In the grand scheme of things, taking a chance on guacamole seems a lot less risky than, say, repeatedly hurling oneself from an airplane.
Yet for Sarah Feidt, that popular Mexican specialty presented a mission every bit as thrilling as her part-time job as an adventure guide leading people on more risky pursuits like skydiving.
Feidt, 27, started out as a biologist, but now works full-time in marketing; weekends in adventuring. She has no culinary training and no restaurant experience, but she, along with fellow rookie cook Tim Crowe, 29, is making dinner for 60 on this late summer night at an event arranged by Open Chefame - a new, informal group that matches amateur chefs with an available restaurant and a willing public.
The Open Chefame (say it like "open sesame") project is a kind of open-mike night for foodies. Call it kitchen karaoke. The unpaid, volunteer chefs create and execute their own menus, and their friends can volunteer as line cooks, dishwashers, and servers (who get to eat only if there's enough food at the end). Ingredients are paid for through the proceeds ($35 per person; drinks extra), and miscellaneous expenses are absorbed by the sponsoring restaurant.
On this evening, the setting is Ava, a comfortable BYOB just off South Street where chef/owner Michael Campagna has turned his facilities over to these two amatuer chefs selected by Open Chefame founders Jesse Middleton, 23, and Bart Mroz, 30 - who are simply fans of good food.
The idea, hatched in the dead of winter 2009, was to give aspiring chefs, confident home cooks, and thrill-seeking foodies a chance to test their skills.
On this night, guests will each be served five dishes: two appetizers, two entrees, and a dessert.
Feidt's guacamole appetizer will be paired with a single plump grilled shrimp and placed atop a tostada. Meanwhile, Crowe is smearing an herbed compound butter on small pieces of bread that, once toasted, will be dipped in the broth of his appetizer langoustines.
For entrees, Feidt is making quail and Crowe is doing short ribs. The deconstructed strawberry shortcake for dessert will be a joint effort.
Crowe has slightly more cooking chops than Feidt. Once an IT developer, he recently entered the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and hosts his own cooking Web show, Eating Crowe.
But like Feidt, Crowe has no experience designing a full dinner menu, let alone cooking it in a professional kitchen or for a crowd this large.
"Nobody really had any idea why the hell I was doing this," Feidt said, scraping chopped cilantro atop mashed avocado in a giant stainless-steel bowl. It just seemed like a fun thing to do for the self-described "crazy adventure-seeker."
The $35 prix fixe is only a bargain if the food is good. Of course, that's true always, but especially so when the chefs aren't actually chefs.
Everything changes monthly - the roster of volunteer chefs, the venue, and the menu. But if one meal falls flat, there's always hope for the next time, said Middleton.
He and Chefame cofounder Mroz are part of a loose-knit but growing cadre of entrepreneurs, IT pros, and social-media mavens who work at Independents Hall, a hip shared work space in Old City (indyhall.org).
"We figured if this idea is not going to work in a month, it's not going to work in six months or a year," Middleton said.
Now Open Chefame is heading into its fifth event. Middleton and Mroz have tweaked the idea a bit each time, learning along the way that seven courses are probably too many and that table service works better than a buffet.
Feidt attended Open Chefame's first meal in March, at which Mroz cooked with Middleton's fiance, Magda Kozak.
"I came to be supportive, and by the end of the night I was like, 'I want to do this,' " she said, readying her main course of quail for the oven.
As the minutes ticked toward the start of the dinner service for Feidt and Crowe, a film crew for Crowe's Web show documented his every move. The slow-roasted short ribs he planned as an entree had fallen off the bone. That's a good thing, but Crowe made some adjustments to give the dish the best possible plate appeal.
Around the edges of the activity was Campagna, Ava's owner, who worked with the organizers and chefs to get the event ready, giving them kitchen time to prep and working with his vendors to get all the necessary food together. Then the chef butted out, stepping away from the kitchen to give the amateurs their big night.
"My concern was making sure the chefs have everything they need," Campagna said.
His presence did come in handy in solving the puzzles that would inevitably arise - finding the right serving pieces, making sure there were enough plates to handle five banquet-style courses for a completely full dining room. (There were, thanks to some speedy between-course dishwashing.)
Campagna, 37, also teaches culinary management at the Art Institute and had Crowe as a student in one of his classes, which is how Chefame came to Ava.
For the restaurateur, the event fills the restaurant on an otherwise dark night - and presents little risk the diners will hold it against his kitchen if the meal turns out less than stellar.
On that count, Campagna can relax. Both Feidt and Crowe, backed by teams of volunteer sous chefs and other kitchen and service help, turned out tasty, capably rendered dishes in satisfying portions.
Crowe's langoustines were a standout, served family style and with heads on, resting on platters like the underwater chorus from an animated Disney movie.
Then came his short ribs, served with grilled corn relish. Crowe said his menu accomplished his goal of creating a "visceral" experience, though fortunately most diners didn't follow his lead and make finger puppets with the crustacean heads.
Feidt's quail, marinated and glazed in brown sugar, soy sauce and jalapeño, were sweet and smoky. Each moist half-bird came served atop herbed chickpeas and joined by a lively sweet fig jam. And Crowe's short ribs came with a lip-smacking barbecue-style glaze that had a nice kick of citrus.
Kara LaFleur, who has attended all of the Open Chefame dinners to date, said each has improved on the one before. The chefs, she said, "definitely set the tone for the meal with their personalities, it made me feel like it was going on an adventure."
Feidt and Crowe collaborated on dessert - a traditional Mexican Tres Leches (three milks) cake made by Crowe, topped with a tumble of strawberries that Feidt had macerated in brown sugar flecked with minced basil.
The call is out for volunteer chefs and diners for the next Open Chefame event, scheduled for Monday.
So far, each dinner has sold out.
Pastel de Tres Leches (Three Milks Cake)
Makes 8 to 10 servings
For the cake:
6 3/4 ounces cake flour, plus extra for pan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces sugar
5 whole eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract For the glaze:
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half
For the topping:
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Prepare the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour a 13-by-9-inch metal pan and set aside.
2. Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.
3. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until fluffy, approximately 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined.
4. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. This will appear to be a very small amount of batter. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees.
5. Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Turn out the cake onto a dish or platter with raised sides. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork (this allows the glaze to seep in later).
6. Allow the cake to cool completely before glazing.
Prepare the glaze:
1. Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half in a 1-quart measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake. Refrigerate the cake overnight. You may spoon any runoff onto the top of the cake.
Prepare the topping:
1. Pour the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk together on low until stiff peaks are formed. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick.
2. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. A garnish of fresh berries is traditional.
Per serving (based on 10): 719 calories, 11 grams protein, 88 grams carbohydrates, 71 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 219 milligrams cholesterol, 262 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber
Braised Short Ribs
Makes 20 servings
10 pounds beef short ribs
2 pounds veal bones
3 stalks celery (roughly chopped)
2 carrots (roughly chopped)
2 onions (roughly chopped)
10 jalapeños (stemmed and cut in half, keeping the seeds)
1 can tomato puree
15-20 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
15 sprigs thyme
Half a stick of butter
1 large onion (large dice)
10 cloves of garlic (crushed and chopped)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons cayenne powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1 bottle of hoppy beer (we used Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA)
Juice from 2 grapefruits
1 can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup A-1 steak sauce
1/4 cup Worcestershire
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1. Roast the veal bones in a 350-degree oven until they brown and caramelize.
2. Put a large dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat. Get the pot really hot. Add a bit of oil to the pot.
3. Sear the outsides of all the ribs in small batches. Don't crowd the pot. Make sure you get a nice dark crust on them.
4. Set the ribs aside, dump in the aromatics (celery, carrots, onions, and jalapeños), and brown them.
5. Deglaze the pan with a bit of veal stock, make sure you get all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.
6. Add the tomato puree, ribs, bones, juniper berries, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stems to the pot. Then add veal stock until the ribs are three-quarters covered, bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a lazy simmer and cover tightly.
7. Cook at a lazy simmer for about 21/2 hours or until the meat becomes tender and starts to pull back from the bone.
8. Remove the ribs from the pot and set them aside.
9. Strain the braising liquid into a small saucepan.
10. Place the saucepan on the stove, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, and reduce the braising liquid to a thick consistency.
11. Meanwhile, place a large saucepan over medium-high heat, get the pan very hot and add a bit of oil. Add the onions and caramelize them. Then add bourbon and flambe. Cook off all the alcohol and cook until the pan is nearly dry.
12. Add garlic and brown sugar. Let the brown sugar begin to candy the onions. Be careful not to burn the garlic and brown sugar.
13. Mix the tomato paste with water until it is the consistency of ketchup. Add the paste to the pot and allow it to begin to caramelize. Then add the cayenne powder, chili powder and paprika, and stir them in. Add the beer, crushed tomatoes, steak sauce, and Worcestershire.
14. Mix the sauce and simmer lazily for about an hour. Stir and taste occasionally, adjusting seasonings and sweetness as you like. Stir in whole-grain mustard, pour the sauce into a food processor, and puree until smooth.
15. Return the sauce to the saucepan and add the reduced braising liquid. Stir in half a stick of butter and simmer on low for about a half hour to combine the flavors and reduce to a thick consistency. Add salt to taste. (You shouldn't need much).
16. Lay the ribs out on a sheet pan and smother in sauce. Grill or roast the ribs long enough to heat them through and caramelize the sauce a little. Serve and enjoy.
Per serving: 995 calories, 35 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 85 grams fat, 178 milligrams cholesterol, 598 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Additional information on Open Chefame is available at 215-275-6557 or www.openchefame.com.