Have you ever wondered what chefs do in their off time?
Robbie Nowlin of Citrus in the Hotel Valencia likes to get together with other chefs and cook up some fun.
That’s why he has started up a monthly dinner party at his Southtown home. He’s called it Wicked Night at Wickes, or #WickedNightsAtWickes, as it has come to be more commonly known, thanks to its social media hashtag. Its main purpose is to raise awareness of Haven for Hope, the center that helps the city’s homeless and less fortunate. In lieu of a set dinner price, guests are asked to donate H-E-B gift cards, which Nowlin and his friend, artist Justin Parr, use to buy ingredients so they can make breakfast for folks who use the center.
“I’m super stoked about the dinner series,” he says. “For me, doing a supper club where we didn’t charge was the real point. We encourage people to bring H-E-B gift cards to help Justin Parr and me purchase ingredients to make tacos for Haven for Hope or to just give haven the cards to do what they will with them.”
Each month, Nowlin asks a different chef to set the menu for the evening. Though the series of dinners dates back only to December, the lineup so far has included old friends from some phase of his career in the restaurant business, and each has obliged by devising a multi-course menu that showcased the best of what’s in season. Chefs featured so far have included Jeff Wiley, who works with Nowlin at Citrus, and Rebecca Masson of Houston’s Fluff Bake Bar.
In March, the invited guest star was PJ Edwards, sous chef of Gardner in Austin. Nowlin and Edwards both worked for Jason Dady, but their history together goes back much further to the start of their careers. They were both on the line at one of San Antonio’s Olive Garden, where, because of the lack of creativity involved in the job, they focused on honing their chopping skills and other fundamentals, often racing each other to see, for example, who could cut their way through carrots the fastest.
Instead of feasting on the elaborate meal with the other 30 or so guests, I asked Nowlin if I could help out wherever necessary behind the scenes to see what preparation was involved in staging each of the dinners.
Before the first guest arrived, I found myself alongside several other volunteers foraging the yard for an edible garnish possibly to use later in the evening. I also found myself having to taste test a cocktail from Jeret and Jorel Peña of the Brooklynite and the Last Word that would be served with the appetizers. (Hey, it had gin in it, so somebody had to volunteer.)
The evening began with oysters on the half shell with a strawberry mignonette as well as pea meringue with fermented mushroom.
Once the guests took their seats at the horseshoe-shaped dining table in Nowlin’s backyard, the pace picked up. I found myself helping assemble plates or serving them to the guests as soon as possible, so that they could get their fill of the likes of spring peas with yogurt and garlic garnished with a colorful array of edible flowers or grilled turnip with serrano ham and preserved persimmon.
Live music filled the background, as did a scattered squawk from Nowlin’s hens and the satisfied sounds of people enjoying their meals and each other’s company. Bottles of wine went from full to empty as the evening wore on, and I soon joined in the train of servers, who whisked away plates after the diners had finished with pork loin crowned with artichoke and guanciale or crawfish served with green garbanzo, leeks and nasturtium.
The crew that it took to keep the action going was large. Other chefs, cooks, servers and friends willingly gave up a free night to do what they do for the rest of the week, all for a good cause and all to keep the evening running as smoothly as possible. Nowlin has also managed to get a number of sponsors for Wicked Nights at Wickes, including the RK Group, which provides the setup for the evening, including the tables, chairs, china, silverware and glassware.
Nowlin came up with the idea for the dinner series after he landed his job at Citrus. He felt the need to do something for the community, but he also wanted to have some fun on a night off.
“It’s really about getting the community excited about coming together to eat a meal from an awesome chef and be able to meet new interesting people,” he says. And it’s about getting the chefs to try to outdo each other from one month to the next, of course.
So, where did the name come from?
It’s a tribute, Nowlin says, to the Wickes Street home’s previous tenant, the late Craig Pennel, who hosted outrageous parties that he called Wicked Nights. The chef felt he wanted to continue the tradition in his own way.
Getting a seat at the table for one of the dinners isn’t easy. You can’t just call someone and make a reservation for the next Wicked Night at Wickes. First, you have to like the event’s Facebook page and wait for an announcement of the next dinner. Then post a comment that you’d like to join, and your name will be entered into a lottery for the seats. The dinners are usually the last Sunday of the month, though the April/May dinner has been set for May 3 with Stefan Bowers of Feast as the guest chef. There’s also talk of a future dinner featuring one of Nowlin’s associates from his days at the French Laundry, but you’ll have to keep an eye open for future announcements.
Next time, I’m hoping to snag a seat at the table. I’ve got my H-E-B cards ready.