Geographically speaking, the South Pasadena kitchen where Craig Strong is cooking this December afternoon is only a few miles from the elaborately outfitted kitchen and Michelin-starred white-tablecloth dining room of the Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa -- previously Pasadena's Ritz-Carlton -- where he's been chef de cuisine for the last eight years.
But in other ways, Strong is a world away, the distance more conceptual, even emotional, than geographic.
This is downtime, a rare day off during the holidays, a feast cooked purely for the fun of it to celebrate both the season and the gift of time with friends and family.
"Take a traditional meal and put a twist on it," is how Strong describes his holiday dinner, a menu centered around an old-fashioned roast duck but marked by a faintly Asian spice route of star anise and cardamom, honey, cinnamon and citrus.
Strong checks on a roasting duck the color of mahogany, then stirs a honey gastrique sauce in the copper pot his friend (and Langham maitre d') Robert Hartstein carried back from Paris in his luggage years ago. He gives his fiancée ("I can say that now! We got engaged three weeks ago"), Lissa Pallo, pointers on how to tie a bouquet garni to decorate a turnip-potato gratin while he arranges thin slices of fresh ginger around a pan of seared bok choy.
The bouquet of bay leaf and thyme sprigs is a pretty, aesthetic touch more than a flavor signal -- the gratin is subtly laced with star anise. It's also a cheffy gesture that represents how Strong thinks about food: classically, with an attention to detail and technique that provides the foundation for simple meals at home as well as for the tasting menus (operatic, inspired) he orchestrates at the Dining Room.
Pallo moves off to play with Hartstein's two small children, 15-month-old Ava and 3 1/2 -year-old Robbie, who has made a fishing rod with a large rubber spatula and kitchen twine. Hartstein fashions an ad hoc bib from a dish towel (Hartstein also trained as a chef) for Ava; his wife, Jennifer, a pediatrician, adds a finishing touch to the dinner table.
Strong begins dicing kumquats in the Hartsteins' kitchen, flicking the little seeds to the side of the cutting board with the tip of an old chef's knife.
"I love kumquats; they remind me of when I was a kid," says Strong, who lived in Camarillo and El Cajon, outside of San Diego, until he was 15. "When we lived in Camarillo, we had kumquat trees, Meyer lemon trees, loquats. There were pomegranates up the street. I'd stuff my shirt with them and then ride away on my bike. The lady hated us."
Another neighbor grew sugar cane, which he'd trade for his mother's chocolate chip cookies. Larceny, it seems, only applied to pomegranates.
An early passion
Strong grew up as one of eight kids and learned how to cook at an early age from his mother and grandmother. His mother not only made barter-quality cookies but also baked bread. "She ground the wheat for the bread she'd bake herself," he says.
Strong's father was president of a drip irrigation company, so he installed a system in the family vegetable garden, which was Strong's project. "My older brothers mowed the lawn; I pulled weeds" -- and grew tomatoes and zucchini, the first subjects of his culinary experiments.
In public high school in Salt Lake City, where his family moved when he was 15, Strong took cooking classes ("I'd make chicken cordon bleu and rice pilaf; back then I thought that was pretty cool") and apprenticed to a pastry chef at a local restaurant. At 19, he went to culinary school, L'Academie de Cuisine near Washington, D.C., and then moved to Philadelphia to work at the Ritz-Carlton.
Back in the kitchen, Strong whips cream into soft peaks, then folds in a ganache of melted chocolate and cardamom-infused cream to make a milk chocolate mousse. He recounts how he made a pie out of the mousse for Thanksgiving, showing Pallo's 9-year-old niece how to work the simple recipe: equal weights of chocolate, warm cream and whipped cream.
This same proportion works for a luxurious foie gras mousse Strong makes at the Langham. "You take out the chocolate and use foie. A little secret."
He adds layers of purchased pound cake, chopped chocolate, slices of banana and fresh blueberries and raspberries, alternating layers with the chocolate mousse as one would a trifle. ("At my house, we got to lick the bowl; we still do.") Sprigs of chocolate mint dot the top.
Another reason Strong likes this recipe is because it's so adaptable: One night at the Langham, he layered the mousse with delicate chocolate craquantes (pearl-size chocolate-covered rice candies) and perfectly cut squares of his own homemade pound cake, then piped chantilly cream stars on the top, alternating them in concentric circles around fresh berries. Sometimes he makes the mousse in individual cups; other times, it's one big family-sized bowl.
"I have other chocolate mousse recipes -- you have eggs, you have sabayon -- they're much more complicated," Strong says. "I like this better; sometimes simplicity is best."
While he was cooking at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, where he'd moved after three years at Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton, Strong was thinking about Europe. "The chef was trying to get me to go to France, but I couldn't get a work visa." Then a chef whom Strong had met while staging in Atlanta called from a restaurant in Barcelona, Spain, owned by the Ritz-Carlton, saying his sous chef had quit and asking Strong to come over and take his spot.
Strong was in Barcelona for two years, learning how to cook with olive oil instead of butter (courtesy of his classical culinary training), and learning how to speak Spanish and a smattering of Catalan.
"If I'd use butter and cream with fish, they'd say, 'What's that French stuff?' " he says. "It taught me how to do different things."
The duck comes out of the oven and rests for a while on the counter before he cuts it with quick precision. "The thing about all birds is that you want the skin crispy," says Strong. He says that in Atlanta he'd sear ducks by rotating them constantly in a hot sauté pan -- a huge fork stuck into the bird -- like a manual rotisserie. They never went into the oven.
Strong (who finishes his duck in the oven) takes a deep breath. "Your house starts to smell like spices -- the cardamom, the nutmeg, the cinnamon -- if you're cooking for the holidays, you want to smell spice."
The gastrique reduced (the amber of the honeyed sauce matches the color of the old copper pan), Strong drops in a nub of butter and the sliced kumquats. "It's basically duck a l'orange," he says, stirring. "I wanted a sauce that didn't have veal stock. We make it once a week at the restaurant, but that's kind of crazy at home. What you want is a combination of things that are a little exotic but that you can get at Vons."
While Strong is seeding pomegranates to garnish a simple kabocha squash soup ("Soup!" yells toddler Robbie, who promptly decides to create his own from water, berries and a small mountain of fresh thyme), Pallo comes back into the kitchen to get some of the fruit for the table. An actress whose mother is from Monterey, Mexico, Pallo watches her fiancé delicately remove the garnet seeds from their intricate housings. "I grew up on a farm in Fresno; we'd just throw them on the ground," she says.
Strong sprinkles a few spiced pecans atop the warm soup and pours the finished gastrique -- the kumquats like disks of bright gold -- into a tiny copper pot for serving. "I'm not going to spend the whole day in the kitchen," says Strong about the short time he has off (the Langham is open throughout the holidays). "When you're entertaining at home, it's about the food -- but it's also about spending time with the people."