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What I cooked for Alice

Cooking is a very personal endeavor, a kind of dialogue with yourself, both physical and mental, but when cooking alongside others, one’s own cooking is often put to the test.

One such experience I will always remember took place over 20 years ago when I tried out for a position as café cook at Chez Panisse. After passing the initial interview I was told to return with ingredients needed to prepare a 3-course menu of my design. Alice Waters and all the chefs (about 8 as I recall) would sit down, eat and critique the meal which would determine whether I would be hired or not.

As you can imagine, this was a very big deal. Just to give you a little background, I had been cheffing for about 5 years by then, and this was my first opportunity to try out for the “big leagues”. I imagined that if I got the job, I would be well on my way as a chef. It would mean that I had what it took to turn this passion and craft into a serious profession. It also meant that if I didn’t get the job, I would have to accept the reality that I didn’t have the chops or creativity needed to make it. I was young, and this is how I saw it.

the chefs at Chez Panisse Restaurant

I arrived at the back door, laden with all my ingredients. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be other cooks prepping for dinner alongside me. I set up my station, and placed the little bottle of fresh herbs and flowers (for garnishing my plates) on my table; a gift from a dear friend wishing me luck. I circled nervously around for a few minutes, then set to work. The cooks eyed my ingredients, asking me what I was planning to prepare. I shared that I was doing a menu inspired by my recent travels in Thailand. One of the cooks said “Alice doesn’t like chilies. The last time she ate a chili she passed out.” I said, “Oh well, too late now!" The defiance I felt somehow brought me the strength I needed. I worked on, summoning the knowledge, experience and skills that were there all along, drowning out the doubt, as well as the voices of the other cooks, until I knew in my heart that I would get the job when they tried my food.

Here’s what the chefs ate on that early spring day: Salt baked poussin with chili fried rice and sautéed tatsoi. Recipes follow.


Salt baked poussin

Number of Servings: 4 or 8

Portion Size: 1 half or quarter poussin


2 whole poussin or Cornish game hens

2 1/2 cups coarse kosher salt

2 sprigs rosemary

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

1 Peel of lemon and orange

4 whole star anise pieces

4 teaspoons olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

¼ tsp chopped rosemary


Preheat oven to 450 F.

Place the salt in a cookie sheet. Add the sprigs of rosemary and thyme, lemon and orange peel, garlic cloves and spices. Place the whole chicken on top of the salt.

Roast the chicken on top of the salt for 45 minutes or until golden brown and crusty and juices run clear.

Remove the poussin and brush off the salt that clings to the bird. I have used the salt for another roasting, but this is up to you.

Combine the butter with the 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary, and brush the poussin skin with this.

Portion the poussin into halves or quarters and serve immediately with chili fried rice and wilted tatsoi greens.


Chili fried rice


4 cups cooked jasmine rice

2 tsp vegetable oil

1 T diced red onion

1 T finely diced red bell pepper

1 T finely diced carrot

1 serrano chili, seeded and finely chopped

1 tsp red curry paste

2 eggs, beaten

2 tsp fish sauce

Squeeze of fresh lime juice


2 T green onions

2 tsp fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves


Heat the oil and fry the onion, carrot, red bell pepper and chili until the onion is soft.

Add the curry paste and fry for 3 minutes.

Add the rice and stir and toss until the rice is colored with the paste and heated through.

Make a hole in the center and cook the eggs and let them set slightly. Mix them evenly through the rice.

Stir in the fish sauce.

Put in a platter and garnish.


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