We’re at Chef Russ Pysell’s house, gathered around a table with six other folks, celebrating Valentine’s Day a week early. He and his partner, Paige Kelly, greet everyone who arrives with big, warm hugs and an Axis Kiss: a custom cocktail blending crème de cassis, amaretto, and champagne, then garnished with a fresh flower petal.
On a nearby counter, tonight’s first Valentine-themed treat awaits: a platter of “Towers of Love” (shown above). Each bite-sized tower begins with a base of roasted beet, topped with prosciutto and a homemade marshmallow. The entire tower gets rolled in chopped nuts and glazed with an apple cider vinegar reduction.
Until just recently, I had no experience with fresh or roasted beets, having been traumatized by exposure to nothing but the nasty pickled versions during the first five decades of my life. But roasted beets — these beets! — have an entirely different flavor and texture.
Combined with the savory, thin-sliced prosciutto, the charred sweetness of the marshmallow, and the tang of the cider vinegar, beets could easily become one of my favorite foods. I consider polishing off the entire tray by myself, but, since I’m on my best behavior. I just have one. Well, two. (Okay, three.)
We’re dining in Russ and Paige’s home tonight because Chef Russ doesn’t have a restaurant (yet). But through our friend Kendrick Disch, we were introduced to YummyStreet, a dining and catering service Chef Russ offers. YummyStreet (“Our Chef. Your House. Good Times.”) works this way: you hire Chef Russ for an evening. He and Paige show up, bringing everything — and I mean everything — needed: a custom cocktail, appetizers, main courses, wine pairings, desserts … even plates and glasses if you like.
After they arrive, what happens next is up to you. Do you want a fine dining experience at home, without having to worry about finding a baby sitter, fighting for reservations, paying for parking, and driving home tipsy? Fine — Chef Russ will create a romantic dinner for two, serve it, and stay out of your way.
Alternatively, you could do what Clyde and I did a few months back: book YummyStreet and invite a few friends over for a “cooking show in your kitchen.” This goes well beyond catering, because Russ and Paige love to prepare the food (from scratch!) right there in front of your guests, revealing the techniques and sharing the recipes.
That’s the first time I’ve ever given a dinner party without lifting a finger. Russ and Paige showed up, did all the prep work, entertained and charmed our guests, and even handled the cleanup and the dishes. Everyone kept thanking me for the great time and incredible food — and I felt a little guilty, honestly, because all I did was call Russ over.
Tonight, Russ and Paige are working just as hard as they did at my place. Our next course arrives after we’re seated at the dinner table: the “Sweetheart Salad,” topped with a heart-shaped slice of strawberry:
Crunchy pecans, peppery arugula, mild radicchio, with mustard-basalmic dressing — the little plate is a gift that doesn’t last long. But about the time we polish off the salad course, the petite filet on a bed of sautéed mushrooms, accompanied by a cheesy potato-artichoke gratin and roasted asparagus comes our way:
A perfect filet. Tender asparagus. A generous serving of velvety au gratin vegetables. And, frankly, I could knock back a whole shot glass of the cabernet sauce Russ serves with the beef (an item he added to his repertoire while training with the Culinary Institute of America).
He brought the same kind of attention to perfection to our Christmas party this past holiday season. Again, we did very little beyond providing him with a budget and a number of guests. Russ and Paige started the night with prosciutto wrapped dates with goat cheese stuffing, addictive sausage and cheese tartlets, and — the star of the parade of appetizers — the brie, bacon, and apricot wontons. Guests practically fought over the pork loin chimichurri and honey pecan crusted filet of salmon (prepared on-site, so it would be cooked perfectly).
We’ve given many parties, but I can’t remember a time when so many people clamored for take-home plates. And we’ve used many caterers, but this was the only time our guests have told us how much they loved talking, chatting up, and interacting with the people who prepared the food. The fact Russ and Paige could work hard the entire night and still charm every single guest speaks volumes about their professionalism … and their personalities.
Back at the Christmas party, the evening ended with chocolate chip cream cheese balls and handmade chocolates (made by Russ’ mom!). Tonight, we’re presented with a salted dark chocolate mousse and one of Paige’s tuxedo-clad chocolate-dipped strawberries:
Again, I practice self-restraint. The guest seated next to me leaves a bite or two on his plate, and, when he turns to speak to his wife, I consider scarfing it down — but, with some effort, I refrain.
The wine pairings flow freely. Each of Russ’s artful courses is perfectly portioned. (That is, while each bite delights us, no one feels like he needs to be rolled out to the car on a dolly.) We stick around until late, chatting and swapping stories with everyone at the table.
Compared to a Valentine’s Day feast in a snobby, crowded local restaurant — well, there just isn’t any comparison. Dinner with Russ and Paige is like sharing a meal with good friends who love and enjoy good food as much as we do — and there’s an intimacy and joy in this kind of experience that no restaurant can provide at any price.
It’s probably too late to have YummyStreet show up at your house for this coming Valentine’s Day. But you really should treat yourself (and a few friends) to Russ and Paige’s good work. It’s one thing to be skilled … but Russ and Paige have good hearts and gentle spirits, to boot. Folks like these deserve success … and you deserve a night enjoying the great food and good times YummyStreet makes possible.