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Dining, dishing

Special to The Times

At 6:30 p.m. the kitchen starts to come to life. Nine women arrive, one at a time, carrying bowls and platters, pots and pans, their contents filling the room with the smells of freshly baked bread, roasted herbs and a warm peach pie. Christopher Gelber, the only man in the room, slips out the back door just in the nick of time.

“No guys are allowed in our group because guys are a distraction,” says Teri Gelber, one of the producers of KCRW’s “Good Food” -- and Christopher’s wife. “We want to focus on each other and food.”

“We are all foodies and friends,” she says, opening the oven door and poking a fork into her braised lamb.

Talk veers from babies to the headaches of co-op nurseries to dishwashers -- as in: Where can you find the quietest one in town?

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(“It’s the high-end KitchenAid,” Nancy Zaslavsky, a cookbook writer, says with authority. And everyone nods.)

For the last two years this group, which bills itself as Girls Night, has been gathering once a quarter. Tonight’s meeting is taking place in Gelber’s airy duplex in a part of town best described as Beverly Hills adjacent; nine of 14 members are present.

Girls Night is a cooking club, one of many that have formed in Los Angeles over the last several years. Part of their appeal is that they are not book clubs. Members are not required to slog through the latest 400-page tome about preparations for the war in Iraq or Bill Clinton’s 900-plus page autobiography to gain admission to the table. In fact, many members suggest that cooking clubs are the new book clubs ... or the natural extension of book clubs ... or a place to go where cooking and reading are seamlessly joined.

At this meeting of Girls Night, members agreed to bring a dish inspired by the 20th century culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote 28 books about her love affair with food.

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Christine Moore, who is a pastry chef-turned-candy maker (when she became a full-time mom), was inspired by Fisher’s “Long Ago in France.” In that book, Moore says, Fisher describes in loving detail the local foods that “fed her soul.” Wanting to create the same effect, Moore stopped by a Santa Monica farmers market earlier in the week to purchase ingredients for a nectarine tart and cauliflower au gratin. Her only difficulty was transporting the finished products to Gelber’s home: “Half the cream is in my car, but my car smells delicious.”

Jessica Saltsman, who is moving away from her family (her mother and sister also belong to Girls Night) to join her husband in Austin, Texas, explains her connection to Fisher: “I’m making a big change in my life, so I related to [Fisher’s] super comforting description in the book ‘With Bold Knife and Fork,’ where she describes the act of eating a popover, ‘ripping off the top and stuffing them with strawberry jam.’ ” Some of the girls of Girls Night sigh as they eat Saltsman’s popovers and contemplate her impending departure.

Stacie Valentine, a personal chef whose clients include movie stars, has also gone with Fisher’s comfort-food theme, producing a noodle koogle. She understands the irony of her leisure-time pursuits. Hollywood, she notes “would never eat this. Too many carbs.”

Recipe for bonding

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Although the growth of cooking clubs nationwide is difficult to quantify, some participants point to six women in New York as inspiration. Sleek, urban and sophisticated, they are the force behind “The Cooking Club Cookbook: Six Friends Tell You How to Bake, Broil, and Bond.” The friends, who first came together as a book club, published the book in 2002 after they had been meeting for a few years.

“Its like a reading group with no homework,” says Sharon Cohen Fredman, one of the six authors.

Along with their book, the New Yorkers launched a companion website, www.cooking club.net, where members log on to the “chew and chat” room and share questions about favorite recipes and how to start a club. The book was featured on “Oprah” and inspired some good-natured comments in various magazines: “Move over, book clubs,” one reviewer announced. “Here’s the latest in girl bonding.”

But it’s not just spur-of-the-moment bonding. For some, cooking clubs are a way to reconnect with their childhood roots.

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Karin Elstad Wholey is a member of a food group with friends dating back to her college, high school and even elementary school days.

The members of her cooking club, all of them women, were born and raised in Los Angeles; most live in and around Sunset Park.

“Our group is like Small Town, U.S.A., in L.A. I once pulled out my high school yearbook from [Palos Verdes] High and several people from the group were in it or were married to people in the book,” Wholey says.

Her group started as a book club, but after four years it got to the point where talk of husbands and boyfriends and advice-giving dominated the get-togethers.

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“We found it was really hard to read a book a month with such busy lives,” says Katherine Ingbein, another member. “It is hard to commit all that time.” Six months ago the group agreed to bag the books and rechristen their get-togethers as a “supper club.” Each month, there’s a different host who is responsible for cooking the main course. Everyone else brings the sides and dessert.

Karen Mack belonged to a reading group for seven years but decided she wanted to use her limited free time with people who had common interest in community and art -- and eating. She organized a group she christened the Dinner Club.

Fourteen men and women (with a core group of six), all in the L.A. area, have met several times. For their next date, members are thinking about preparing food from a country they would all like to better understand: Iraq.

Dan Berendsen, a screenwriter, belongs to a cooking club called International Night. His group connected through work and friends of work friends. And, like Mack’s Dinner Club, his group “is purely a way to put something on the calendar to make sure we all get together more than twice a year -- and it just so happens that one person in each of the couples likes to cook.”

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The irony is that the most difficult part of having a club turns out to be exactly the reason the groups were formed in the first place: finding a date that works for everyone to keep the connections that seem to run so deep.

Cooking club “rules” vary from group to group, but many share the concept of rotating hosts and they all seem to try to get together at least every few months. How this happens depends on the group. Amelia Saltsman, a member of Girls Night, says that, “at some point everyone starts longing for the night and the e-mails begin, imploring someone to host and pick some dates.”

The International Night crew is a little more organized. The next host is picked at a meeting and then it is up to him or her to organize. As with most groups, the e-mails also include the evening’s theme (ethnic, “free Martha,” comfort food, etc.), but in Berendsen’s group, two recipes are sent out per couple with the understanding they may pick one.

Some dishes are challenging. On Chinese night, Steve Reidman had a choice between a beef dish and shark fin soup. (He rose to the challenge and found shark fin at a Van Nuys store.)

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He started to worry when his kitchen began to smell like a gym locker. “The recipe said you might want to add cognac for more flavor. I added lots of it, hoping it would kill the smell. Luckily, it did.”

Satiated

At 10:30 p.m. the members of Girls Night have consumed a big meal and there is still dessert, including a peach pie, to be consumed. The talk has turned from Saltsman’s move to traffic on Beverly Boulevard to a new restaurant that dares to offer brownies wrapped in cellophane (the Girls are horrified).

At various times between chatting and eating, several members reach to pat the stomach of a very pregnant Kim Boyce (“I’m now that marshmallow size,” she says.) No one is surprised by her food description but all are delighted when the baby girl begins to kick wildly in the womb.

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Gelber’s husband, Christopher, sneaks back into the kitchen and after sampling the food has begun washing the dishes.

Girls Night will continue for at least another hour or so, but Gelber says, “The night is always too short.”


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