It was Saturday night, and aspiring chef Nate Gruver ’18 was serving the first of three fine-dining “pop-up” dinners to 60 students. The dinner cost $25 to attend and included twelve rich courses, from a pork shoulder with braised turnips to a buttermilk panna cotta.
Plates were scattered with the remains of petit fours, and the dining room of French House rang with the sound of warm chatter. Dressed in bright dresses and fancy coats, the diners leaned forward in their seats to giggle, banter and savor the last bite.
The first plate had defied expectations: broccoli with whipped cream. Later came a winter salad with avocado, and then a fennel risotto. But the most impressive course, according to several diners, was the egg yolk raviolo. It was a precise dish, with the egg perfectly trimmed by the pasta.
“I don’t know how he did it,” said Sarah Pao Radzihovsky ’18, “It was magical.”
Gruver has worked professionally in restaurant kitchens since he was fifteen, and this summer will work at Benu, a San Francisco restaurant with three Michelin stars. He became entranced with fine dining after his father took him to Alinea, a famous restaurant in Chicago.
“You can appreciate the best writing, where it’s clearly been edited a hundred times,” said Gruver. “It’s the same thing [with food] – you don’t want to do that every day, because that’s not what food really is — but it’s fun to make food really refined if you have the time. It makes it really artistic.”
Gruver’s commitment to beautiful food was clear throughout Saturday’s dinner. Several attendees pointed to the pork shoulder as the standout dish, but Albert Feng ’18 appreciated the lychee sorbet for its simplicity.
“It was just a really nice dish to have after all the hearty dishes,” said Feng. “It really complemented them.”
Minute details and aftertastes were scrupulously planned. Gruver had planned to use a Meyer lemon flavor for the final dish, a petit four with citrus marshmallow. But after making the prototype, the team was concerned.
“It had a really good flavor and aroma, but then you got this bitterness,” said Carolyn Rice ’18, one of the pastry chefs. After deliberation, they decided to use a different citrus.
Of course, the attendees would not necessarily notice such small flaws, but it’s about “doing everything yourself, and trying to do it perfectly,” said Gruver. Besides his professional experience, Gruver is fond of holding “pop-up” or one-time extravagant meals, from a seventeen-course meal this summer at his home to a more informal dinner last quarter.
In order to pull off three successful dinners this quarter, Gruver realized he needed a larger team. He sent emails out to the Stanford cooking lists and received over fifty responses for ten spots as cooks. Gruver had respondents audition so that he could gauge whether they had the necessary skills.
“A classic cooking test is to make an omelette,” he said. Because many inexperienced cooks wouldn’t know how to do so, Gruver had interested students fry an egg instead and chop an onion. “You can tell who knows their stuff and who doesn’t pretty quickly.”
Tickets to the three dinners sold out in a matter of minutes, and the team hopes the evenings will be a meaningful dining experience. Even with the additional cooks, Gruver estimates that he spent at least 30 hours producing Saturday’s dinner. Still, the cooks felt it was a worthwhile cause.
“There aren’t a whole lot of options on campus – you go to Arrillaga or FloMo,” said cook Nate Hansen ‘18. “It’s great to be able to expand your culinary horizons to some extent, and get exposed to new food and meet new people … also just the experience and novelty of it is great.”
More than anything, Gruver sought the challenge of managing a team to create a stunning meal. The attendees seemed more than pleased with the setup: Alex Sherman ’18 commented on the mutual benefits of a talented chef sharing his talents.
“He’s happy, we’re happy,” he said.