You'd think after serving 1,650 at the Governor's Ball following the Oscars, chef Wolfgang Puck would take a vacation. But four days later, on March 28, he and wife, interior designer Barbara Lazaroff, will host their 18th annual Passover seder gathering at his famed Spago Beverly Hills.
Despite the $175 per-person price tag (proceeds to benefit Mazon, the international hunger relief organization) the event is always a sellout, with families returning year after year for a seven-course meal that borrows from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic cuisines.
"If I would become Jewish, I would become Sephardic because of the cooking," says Puck, whose braised Moroccan lamb with almonds and apricots is a perennial favorite. "But just like Thanksgiving without the turkey is not Thanksgiving, Passover without the gefilte fish, without the chicken soup, is not Passover."
This is not your grandma's gefilte fish, however. Puck's is flavored with fresh tarragon and poached in cabbage leaves. Even the matzah gets the Spago treatment, flavored with shallots and thyme and baked in his wood-burning ovens. "We have to make double matzah at least, because everybody wants a CARE package to take home," he says.
One year, he decided to put chili flakes in the matzah for the Moroccan contingent that shlep from Montreal each year and who love spicy food. "There was so much chili," Puck recalls, "that everybody was coughing."
Puck credits his mother-in-law, Ellie, with teaching him the fine art of matzah ball making. "When I used to make matzah balls," he says, "I would get overanxious to put a lot of matzah meal right away into the egg mixture, and then they got pretty hard, so I watched her make them. She keeps them soft and light."
The Spago seder is a homey affair with family and friends pitching in, "only instead of for 20, it's for 250," says Puck, who recalls one year when he was making the gefilte fish, his mother-in-law was preparing the seder plate and Judy Gethers (of New York Ratner's fame) was manning the matzah balls. While Gethers left to go to the beauty shop, Puck decided to trick her. "I made her a matzah ball hard as a rock and served it to her. She couldn't put her spoon in it. Ten seconds went by and she wouldn't even look up. She thought she was going to die in the chair, until she realized that only hers was dark and everyone else's was nice."
This year's guests will get a bonus as cookbook author Joan Nathan ("The Foods of Israel Today" and "Jewish Cooking in America") will be joining Puck and help to explain the symbolism of the seder foods. For the first time in 22 years Nathan will not be hosting her own seder in her Washington, D.C., home where guests have included Molly O'Neil, Sheila Lukins and a Moroccan ambassador. "Jean Kirkpatrick comes every year, but mostly it's just family and friends," says Nathan. "Before the seder I usually have a gefilte fish-in. A few women bring their pots, and we make gefilte fish together."
Nathan always prepares five different charosets for the seder. "To me, it shows the wanderings of the Jews. It's a very good lesson for people on where it began and what it's become, and so I have one from Israel, Latin America, of course Eastern Europe, which is apples and nuts. The Venetian charoset I really like. Then I like to use an old Sephardic recipe where you roll them into little balls."
A family tradition Nathan hopes to bring to Spago is the little drama her children, now 16, 20 and 24, have staged every year -- what son David calls a cabaret of Ten Commandments. "David is usually Moses," Nathan says. "He stutters very well, and of course everyone fights to be God. It's hysterical, and we're going to try to get the kids to do it at Spago. Wolfgang's kids [Cameron, 12, and Byron, 7] are the perfect age for it."
The seder itself will be led for the fifth year by Rabbi Arnie Rachlis and Cantor Ruti Braier of University Synagogue in Irvine. "I'm really glad that Barbara and Wolfgang are so committed to Mazon," Rachlis says. "We're able to reach a whole group of people who maybe didn't know that much about it."
Both rabbi and cantor wear wireless microphones as they make their way through the crowd. "I think of myself as the rabbinical galloping gourmet," he says. "Barbara has chosen the haggadahs. It's very playful. People read. There's humor as well as serious discussion. Many of the guests are Spago regulars. It has become a real fraternity and sorority of friends."
1 1/2 cups chestnut paste 10 ounces dates, chopped 12 ounces figs, chopped 2 tablespoons poppy seeds 1/2 cup chopped walnuts 1/2 cup chopped almonds 1/2 cup pine nuts Grated rind of one orange 1/2 cup white raisins 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots 1/2 cup brandy Honey to bind Combine all the ingredients, gradually adding just enough brandy and honey to make the mixture bind. Makes about four cups.
From "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan (Schocken Books).
Wolfgang Puck's Braised Moroccan-style Lamb with Almonds, Prunes and Dried Apricots
1 boned and trimmed lamb shoulder, about 2 pounds 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 large onion, coarsely chopped 1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped 1 rib celery, coarsely chopped 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary 1 cup dry red wine 2 cups lamb or low-sodium chicken broth, plus up to 1/2 cup, if needed 1 medium tomato, trimmed and coarsely chopped 1 cup blanched whole almonds, lightly toasted 1/2 cup pitted prunes 1/2 cup dried apricots 1. Preheat the oven to 450F. 2. Lay the lamb out, skin side down, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, and the thyme. Roll and tie well with butcher's string. Sprinkle the outside with 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. 3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Add the lamb and cook over medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Remove the lamb from the casserole. 4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the casserole. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring over medium-high heat until vegetables soften, about five minutes. Stir in the remaining teaspoon cumin, the rosemary and the red wine. Bring to a boil and cook about 3 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon and scraping browned bits off the bottom of the casserole. Stir in broth, tomato, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Return the lamb to the casserole, cover, place in the oven and bake until meat is almost tender, about one hour. 5. Remove the casserole from the oven and take out the meat. Remove the vegetables from the pot with a slotted spoon and place them in a blender. Blend until smooth. Scrape the mixture back into the pot and stir well. Place over medium heat and cook about five minutes to thicken slightly. Return the meat to the sauce and surround with the almonds, prunes and apricots. Cover and bake until the meat is very tender and the fruit is soft, about 15 minutes. 6. Remove the lamb from the casserole, cut and remove the string and cut the lamb into thin slices. If the sauce is too thick, thin with a little additional broth. Divide the lamb among eight plates and spoon some sauce over the top. Serve immediately, passing any remaining sauce separately. Makes 8 servings.
Recipe is courtesy "The New York Times Passover Cookbook," edited by
Linda Amster (William Morrow & Co., 1999), and has been adapted from
"Adventures in the Kitchen," by Wolfgang Puck (Random House, 1991).