Pay to Play House
I’ve been carrying around a pork tenderloin in my purse all day. For the past eight hours the meat tube has been stewing happily in a brown sea of soy sauce, garlic, mirin, and spices, and it makes a sloshy sound when I dump it into a roasting pan.
My cousin, Sarah, sips from an oversized wineglass as her husband, Rob, expertly sears a massive rack of lamb over a star-shaped Thermador burner. Behind him, my friend Shirley is busy sautéing mushrooms for an Israeli appetizer over an induction cook top. Pastry chef Veronica Hargens slices apples with surgical precision, using a knife that could cut through steel bars. I shove the pork into the convection oven, an appliance that produces moist, flavorful meat and veggies in an infomercial-like set-it-and-forget-it kind of way that’s virtually un-fuck-up-able.
Monolithic appliances, marble countertops, every dish, gadget, and culinary plaything that you could imagine … this is my dream kitchen.
Unfortunately, it’s not my kitchen.
Maybe Cookhouse will let me move in?
Cookhouse, a fully-stocked professional kitchen that’s available to rent by the hour, is the brainchild of Jen Wu. Jen runs the gorgeous North Beach space with business partner Amy Bryan, who she met when their mutual chiropractor played professional yenta. True story.
The idea behind Cookhouse is simple: Most city dwellers who love to cook and entertain simply don’t have the adequate kitchen space, equipment, or stamina to host group meals at their own home. Amy’s story about hosting Thanksgiving for dozens of people and having to use her neighbor’s kitchen in addition to her own rang true with me.
This past Turkey Day, we had to deep-fry our bird in the garage because we were using the oven to bake rolls while simultaneously reheating mashed potatoes, stuffing, and green beans for 10 people. I ran out of mixing bowls and had to use my ceramic cookie jar to make the pie dough. I am still cleaning silverware from that dinner.
Jen began to long for a party-worthy cooking and entertaining space years ago, while living in New York. A friend of hers owned a gorgeous loft that featured a luxurious kitchen, and he would let his friends who lived in typical shoebox apartments throw dinner parties there. Then, about three years ago on a trip to Tahoe, the idea for Cookhouse was officially born – Jen and friends wanted to find a space to cook a group meal.
“I thought that a place like Cookhouse would be great for building friendships, while removing the pressure to orchestrate logistics and then clean up afterwards,” she says. “I’m trying to do three things: provide space for people who have no room for dinner parties; provide a space for business entertaining, cooking classes, recipe demos and testing, and pop-up restaurants; and promote local businesses.”
Besides pots, pans, plates, glassware, those killer knives, and luxury appliances, Cookhouse is also stocked with basic and specialty ingredients (some complimentary, some for purchase) that are locally sourced as often as possible, including honey, chocolate, coffee spices, and wine. I just have to provide the main ingredients for my meal.
I show up for an initial walk-through of the space at the same time as Donna Suh Wageman, owner of local kitchen boutique Pot + Pantry. She and I take turns oohing and aahing over the U-Line beverage center, the KitchenAid mixer, and the drawers filled with hand-engraved flatware and handheld chef tools.
“You don’t have to worry,” Jen says. “We have everything you need.”
The next night, the only thing I’m worried about is time. Shirley’s Israeli hummus is finished and now she’s working on dessert. Rob’s lamb is roasting away in one of the ovens. Veronica’s apple galette smells so good that I overhear someone on the street below us remark that it smells like France. (Note: if you’re not friends with a professional pastry chef, you should get new friends.) Another friend, Courtney, shows up and begins to bake oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, while her boyfriend, Joe, plays sous chef.
I’m elbows deep in a bowl of sticky dough, trying desperately to work in fistfuls of hand-wilted spinach. My pork is sizzling away in the convection oven, and I’m making strangolapreti (“priest stranglers”), an Italian dumpling dish named, as legend has it, after an 18th century clergyman choked to death on one. I found the recipe in a cookbook called The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide that my mother gave me for Christmas. I was considering lugging the hardcover book with me when I learned that Cookhouse already keeps it, and about 20 others, on its bookshelf.
Courtney forgot baking powder. No problem; Amy comes whizzing out of the office with a canister. She peeks into my bowl and asks what I’m making. “Dumplings?!” she screams. “I love dumplings! And you have to meet my friend Casey, who also loves dumplings!”
And suddenly, we’re planning a dumpling-making party.
This is the spirit of Cookhouse – to bond with others over your mutual excitement for food.
The timer dings for my pork just as I’m forming the last strozzapreti into a fat half-moon. I pass them off to Shirley to boil and then pan-fry, and dash over to the convection oven. I’m a little nervous, as I was a vegetarian until, oh, about five minutes ago. I’ve never cooked a pork tenderloin before. Certainly never eaten it without feeling guilty. What if it’s dry and terrible?
Right. Convection ovens are virtually un-fuck-up-able. That little piggy is as juicy as a major league baseball player.
I arrange the pork with noodles and broccolini atop a serving platter that’s roughly the size of a coffee table, and set it out, buffet-style, with my dumplings, Rob’s lamb, Sarah’s Moroccan couscous, Shirley’s hummus, and a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. Rob pours wine, Jen and Amy join us to marvel over the spread. Then, we pounce.
An hour later – after stuffing myself to the gills with two rounds at the buffet line plus two cookies and a slice of flaky-crusted apple tart with mascarpone cream – I am happily headed down the sleepy path to food coma. Then, from my slumped state I look over at the dining table and spy the piles of dishes that are scattered all over the kitchen. It looks like a Williams-Sonoma store exploded. Shit.
But wait! We don’t have to do the dishes!
As if this place weren’t badass enough, Jen and Amy take care of the cleanup. We all rally and try to pitch in, but we’re shooed away like flies.
“Big messes means that you really took advantage of the kitchen, and that’s what we’re here for,” Jen says. “We take it as a compliment.”
Well if that’s the case … let’s see how many compliments I can give these ladies at my dumpling party. Cookhouse can accommodate up to 25 people, so … who’s in?
Cookhouse can be rented out for $125/hour (or, become a member for reduced rental rates) and is available for group dinners, professional chefs who want to test recipes, cooking classes, and more. No time to shop for your ingredients? Cookhouse can get them for you. Visit www.cookhousesf.com for a full list of services, amenities, and prices.