I’ve owned and operated many different restaurants for over 55 years starting back in 1960, when a hamburger and French fries were on the menu for $1.50 at the Stadium Lounge in the Bronx. I’ve handled all aspects of running restaurants - from bartending at Conrad’s Cloud Room to flipping burgers at Arnie Rosen’s Farnie’s Second Avenue Steak Parlour when the cook had one too many (and I don’t mean burgers) - to washing dishes at my own restaurants when a dishwasher didn’t show up. I’ve even stood in for the chef when he didn’t show.
So over the many years and the many restaurants I’ve worked in or owned, I’ve managed to accumulate a large collection of recipes, mostly by eating at other restaurants, exploring and creating menus, reading cookbooks and collaborating with the chefs when it came time to order ingredients. Sometimes I’d write down the recipes, but I’d always commit them to memory and, in the days before the celebrity chef, I knew that I couldn’t open an upscale full-service restaurant unless the menu was creative and au courant. I’d read cookbooks, newspapers (no Google in those days) and watch chefs prepare dishes.
In 1978, when I was opening Samantha, the first restaurant I owned, I made the menu before hiring a chef. That’s how I did it for all my restaurants. One of the first entrees at Samantha was Chicken Tetrazzini. It was a tasty, attractive dish, and diners could take their leftovers home in a doggy bag. It was a menu staple and a great dish at holiday time. (Historical note: back in the 70s and maybe early 80s, doggy bags weren’t in fashion. Diners would whisper that they’d like “something” to put the leftovers in to take home for their dog. Usually they didn’t have a dog and, if they did, the dog wasn’t getting the leftovers. They were. So the doggy bag was born.)
Chicken Tetrazzini serves 10 to 12 people, or enough to serve a family of 4 for three nights. Before starting, I set out the ingredients, along with the makings of a martini for myself, which I enjoy sipping while I’m cooking. Of course, the martini is optional, but highly recommended. Here’s my rendition of Samantha’s Chicken Tetrazzini recipe:
2 boneless & skinless chicken breasts sliced into bite-size pieces from a pre-cooked chicken (turkey can be substituted for chicken)
9 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. sliced mushrooms
1 large onion diced
5 cloves garlic minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup flour
4 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup chicken broth
12 oz. spaghetti
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup bread crumbs
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
8 oz. water chestnuts
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Spread 1 tablespoon butter over a 9” x 13” x 2” baking dish, add chicken to dish.
Coat large frying pan with oil & 1 tablespoon butter, and over medium high heat saute mushrooms till golden pale (about 10 minutes).
Add onion, garlic, & thyme, saute til onion translucent (about 8 minutes), add wine & simmer til evaporates (about 2 minutes).
Transfer mushroom mixture in with the chicken.
Start cooking spaghetti until al dente.
Melt 3 more tablespoons butter in pan over medium-low heat, add flour and whisk about 2 minutes, then whisk in milk, heavy cream, chicken broth, salt and pepper.
Increase the heat to high cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered til thickens, slightly whisking (about 10 minutes).
Add peas, water chestnuts and spaghetti to chicken and mushroom mixture. Pour cream sauce over to cover chicken mixture.
Combine Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and sprinkle on top of chicken mixture. Dot with 3 tablespoons butter.
Bake for about 25 minutes until golden brown and bubbles. Let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving - makes 8 very large servings
Now you know why a martini is needed to get through this recipe.
Then came Mulholland Drive Cafe, the restaurant I owned with “Dirty Dancing” star Patrick Swayze, where the signature dish on the menu was Garlic Mashed Potatoes. It was a show-stopper. As the server carried in a platter of the mile-high potatoes, usually ordered as a side dish for the entire table, every diner turned their heads and waved their hands beckoning the server to bring an order to their table. Garlic mashed potatoes are a terrific side dish for most any holiday and an easy dish to make at home. Here’s the Mulholland Drive Cafe recipe:
GARLIC MASHED POTATOES
1 head garlic
2 lbs. russet potatoes peeled and quartered
salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 Tablespoons butter
3/4 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Slice off the very top of the garlic head. Drizzle head with olive oil and wrap in tin foil. Place on a sheet tray and bake until tender about 35 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool. Remove the cloves and mash with a spoon.
Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Cook until fork tender and drain. Mash the potatoes until smooth.
Meanwhile, heat butter and cream until butter melts add the roasted garlic and potatoes and mash together. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Now that I’m no longer running restaurants and am a home chef, not only do I make the menu, shop for the ingredients and follow the recipes in my mind and those I’ve scribbled on 3x5s, but I make them for my wife and daughter and sometimes for the Kurzmans, our downstairs neighbors. And I make sure there’s a place for me at the table and enough for leftovers for a day or two.
Bobby Ochs is working on his memoir, “Bobby Ochs, Kid From the Bronx and Restaurant Partner to the Stars - From Kasha Varnishkes to Caviar to Humble Pie.”