It’s Oscar time again, which means Chef John DeLucie is jetting from Manhattan to Los Angeles to cook for his celebrity clients at Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party on Feb. 22.
Haven’t heard of DeLucie? Maybe you know some of his customers. As executive chef at one of New York’s most celebrated restaurants, The Waverly Inn, he's prepared meals for Renee Zellweger, Katie Couric and Mariah Carey (though not at the same table).
Put it this way: This inn doesn’t even have a phone, and calling for a reservation isn’t an option. Walk-ins will have a tough time getting a table, too. You’ve pretty much got to know someone. Thankfully, I know John and he’s willing to share some of his secrets for all of our benefit.
On his 2009 Oscar menu: mushroom risotto, chicken pot pie, and bananas foster. At the restaurant, a table of four could easily spend a few hundred dollars (and then some) for these dishes.
Yet DeLucie’s celebrated specialties aren’t budget breaking. This Sunday, you can prepare food inspired by some of his favorites, turn on the Oscars and sup with the celebrities for less than $25.
1. Start at the store. “Don’t start with the cookbook, go to the store. Get what’s seasonal, then figure out how to cook it,” advises DeLucie. Seasonal food not only tastes best, it’s most plentiful and therefore, the least expensive. “Right now, I can get three artichokes for $1. In the spring, they can’t give away asparagus,” says DeLucie. Chef’s tip: Spend the bulk of your budget before you crack a cookbook.
Artichokes for 6: $2
2. DeLucie’s no-oven pizza. Chefs are expert late-night snackers, and DeLucie is no exception. His go-to is homemade pizza, which also makes a delicious (and inexpensive) appetizer.
“I take Kontos hand stretched flatbread, and put it straight on the flame.” When the edges get charred, he turns the bread, and tops it with tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil. “The whole thing can be finished in a toaster, or if you don’t even want to turn that on, just heat the tomatoes and they’ll melt the cheese.”
Two pizzas: About $5
3. The pasta course: At the Waverly, DeLucie does pasta, but when he adds lobster and white truffles, it ain’t cheap. Since a pound of pasta costs less than $2, it’s naturally a budget item. DeLucie’s personal favorite, carbonara, can be made with eggs, a few pieces of bacon, milk and Parmesan.
Pasta carbonara for 6: $6
4. Classic casseroles. The Waverly Inn’s truffled mac and cheese is well-publicized, but in truth, the chef was simply returning to his roots (at around $55 a dish). “Growing up, we had a lot of varieties of mac and cheese. Ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino…anything and everything went into mac and cheese.”
DeLucie’s grandmother improvised new casseroles, starting with her leftovers. “She took the leftover pasta with tomato sauce, spread it in a pan, put it under the broiler and made "toasted spaghetti." DeLucie remembers, “The edges would be crunchy and the center still soft.” His grandmother would serve it with a side salad and call it a meal. Repurpose your leftover pasta and tell your friends it’s an old family secret from the chef at The Waverly Inn.
Leftover spaghetti casserole: Free!
5. Princely proteins with a pauper’s purse: A quick skim of DeLucie’s menu shows some lower-cost main dishes snuggled next to the prime New York strip and the Dover sole. Items like octopus ($3 per pound), brook trout ($5 each), and quinoa ($3 per pound) are all budget purchases at the grocery store.
Grilled octopus over quinoa for 6: About $10
6. “Dessert? We didn’t have dessert.” The home cooks in DeLucie’s family didn’t fuss with pies and cakes. They enjoyed fresh fruit at the end of their meal. And although seasonal produce is always going to be your least expensive option, it doesn’t have to be dull. DeLucie says, “Take apples, for example. You can do them baked, in a pie, eat them raw, roast them.”
Roasted apples with cinnamon for 6: $2
Invite your friends over for an Oscar feast this weekend, and dine like glitterati for less than the price of a movie ticket.