Words and Photos: Leslie Stephens
(Top photo: Ateriet)
In the realm of grand gestures, cooking a lavish, nine-course dinner to win back a lover isn’t so out of the norm that it could even be called unique. Cooking dinner for a room full of food-savvy Angelenos when your ex is 400 miles away: less-so. It’s unclear whether Chef Walter El Nagar’s pop-up dinner at LACMA’s Ray’s and Stark was an attempt at reconciliation, but the presence of his past relationship permeated each course—if you knew where to look for it.
The first—and most obvious—piece of evidence came in the title, “Life is Grace.” For L.A. natives, this might be immediately recognized as the type of blissful affirmation frequently made post-yoga, but over the course of the meal, El Nagar dropped enough hints to let guests in on a secret: Grace is his ex-girlfriend, around whom—the title suggests—his life still revolves. For him, the meal, cooked in collaboration with friend and fellow Italian chef, Fernando Darin, was an expression of creativity and nostalgia. For guests, a culinary experience and voyeuristic look into a failed but meaningful relationship.
El Nagar’s interpretation of a classic Italian Margherita Fritta acclimated us to the meal. Serving as a bridge between the expected (battered and fried mozzarella, creamy tomato purée) and inventive (it also included tomato salt and ash), it lead the way into a meal that included several familiar ingredients so transformed my dining partner and I had to ask for help identifying avocado, uni, pea, and tomatoes.
Below several of the courses listed on the menu, El Nagar included a quote. Under Prawns Toast, a dish which sandwiched umami-rich prawns and bright, vinegary citrus pulp between two crispy pancakes of cooked-down jus, he wrote, “didn’t know what to do with the shrimp.” Under a dish titled Blue—a brilliant blue risotto with mandolined scallop draped on top—he wrote, “keep a promise.” When asked what promise he was keeping, El Nagar responded, “I promised her I could make this dish blue.” The circumstances of this promise, he kept to himself. But he did reveal the source of the color: ground butterfly pea flower.
Given the fact that El Nagar is known in some circles first as an art curator, then as a chef, it should come as no surprise that aesthetics drove many of the dishes. At one point, El Nagar served a plate that held a bouquet of nasturtiums and other edible wildflowers, a paprika sponge, and Greek salad elements. It was only when the chef poured oil dressing over the plate that the secret of the dish was revealed: in block letters, the word “SALAD” appeared, as if by magic. It was easy to determine when the dish was served to other guests by the audible gasps heard around the dining room—the inspiration for the course being that he “never served a salad for her.”
Linked together, the quotes under each dish are seemingly random. They vaguely allude to tongue-in-cheek criticisms voiced in the relationship (“not a pastry chef”), regrets (“never served a salad for her”), and memories (“didn’t know what to do with shrimps”), but in doing so, they also shed light on the inspiration for a dramatic, experimental, and memorable meal.