Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series on home chefs of Laguna Beach.
If you could describe Sally Davis Peterson in two words, they would be “good taste.” She lives in a beautiful home that she has lovingly remodeled over the years with an elegant dÃ©cor that reflects her extensive travels.
Peterson is a marvelous cook whose food is always tasty and presented with great panache.
Equally important is the setting of her table, the composition of the food on the plate and the beauty of the plates themselves, collected from all over the world. In fact, she says, “I decide what to cook when I look at the plate I want to use.”
As a young girl whose immigrant family was from Mazatlan, she watched her mother turn out wonderful Mexican cuisine but it wasn’t the food that her friends were eating. She wanted to learn to cook American food.
So, at the tender age of 12, for her maiden voyage in the kitchen, she prepared a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey and stuffing. Even at that time, she recalls wanting the table to look pretty.
Her interest in design took her to San Diego Women’s Catholic College where she studied art. There, she met her first husband who became an architectural designer. For several years, she worked in his office while raising their three daughters.
After moving to Laguna Beach in her thirties, she soon began to take classes from Kay Pastorious, a well-known local cooking teacher. Peterson, stimulated by her foreign travels, would research dishes that caught her fancy or excited her palate and experiment by trying to master them at home.
She also had rediscovered her Mexican culinary heritage and wanted to pass it on to her children. She didn’t teach them how to cook because she likes her kitchen well organized and neat but they learned by osmosis and absorbed her passion for good food. In fact, one of her grown daughters is a cooking teacher in Orinda.
When she first came to Laguna, she was invited to a dinner party by a neighbor. There she met Diane Jordan Smith, who was one of the early members of the Traveling Kitchens, a cooking group.
They had a long conversation about food and Diane was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite dishes, Chiles en Nogada, was in Peterson’s repertoire. She then invited her to be a guest chef at one of their meetings. The chiles were a huge success, as was Peterson, who was invited to join the group.
Her love of cooking led her into the catering business, starting with small dinner parties.
One unusual group of guests was the staff from People Magazine, who were in town on a job and staying at the Ritz. They were sick of eating out every night and networking got them to Peterson.
They were thrilled to be eating a “home-cooked meal” as delicious as the finest restaurant, served beautifully by this gracious lady in her dining room.
The largest party she can remember catering was for the former owners of the Coffee Pub. It was a wedding for 200 guests, in their backyard, complete with a horse-drawn carriage.
When she talks about food, Peterson bubbles over with enthusiasm and because there is no topic we enjoy more, we had a lively conversation about where to buy the freshest ingredients and which restaurants we like.
She tries to shop every day and is willing to travel some distance for the best quality, including 99 Ranch Market and Santa Monica Seafood for fish, Bristol Farms, the Persian market (Super Irvine) on Culver and Wild Oats for everything else.
Her favorite restaurant in town is Rumari where she and her husband Bob are regulars. She loves the freshness and simplicity of Vince’s authentic Italian cooking.
Her very favorite restaurant out of town is the Zuni CafÃ© in San Francisco and their cookbook is high on her list. She adores their roast chicken with bread salad. Right now, she is seriously into panna cotta and seasonally into English peas.
The Traveling Kitchens group has been together now for 30 years. They are really good and caring friends and amazingly have never had a falling out.
Along with their tradition of fabulous Christmas parties, they also celebrate Cinco de Mayo with much fanfare at Peterson’s and Peterson does most of the work. Her love for table decoration makes this event as beautiful as it is tasty.
She prepares everything that she can ahead of time but she enlists the group’s help for the last minute preparations. After all her hard work, her style is to serve the hors d’ oeuvres and then sit down with her guests to enjoy a cocktail hour or two.
She’s not in any hurry to serve dinner, no matter how hungry her guests may be, but she eventually returns to the kitchen with her helpers who fry rellenos, shred carnitas and slice papaya.
At about 9:30 or 10 p.m. dinner is served and what a feast it is: empanadas with cream cheese dough stuffed with picadillo; a whole 15-pound fish grilled on the barbecue with limes, onions and cilantro; grilled shrimp in the shell; carnitas; chile rellenos and of course, beans, rice, tortillas, three kinds of salsa and chunked avocado; then sliced fruit for dessert.
Peterson is quite notorious for the lateness of her dinner service, in fact she is teased about it all the time. She says friends call her and ask what time is dinner actually going to be served.
She recommends that they have a snack before coming over.
All this leaves her unperturbed since this charming and gracious hostess knows perfectly well that no one wants to miss one of her gorgeous and oh-so-tasty meals.