Like most chefs, Dave Cooley works on Saturdays. But you won’t find him spending the weekend amid the gleam of stainless countertops and 5,000-BTU ranges in the back of the house in a trendy restaurant.
He works at home.
On a recent weekend afternoon, he was hard at it, doing dinner prep in the kitchen of the apartment he shares with his wife and infant son. Ever so carefully, a fraction of an inch at a time, he peeled away a delicate arugula crepe from the saute pan and checked the progress of other items, while awaiting his guests.
Like most diners, Rafia Rebeck, Johanna Walker, Annie Miller and Heather DeLong are accustomed to eating chef-prepared food in restaurants. But on this day, they found themselves walking up the back steps to the deck of Cooley’s apartment in anticipation of a great meal.
How they all came together is the work of EatWith, a Tel Aviv-based company that provides the infrastructure to put diners and chefs together in the intimate setting of a chef’s home. In this case, that means an unassuming unit in a building on one of the tree-named streets in North Boulder.
EatWith helps set up dinners in more than 150 cities worldwide. Cooley’s dinner experience, called “Classy Cave Dwellers: A Paleo Tasting Menu,” is the first in Boulder and the only EatWith dinner currently listed in the state of Colorado. The organization carefully selects the chefs who participate and says it only accepts about 4 percent of applicants.
“The vetting, it was for real,” Cooley said.
He was required to submit a video of himself in his serving space, interview on Skype about his concept, produce a mock dinner and shoot photos of the dishes.
Healing through diet
The food is what you might call paleo-plus or, depen ding on your viewpoint, paleo-minus. Not only is it free of grains, legumes and sugar, it is put together in accordance with the autoimmune-protocol diet, which eliminates nuts and seeds, as well as nightshades — vegetables that include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.
Cooley, who also works as a personal chef and kitchen coach for paleo cooking, says he likes working with the restricted palette of foods that are available and elevating them using classic French techniques. A case in point is the deboned roasted quail filled with a plantain bread stuffing and served with a sauce made from a rich, deeply flavored stock.
Chef Dave Cooley prepares the next course, while Rafia Rebeck of Broomfield and Johanna Walker of Boulder listen to a story from another diner.
Chef Dave Cooley prepares the next course, while Rafia Rebeck of Broomfield and Johanna Walker of Boulder listen to a story from another diner. (Jonathan Castner / Daily Camera)
The food is personal for Cooley. At age 21, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of rheumatoid arthritis in which the spinal vertebrae become fused. He was told there was no cure and that he should expect his condition to continue to worsen.
With the mainstream medical community unable to offer help, he began to search for alternatives and eventually ended up seeing a practitioner of functional medicine, who linked his condition to inflammation caused by a leaky gut. He began a transition to a paleo diet, eliminating many foods, but also punching up the nutritional content of what he could eat. His condition began to stabilize, but he felt he had to go further for optimal health. Thus, the autoimmune-protocol diet.
Dessert was taro cake, with a chocolate avocado mousse and raspberry sorbet.
Dessert was taro cake, with a chocolate avocado mousse and raspberry sorbet. (Jonathan Castner / Daily Camera)
In addition to the paleo tasting dinners that run $57 (you may bring your own alcohol if you like), he offers a more casual dinner on Thursdays for $30, an organ meat tasting.
Good food, good talk
As Cooley finished the prep, the guests arrived. They were Rebeck, a therapist specializing in Hakomi, a modality that emphasizes mindfulness and the physical effects of emotions in the body; Walker, a public speaking coach and co-producer of a bimonthly story slam in which audience members tell stories; DeLong, a farmer with Delaney Community Farm in Aurora; Miller, a farmer at Longmont’s Frog Belly Farm and a teacher at Shining Waldorf School, where Cooley also teaches Spanish, and yours truly, embedded with the other diners, as requested by EatWith, rather than standing aside and observing. (This job has its perks.)
The space is not what you’d expect when you sign up for a dinner affiliated with an international group. Not a professionally designed, perfectly appointed showcase but a kitchen in the home of someone you might know. Cooley worked in the well-organized galley kitchen with a granite counter separating him from the diners, who ate on a simple wooden table with benches, with a view to the deck and a chalkboard with the night’s fare. Call it casual Zen. It wore well over the evening, as did Cooley’s grace and seamless hosting.
The first course arrived quickly: a spring salad with spring greens, tatsoi, fennel, duck bacon and a cilantro-lime dressing.
Cooley explained how he made the bacon, rendering down the duck fat, cooling it and frying it.
“Fat cooked in fat?” Rebeck asked.
“Fat cooked in fat,” Cooley confirmed.
“Bring it on,” she said.
Not unexpectedly, food was the main topic of conversation. Rebeck, who follows the diet for autoimmune protocol, expressed happiness at finding the dinner.
“It’s wonderful to eat a meal where you don’t have to think about it,” she said.
“What was your family’s food culture like?” Rebeck asked the group.
Walker, who says she feels better when she follows a paleo diet, didn’t grow up that way. Her family had dessert every night. When they had all eaten, the children hid under the table until their mom brought dessert.
“Then we would pop up and be surprised,” she said.
DeLong confessed she had called her aunt to get her green bean casserole recipe, which her mother, an excellent vegetarian cook, took as something of an insult. Despair in a can of cream of mushroom soup.
A purple sweet potato Thai soup with coconut cream came and went. No cans involved. Next, the paleo pigs in blankets, with unctuous pulled pork enfolded in the arugula-coconut flour crepes and garnished with caramelized onions and pea shoots.
“This is decadence wrapped in opulence,” Cooley said, setting down the plates.
“I thought they were eggrolls,” Miller said. She eats without dietary restrictions, but as a farmer like DeLong, she seeks out organic, local foods.
“We have kefir grains at Frog Belly,” she said at one point, explaining that people could make kefir from milk, coconut milk or water.
Walker told a story about her father, suitable for the Father’s Day story slam her company, Truth Be Told, will co-produce next month at eTown Hall.
When Walker left home and moved to New York, her dad sent her a letter he typed on an old-fashioned typewriter. On the back, he offered handwritten advice on cooking.
“Boil carrots, add butter, salt and pepper.
“Boil peas, add butter, salt and pepper.
“Boil green beans, add butter, salt and pepper.
The last part, Walker said, was “Boil chicken, add butter, salt and pepper.”
And then, “Try fish. It’s better baked or fried.”
Our paleo dinner progressed to the quail, the dish like the love child of a farm Thanksgiving and Auguste Escoffier.
The talk wasn’t just about food. Briefly discussed were epigenetics and whether expressed genes could be turned back, gut bacteria, social standing in Mauritania as judged by dairy animals. DeLong did a stint in the Peace Corps in the African country.
The second best line of the night? From DeLong, “I almost lost my relationship over crickets in Oaxaca.”
She then explained the belief in that Mexican region that if you eat crickets there, you will return. The woman who had once been her host mother sneaked crickets into the food of DeLong’s boyfriend, with the best of intentions, DeLong said. The woman wanted him to come back. However, he didn’t see it that way.
As dessert, a taro flour cake with chocolate avocado mousse and raspberry sorbet, was served, Rebeck remarked that in Boulder it didn’t seem to be so unusual to have a table of five women with only one, myself, a mother. The group noodled over this for awhile as Cooley asked if we would like a digestive tea.
He joined us.
“What’s in the tea?” someone asked.
Best line of the night from the host:
“You’ll find out in about an hour when it kicks in.”
Special diets asid e, what did kick in from the beginning and lingered for hours after was the feeling that dining in community has its own restorative powers.