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“You can always tell the pioneers,” Steve Poses C’69 is saying. “They’re the ones with the arrows in their backs.”

He says it wryly, knowing that he doesn’t really fit the traditional image of the High Chaparral pioneer. We’re talking about his new synergistic home-entertainment trinity, which consists of a book (At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining), a blog (AtHomeByStevePoses.wordpress.com), and a website (athomebysteveposes.com). While none of them is, by itself, wildly pioneering, their collective trail cuts through some uncharted entrepreneurial territory—especially in light of his rather unusual goal, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Poses does know a thing or two about pioneering. When he opened Frög, his small Center City storefront restaurant, back in 1973—just four years out of Penn and after a crash course in upscale restauranting at La Panatière—he was out on the frontier of Philadelphia’s then-parched culinary landscape. Frög quickly became an icon of the city’s restaurant renaissance (the umlaut was a visual pun, suggesting froggy eyes, not some obscure Euro-pronunciation), and unlike some of the other early trendsetters it was reliably enjoyable as well as imaginative. When it finally closed in 1987, the restaurant received the sort of respectful obsequies usually reserved for major abstract expressionists and heads of state.

Frög was just the beginning for Poses, who opened a series of other restaurants, ranging from the innovative and successful (The Commissary) to the innovative and disastrous (City Bites). Along the way he launched the Frög Commissary Catering Company, still going strong in its 34th year, and in his spare time he turned out The Frög Commissary Cookbook, which sold more than 150,000 copies. And while he no longer runs a restaurant, and doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the old days, a line in his new book says volumes about his personality, drive, and chosen profession: “The rush of line cooking on a busy night is a sublime combination of art, teamwork, and athleticism.”

But don’t get the wrong idea. That whole pressure-cooker atmosphere, he says, “is at the exact opposite extreme of what I’d recommend for the home entertainer.”

What he recommends now is: Relax. Have Fun. You’re already a good-enough entertainer. With a little guidance—like, say, the kind provided by his At Home troika—you can ratchet up the home-entertaining a notch or two, both in the quality of the offerings and presentation and in the number of times you entertain.

Which brings us back to that publicly stated goal of his: to increase home-entertaining by 10 percent. And by home-entertaining he does not mean hiring a certain catering company for your next party. Poses wants to teach you how to serve fish, not sell you a fish dinner.

“My focus now is that food is a vehicle to bring people together,” he explains. “I’ve always seen part of my job as being a teacher. I do enjoy that aspect of it. It’s a combination of believing you can help people build a community and ‘Here’s a way to do it.’”

The details of doing it, along with more than 400 recipes, are carefully and attractively laid out in the book and the blog. In order to access most of the website and blog you have to buy the book, which comes with a key-code. Book owners also receive emailed blog entries. The website functions as something of a gateway where you can sample the concept and maybe buy the book, which is self-published and not available in bookstores or the usual Internet channels.

“The book is one piece of a three-legged stool: book, website, blog,” says Poses. “Each one performs part of the task of coaching people, inspiring people, to entertain more.”

While the 10 percent goal may sound somewhat idealistic, it is not, in his mind, improbable.

“I actually think it’s quite realistic,” he says. “If you entertained twice a year in the past, one more time would make it a 50 percent increase. So 10 percent is not that high.”

Hence the subtitle: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking and Entertaining. Most cookbooks are written by restaurateurs or chefs, and Poses has his full share of experience in that line. But it’s not the approach he wants to share.

“Caterers look at things in a different way that can help people who cook at home,” he says. “Most cookbooks are written from the restaurateur’s point of view, where the restaurant chef thinks of that wonderful sauté dish he did—good luck doing that for eight people. Caterers tend to think in terms of the whole event.”

Part 1 (“Plan to Entertain”) walks you through the planning and organizing stages: shopping, arranging your space, organizing your cooking, beverages, décor, cleanup. There are checklists, worksheets, suggestions about what to make beforehand—even an illustrated guide to performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Part 2 is “Recipes, Notes & Tips,” all of which can be accessed (by members/book-buyers) and printed at the website. The list of ingredients in his recipes begins with items needing significant pre-preparation, such as chopping, and the instructions clearly indicate when you can pause or stop without undermining what you’ve already done. He also offers a smorgasbord of stories, ruminations, thumbnail sketches, and the like (see box below), drawn from his decades of experience. That includes guest etiquette—don’t show up early on Thanksgiving; don’t come into the kitchen and talk to the cook when he or she is trying to concentrate.

The whole thing is surprisingly easy on the eyes, and the puckish illustrations by Pascal Lemaître add to the relaxing effect. According to Poses, the response to his easy-going philosophy has been a collective sigh of relief.

“People tend to bite off more than they can chew in home-entertaining, and then they get discouraged,” he says. “I’m all about setting the bar low.”

The whole process of writing At Home has made him a “more thoughtful, organized, and disciplined home entertainer,” he explained in a recent blog entry. While he was already well organized and disciplined in a work setting, he didn’t always apply his professional principles at home. As a result, his home entertaining “has often been more harried with too much time in the kitchen and not enough time with guests.”

“Home entertaining is about creating a sense of welcome, warmth, and hospitality for your guests,” he writes. “It’s not about how good the food is or how beautifully the table is set. It’s not the Culinary Olympics or Iron Chef meets Main Street. It’s about human connection and good conversation.”

If you find yourself raising an eyebrow at such lofty sentiments from a successful entrepreneur, you should know that the communitarian impulse has been with Poses since his Penn days. It was shaped in part by a book he read back when he still thought he’d have a career in architecture or city planning: Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As a sixties’ activist interested in building communities, Poses was particularly struck by her image of the neighborhood candy store, and how it could, in a small but vital way, serve as the locus of a vibrant neighborhood.

“Jacobs recognized how a local candy store defined a community in an otherwise large and anonymous city,” he writes. “The idea thrilled me: If a candy store could do that, I thought, imagine what a neighborhood restaurant could do. I put Jacobs’ idea into action when I opened Frög, my first neighborhood restaurant, and creating a community has been an important aspect of all I’ve done since …”

The whole At Home project is both a continuation of that community-building and an active process.

“The website felt like the little storefront restaurant I opened in 1973,” he says. “I didn’t know a lot, and I spent a lot of time in the early phase learning about the process. I also learned about writing a blog, and I’m very, very excited about it. It’s a whole new chapter in my life.

“It felt like I ran a marathon in writing that book,” he adds. “It was an intense effort. With the other components there it feels like a whole other thing I have to figure out. I’ve created something that sometimes feels like a Frankenstein monster—It’s alive! Now what do I do with it?”Samuel Hughes

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FEATURE: Quakers in the Kitchen
Illustration by Graham Roumieu
©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Highs, Lows,
and Rules for
Entertaining


 

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  ©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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