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Lee Hefter is a master of the big night. As executive chef of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, he has been the maestro behind formal events ranging from presidential galas to elegant private dinner parties, from Fortune 100 corporate events to Governors Ball dinners for the Academy Awards.
He is also one of the country’s most nuanced chefs, and when he created the menu for our ultimate summer formal, he thought first about the evening’s two very different imperatives: "I wanted to make an impression of extravagance, so each dish has one exceptional ingredient, to go with the formal attire and formal feeling of the event," he says. "But the food has to be fun, too, a little looser, because it’s summer. It has to talk to your senses."
The solution was to build dishes around iconic summer ingredients—corn, tomatoes, crab, and lobsters—but to do so in a way that leaves their flavors pure, not overshadowed by fussy preparations. The Dungeness crab Louis, for example, is based on Hefter’s childhood memory of crab salads at the Jersey shore, made with little more than fresh blue crab meat, mayonnaise, and Old Bay seasoning. He transformed that simple
dish by dressing it in a sprightly rémoulade made with fresh chervil, parsley, and other herbs. Then, thinking of cocktail sauce with its hint of horseradish, he added a cool disk of horseradish panna cotta—which also plays on the creamy mayonnaise texture. A tangle of microgreens and fresh herbs adds complexity and a different consistency—and keeps the dish feeling casual.
"If it’s summer, you have to have corn on the menu," he says, "but corn by itself is not much. You need an elegant way to serve it." For Hefter, that means agnolotti, one of his signature dishes at Spago in Beverly Hills, Puck’s flagship restaurant. They are made in the true Piedmontese style: tiny, delicate pasta packets filled with sweet corn and cream, and to give a sense of occasion, served with a shaving of black truffles.
After those preludes, it is easy to see the inspiration for the next two courses: butter-poached lobster and sirloin of Kobe-style beef. "The beef reminds me of a cookout," he says, "and lobster is just a must in summer. Not because it’s the best time of year to eat lobster—it’s softer-shelled now and better in the fall and winter, when it’s more filled out. But it’s very sweet and just something you eat this time of year." And if Hefter is serving it, you can be sure there will not be an ordinary boiled potato beside it.
The Chef Says
“My best advice for entertaining is: You need to plan. You need a punch list for a week prior to the event. I do it even when I’m having a backyard barbecue at home. You need a list for when you’re shopping, cooking, and prepping. And you have to stick to the lists, stick to the plan, so you don’t get overwhelmed. You can’t be a last-minute chef; it doesn’t work.”
MENU & RECIPE
By Lee Hefter
Executive chef, Spago, Beverly Hills, Calif., & Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group
Dungeness crab Louis cocktail with horseradish panna cotta
Heirloom cherry tomatoes with baby beets, fresh burrata & Iberico ham
Sweet white corn agnolotti with summer truffles & Parmigiano-Reggiano
Butter-poached Maine lobster with smoked Jerusalem artichoke purée & saffron-chorizo emulsion
Slow-roasted sirloin of Kobe-style beef with bone-marrow flan, ragout of chanterelle mushrooms & summer vegetables & cognac-mustard sauce
Warm financier cake with elephant heart plums, salted caramel sauce & coconut gelato
Ragout of Chanterelle Mushrooms, Honey-Roasted Cippolini, and Fava Beans
For the cippolini
2 tbsp. butter
12 whole cippolini onions, peeled
3 tbsp. honey
For the ragout
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. butter
24 small chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned and cut in half
1 c. fava beans, pods removed, blanched and peeled
12 honey-roasted cippolini
¼ c. chicken stock
To make the cippolini, melt butter in a medium sauté pan over low heat. Add onions and season with salt and pepper. Cook until caramelized. Add honey and 2 c. water, and cover. Cook until onions are tender, water is evaporated, and honey is glazed onto cippolini, about 30 minutes. If cippolini are not glazed, turn heat up and reduce until just glazed.
To make the ragout, cook garlic in olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat until it just begins to caramelize. Add butter and chanterelles. Season with salt and black pepper, and cook until mushrooms caramelize. Add favas, cippolini, and chicken stock. Reduce liquid completely and sauté until the surface becomes shiny. Adjust seasonings. Serves 6