water?” asks Chris.
“You could start a trend,” I offer.
“You have plenty of wine,” suggests Ozzie. “You could use wine to wash the lettuce.”
Joy journeys to the two bathrooms to see if their faucets will give up any water, but alas. She dumps what little she has in her Brita pitcher into a bowl and soldiers on. “All we have to wash are these three heads of butter lettuce. We ’ll rinse the big pieces in here so we can still eat and live. I bought it at Whole Foods, so it’s organic — it’s organic dirt. That’ll work.It’s clean enough.”
“Now, that’s not the bowl you use when you do your feet, right?” jokes Chris.
“Only just before dinner,” shoots back Joy.
“I came out one morning, and there’s my wife having her feet soaked in my large prep bowl. I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to the store to buy a new bowl.’ She said, ‘Oh, we can wash it.’ I said, ‘No, hon, please. I love you, but that’s your bowl now.’ ” There is some question of what bottle to open next. Chris is not in the mood for Gewürztraminer.
“This is Gainey Reserve Chardonnay. I have Arrowood Viognier.”
Chris notices a bottle of Pine Ridge Chardonnay.
“Do you want Landmark or Pine Ridge?” asks Joy.
Chris opts for the Pine Ridge Dijon Clones 2000 Chardonnay. “This is perfect,” he says after his first sip of the lush, oakey wine. “W hen did you get it?”
“I think I got that from Dave, Dave that I’ve been dating. I’m always a little bit more friendly after a bottle of wine.” To me: “He’s in Japan. He’s not joining us; he’s there for three years.”
As they discuss Pine Ridge and Dave, Ozzie begins trimming the side of salmon that will both top and anchor tonight’s salad. With a narrow blade, he removes the bloodline, a strip of dark, less-tasty flesh running down the center of the fish. He nips here, tucks there, and finishes by doubling up the narrow end of the fish to make a consistent thickness throughout. A little black pepper, a little sea salt, and the salmon will be ready to go. “I’m going to wait to season it until we’re ready to cook it,” explains Ozzie. “Salt draws moisture.”
There is a lull in the action while Joy switches to a Billie Holiday CD; time enough for a look ’round the U-shaped kitchen, starting with the light that makes the look ’round possible. “I brought IKEA lighting in here on purpose,” says Joy. “These are sort of like gallery spotlights, and it makes the food look like art.” The counters are covered with pale tan tile; copper-colored grout fills the gaps, and a chocolate brown bullnose border outlines the lot. Flowers, done in brown paint, adorn a few of the tiles. A sizeable chunk of counter space is taken up by equipment and comestibles: a huge bowl of potatoes and onions, a Kitchen Aid mixer under a blue and yellow Provençal dishtowel, a white microwave, an Osterizer blender, a Krups coffeemaker, and Brita water pitcher. Wine bottles and pottery or glass canisters fill in the gaps. The cabinetry, along with the apartment’s interior doors and trim, is white, thanks to Joy’s paintbrush — she deems it the best solution for unattractive mid-20th century wood. White vinyl tiles cover the floor; a good, skooshy mat saves wear on the feet for whoever’s standing at the stainless-steel sink. The stove is a Frigidaire Gallery — electric. “I was totally bummed when I found I didn’t have a gas line. So this is my stove and that kind of sucks, but that’s life.”
Breaktime over, Joy starts in on the salad. First, she breaks up the curling, furling leaves of butter lettuce (dry now after their emergency washing) into an amazingly broad stainless-steel bowl, then sprinkles in the shards of sliced fennel after them. On top of that goes a bag of Trader Joe’s Organics arugula, followed by a can of Trader Joe’s Organics hearts of palm. Then two packages of raspberries, plump and scarlet, brought in from Mexico by the good people at Driscoll’s. Top with some shaved Parmesan...but not yet. The cheese and the avocados will wait until just before serving. On to the dressing.
Joy mashes a handful of the raspberries, stirs in a scoop of sugar and a generous pinch of salt.
Do you ever measure?
“Only when I’m baking.” She tastes throughout, adding dashes and drips to get the balance right. She pours in tarragon red wine vinegar and drops in a dollop of Dijon mustard to aid in emulsification. She stirs in a hint of minced red onion and a twist of cracked black pepper, and then Ozzie soaks the lot in extra-virgin olive oil while she whisks everything together. Moving on, she assigns Ozzie the task of peeling the ends of the asparagus spears, so that the whole will cook more evenly.
“Where did you get that asparagus?” asks Chris admiringly.
“God love them.”
“When I lived here, I never cooked,” Ozzie tells me as he peels.
“He wasn’t allowed to cook,” Joy cuts in.
“No, it’s not that I wasn’t allowed. It’s that I didn’t want to.”
“He never cooked. I did all the cooking; he was spoiled.”
“Because the second I started cooking something, she would be over my shoulder, nit-picking at every little thing I did."
Joy protests, but she also admits that “whenever I go to somebody else’s house for dinner, I always go in the kitchen and start taking over. It’s really bad.”
Twilight comes on, the yellow walls begin to glow with the last of the sun light as it filters through the blinds. Joy is happy; it is her favorite time of day. The Pine Ridge is giving out under the onslaught of four drinkers. “I think we ’re going to have to open a bottle of Chateau Potelle Chardonnay for you,” says Joy. “If we were drinking these in the right order, we would have drunk it first, and then the Pine Ridge.”
“Why?” asks Chris, almost as if he is quizzing her.
“Because this is considerably lighter on the oak, and the fruit is a lit tle bit more elegant.”
“And you’ll see that it has that really good fungal, mushroomy quality that really good white Burgundies have.”
“You are correct once again, Obi-Wan.” But crisp and mushroomy as the wine is, Chris is tired of Chateau Potelle — he’s been drinking a lot of it lately. “I just sold 14 cases to a party,” explains Joy before turning to Chris and proclaiming, “That’s good damn wine. I don’t know why you’re complaining about it.
Do you want me to open up some Joseph Phelps Ovation?”
“No, I had it last night.”
“Do you want some Landmark?” He hesitates, but eventually, the bottle gets cracked open. He judges it “the perfect in between,” with the fat Pine Ridge and the lean Chateau Potelle at the extremes.
The onions and fennel have darkened sufficiently; out they come from the Dutch oven, to rest next to the salmon. In goes the stock, to simmer and reduce, along with a splash of old champagne from a bottle on the counter. The potatoes are done as well. “As soon as the girls get here, I’ll put in the prime rib,” announces Joy. A couple of minutes later, Laurie arrives. She’s the national sales manager for the San Diego Convention Center, and this is her first time visiting Joy’s apartment.
“Hi, how are you?” calls Joy as she gathers Laurie about her and begins showing her around. “This is Ozzie...he’s single,” she says, with perfect unserious seriousness. Laurie is single as well; so is everybody else who is due to arrive.
As Joy shows Laurie the living room and the view through the glass wall overlooking the airport, the bay, and the nearby condos, Jackie zips in, a whirl of cheerful energy. “Ozzie!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know you wore glasses!” This might not be odd, except for the fact that Ozzie is Jackie’s roommate. Before Ozzie moved in with Joy, Joy roomed with Jackie, who ended up moving next door. She later moved to Carlsbad, and when Ozzie left Joy after her move south, Jackie took him in. “It’s very incestuous,” laughs Jackie. “I didn’t know he wore glasses, because he never wears them around the house. I think they’re fake. I think they’re just magnifying glasses.”
“I’m just trying to fit in,” says Ozzie with a verbal eye-roll.
There is Domaine Chandon sparkling wine on ice in an enormous wrought-silver wine chiller in the living room. But Jackie opts for the Chateau Potelle and ooohs over it. Joy puts on a Frank Sinatra CD just as Katherine arrives. “You’re the one who tried to steal the Benziger,” I say, not trying to start anything.
“Me? That’s my Benziger!”
“No, it was really supposed to come to me,” disputes Joy.
“It had my name on it.”
“She gave the guy her business card,” explains Joy.
“He sent me the wine. Benziger is my favorite winery.”
“Why would he send her the wine if she doesn’t sell it?”
“I’ve been there — 10 or 15 times. How many times have you been there, Joy?” I think they are enjoy ing this.
“Okay,” Joy says to me, “if you were him, would you give her the wine because she was selling it or just because she visited the winery?”
“I visited 15 times. And I’m the boss...” There is a general “ooooooh” from the crowd. “I try not to pull that one out very often.”
“Nicely done,” says Chris. “Golf clap for that one.”
“But I promised Joy I would save it to drink together, so...” So that is that and all is well. Joy slips back into the kitchen to tend to the preparations; specifically, which Parmesan to shave for the salad.
“This one is fresher,” she says, nibbling a salty youngster. “This one is richer,” says Ozzie, tasting the older of the two, and that’s the one he selects. “Keep shaving,” says Joy after a bit. “I’m going to top each plate with it.” Then she heads out to the porch to light the grill. “It’s the best grill ever,” she marvels. “The heating unit is the same size as the one on a big grill,” but the grill surface is much smaller, “so you have a lot more control over your heat.”
Ozzie lays down a sheet of tinfoil on the cutting board and begins spreading a layer of onions and fennel over it. “Because the fish gets direct heat from the bottom when it’s on the grill, it tends to scorch a little bit. You put the onions and fennel down so they take the heat. When you slide the fish off, it should be fine.” He lays the salmon on its bed, pours a little chardonnay over the top, sprinkles on salt, and dots the fish with the French butter before enclosing it in the tinfoil. Then he wraps the asparagus in foil as well, and both are ready for the grill.
The guests have wandered over to the platter of cheeses. Rebecca arrives, another friend from work. Some guests have brought flowers; as Easter is approaching, Rebecca has brought a basket shaped like an egg and filled with a stuffed toy bunny and a lily. The basket takes its place on a table loaded with similar decorations: ceramic Easter bunnies, a duck in the middle of a ceramic Easter egg shell, Easter eggs with bunnies painted on them. “I’m going to dress the salad now,” says Joy, “because I like it to wilt for a few minutes before we serve it. It makes it nice and dense. We’ll add the salt and the avocado at the last minute, so the avocado doesn’t discolor. When we pull the roast out to let it rest for a couple of minutes, the potatoes will go back in the oven” to garner a sweet, brown top.
As the twilight fades, Joy sets about lighting about a dozen candles of different heights and widths in different spots around the living room. Some are displayed simply, others on ornate candlesticks. Preparations continue, and I mosey over to the guests. Norah Jones has taken over on the stereo.
“We’ve been talking about who grew up on farms,” says Jackie as I arrive. “...murderous chickens,” Ozzie is saying.
“They murder each other; is that what you mean?” asks Katherine.
“Oh, no no no — they attack you. You’ve heard of chupacabras, right?”
“No, but I have a good chicken story. But I was going to hear what you had to say about murderous chickens.”
“The chupacabras originated in Puerto Rico. It’s a chicken, an animal that sucks the blood from goats.”
“Is it a real animal or just a myth?” asks Katherine.
If you’ve never seen one, then it’s a myth, I suggest. Chris has joined us from the kitchen to say his good-byes; he will not be staying for dinner. “Dude, if they did an X-Files on it, then it’s got to be true.”
“Scully found ’em,” agrees Katherine. “There you go — Scully found ’em,” echoes Jackie. Ozzie continues. “When I was in Puerto Rico, the whole chupacabra thing started. The mayors from different towns would get together posses, and they’d go into the woods, beating the brush with sticks, trying to scare this strange animal so they could find it.”
“It does sound like an X-File, doesn’t it?” comments Rebecca.
“Seriously, it was a spooky situation. Every body was locking their doors, closing all their windows. On the news, you would see the goats all shriveled up. This was just before I made my decision to come to California, and then all of a sudden there were chupacabras in Mexico. This thing was following me around!”
Katherine follows up with her chicken story. “Okay, so I grew up in the country, and we had a lot of chickens. We also had this huge garden that my mom grew all of our food in. We had wood chips every year that would come in the spring, and we would put them down in all the paths. The chickens we’d use for eggs or we’d slaughter for dinner. My brother and sister had to pluck the chickens, because I’d get sick, even though I was the oldest. I would throw up if I had to pluck the chicken; all the feathers stick to you — it’s horrible.”
“I used to pluck chickens,” sympathizes Rebecca. “It smells horrible.”
“So anyway, this one chicken died of some disease or something — we didn’t know why. It could have been sick, so we had to bury it instead of eating it. My mom buried it right off the path on the way to the garden. The next day, we had some company, and we were walking down the garden path to show them, and some one stepped where the chicken was buried. And it squawked. For two days straight, every time you stepped on it, which we did many times, it would go ‘Brrawwwk!’ ” Later Katherine will top that one with a tale of turkeys, which, too dumb to close their mouths when they look up to investigate the rain, half drown and collapse. The trick to reviving them turns out to be placing them on a tray and drying them out in a warm oven.
Farm animals give way to domestics, mainly cats and the critters they hunt, plus some they don’t. “When I call home to my mom,” says Katherine, “those are the stories I get."