Oscar parties are such an institution in the Hollywood landscape its easy to forget the concept did not exist before über-agent Swifty Lazar and Wolfgang began hosting their annual events.
Wolf threw his first Oscar party in 1983 at the original Spago in West Hollywood because he had never had an official opening party for the restaurant when it opened in 1982. He closed the restaurant to the public, composed a special menu and invited friends and family. Before the evening was over, there was a line of revelers 300 deep trying to get in. The success of his Oscar fete was such that the champagne was running dry and people outside were screaming, Im so-and-sos lawyer, Im so-and-sos dentist. The lesson, Wolf realized, was that the food and drink should be carefully planned, because the Oscars makes for a long night.
Before Swifty and Wolf joined forces, Lazars annual fete had been a movable feast that began at his Beverly Hills home before moving to a succession of Los Angeles restaurants that included Mastros and Bistro Gardenas well as a one-off at Mortimers in New York.
In 1985, Wolf convinced Swifty he should have his party at the West Hollywood Spago. With Lazars passing in 1994, the Spago Oscar parties came to an end, but Wolfs connection with Oscar food didnt. Over the years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had approached him to cater the post-Academy Awards Governors Ball. Even Wolf had to admit it was natural fit; he finally did the bash for the first time that year.
In the 15 years since Wolf has taken over the ball, the dinners have been held in three locations: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Shrine Auditorium and, since 2002, the Kodak Theatre. Wolf cooks as close to service as possible, and setting up on the premises each year creates its own set of challenges. One year, ferocious winds blew out the flames on the stove while a black-truffle risotto was being prepared. No flame meant no risotto cooking, and the waiters were, well, waiting. Improvising, the crew put aluminum foil around the burners and got the risotto out in time.
Another time, Wolf needed to get back to the restaurant, and there was a terrible traffic jam, so Pierce Brosnan and his then girlfriend, Keely, gave him a lift on their helicopter. This was really like the James Bond thing, he says with a laugh.
The first year he catered at the Kodak, 16 ovens were going full bore, filled with steaks and fish, when the electricity and gas went out. Oh, and 300 people were already there. Security wouldnt let the electrician in because everyone had to be dressed in black tie, and he was dressed like a regular electrician. Eventually, whoever ran the Kodak found him, he turned one knob, and everything went on as planned. Those 10 minutes felt like eternity, Wolf recalls.
For the beginning of the show, Wolf starts with lots of hors doeuvres and champagne. I like only champagne, he says, because it is the biggest party in Hollywood, after all, and when is a better time for champagne? I always serve trays of finger foods that can mostly be prepared in advance. I love a mix of flavors and tastes.
One of my favorite hors doeuvres does not even need a recipe: Just slice peeled potatoes into quarter-inch pieces, toss in a bowl with olive oil and salt and bake in a 350-degree oven until the potatoes are golden brown. Put the potatoes on a platter and top with a little sour cream, dill and a dollop of caviar. Everyone always goes crazy for these and cant get enough.
Caviar doesnt always mean big bucks. Wolf loves American caviars and uses all of themwhite, black and golden.
I love Wolfs tried-and-true hors doeuvres, not only because theyre delicious but because of their international influence: bruschetta with a trio of toppings (goat cheese and black-and-green-olive tapenade, roasted pepper and anchovy and, my favorite, tomato confit and parmesan); crunchy vegetable samosas with tamarind-date chutney; blini with crème fraîche and caviar; and potato pancakes with sour cream (or crème fraîche) and smoked sturgeon. Wolf uses a cutter to create an Oscar silhouette out of the smoked salmon that tops his blini.
His next secret to a successful party is a simple one: Hosts should have fun and enjoy the Oscars with their guests. Since most people dont have a chef in their kitchen, look for a menu that can be prepared in advance. No last-minute cookingits all about toss together, throw in the oven and serve. Not an easy feat, but he has a few recipes that work perfectly for this occasion.
As part of the main course, Wolf serves his famous chopped salad, which can be made ahead of the guests arrival. He loves this recipe because it looks festive and can be easily improvised. Wolf pairs the salad with a version of the gone-but-not-forgotten Chasens individual chicken potpies, chock-full of boneless chicken and vegetables in a perfectly seasoned sauce and tucked under a flaky puff-pastry crust. You can make these the day before and keep them in the fridge until its time to pop them in the oven.
Just about the time everyone needs a little pick-me-upright before the big categories are announcedWolf recommends bringing out more champagne to toast the winners and enjoying a slice of one of his legendary desserts, the Marjolaine cake. This is a favorite for such occasions because its both classic and elegant. (He has even devised a streamlined recipe just for LA readers.) To give the cake a uniquely festive touch, Wolf suggests placing a stencil of the Oscar statuettewhich youve cut out beforehandon top and dusting it all with powdered sugar.
No matter who triumphs over at the Kodak Theatre, you can enjoy a stress-free gathering and claim the award for most delicious Oscar party ever.
BLINI WITH CRÈME FRAÎCHE AND CAVIAR
Makes 25 minipancakes
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour