Castan and I worked together at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, which was easily the poshest hotel in Austin in the ’80s. He was the skinny but fearsome head chef with a heavy French accent. I was the skinny, naive, tuxedo-clad headwaiter. Chef didn’t like waiters. We all trembled when he spoke.
The hotel’s Remington Room was far and away the most expensive restaurant in town. Much of Castan’s menu required last-minute flourishes at the table, and I was the one responsible for the tableside spectacle. If a customer didn’t like the food, it was my fault. I cooked with fear until Castan taught me to be fearless.
Castan taught me to make the perfect Caesar salad. To this day, that salad is the standard by which I judge all others. Rarely does anything else come close.
Castan taught me to cook steak au poivre and to carve a rack of lamb. He introduced me to steak tartare. He showed me how to flambé cherries jubilee and crepes Suzette. I sent flames all the way to the ceiling, always putting on a good show. Night after night, I fried bacon at the table and turned the drippings into a spectacular dressing for wilted spinach leaves. I served Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Customers rarely complained.
One night while I was flambéing a steak, I looked up and saw an irate, slightly deranged customer leap from his chair and rush into the kitchen. I knew I needed to stop him, but I couldn’t get to him because I had just lit fire to a skillet at a table on the opposite end of the dining room. I heard yelling from the hallway.
Within seconds, the customer came running back to the dining room even more quickly than he rushed the kitchen. The Frenchman was giving chase, waving a large knife in the air, yelling “Get out of my kitchen!” Chef then scolded me for letting the customer get past and warned me to never let it happen again. I stuck to that bargain.
The Frenchman was giving chase, waving a large knife in the air, yelling “Get out of my kitchen!”
Alas, we were a passionate but ragtag band of pirates on a sinking ship. The economy spiraled into recession, and the Stephen F. Austin went bankrupt. We lost our jobs with only two days notice. I never saw Castan after that. Aside from our tense working relationship, we didn’t really know each other. He split town, and I eventually opened a restaurant with a few partners. We served his Caesar. It was our biggest seller.
This all happened so long ago that Castan says he doesn’t really remember me. The news release touting his accomplishments doesn’t even mention the Stephen F. Austin, a place and time that clearly impacted me far more immensely than it did him.
Many times over the years, people have asked me how I got into this profession. I have often credited chef Frederic Castan as one of the key yet random characters in the story of my life who put me on the path that inspired me to open a restaurant and eventually to become a critic.
Castan debuted his new menus in October at the Hilton’s Mix Restaurant and Lounge. I stopped by for a taste.
I was surprised to find baby kale mixed into the Caesar’s romaine lettuce, and the dressing isn’t as lemony or as garlicky as the recipe he drilled into me so many years ago.
It’s delicious, I guess. Modern. Californian. But it doesn’t provide the déjà vu for which I was hoping.
Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder whether Castan still strikes fear in waiters. I hope so. The hapless waiter who served me could certainly benefit from a stern berating from the chef. Sometimes it’s these moments in life that can open our eyes and lead us to something we never expected.
The Remington Room caesar salad
Makes 2 servings
1 cured anchovy
1 medium garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Juice of 1/2 large lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup olive oil
1 small head of romaine lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup micro-grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1. Place the anchovy, garlic and black pepper in a large wooden bowl. Using two forks, mash and grind into a thick, smooth paste.
2. Add the yolk, mustard, lemon and Worcestershire and mix until well blended. Gradually gradually add the oil, whisking vigorously until emulsified and creamy.
3. Add the lettuce, croutons and half the cheese and toss well. Divide onto bowls and sprinkle the remaining cheese and lemon zest over the top.
This article is adapted from previous stories that appeared in the Orange County Register. For more travel inspiration and photos, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.