Rick Tramonto is taking over my kitchen. The four-star chef/partner of Tru—one of the top restaurants in Chicago, if not the country—and his wife, Eileen, have been here only 45 minutes, and he’s already ditched his blazer and rolled up his sleeves, revealing the massive chef tattoo on his forearm. While I fumble for the kosher salt, he starts sautéing mushrooms and shallots in the cheap pan I bought as part of a multipiece set at Sam’s Club for $79.99. And I feel my dinner slipping away.
The evening was not supposed to go like this. The idea was simple: I would invite Tramonto (a complete stranger) to our West Town condo to join me, my wife, Jen, and a few friends for dinner. Jen and I would prepare recipes from Tramonto’s new cookbook, Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $35), and I would write about it for Chicago magazine. Tramonto graciously accepted—in part because he has a book to publicize, and in part because he’s just the kind of what-the-hell guy who would.
Steak with Friends professes to show amateurs “how to reproduce the delicious flavors of [Tramonto’s] steakhouse food at home”—no dehydrators, no acetate strips, no blowtorches. I’m probably a notch down from amateur, but my wife’s baking skills gave us just enough confidence to attempt a menu of roasted beets, sea scallops with mushrooms, twice-baked potatoes, grilled broccoli rabe, and balsamic-marinated hanger steaks. After procuring the beef at Paulina Market and the rest at Whole Foods—and prepping for nearly 24 hours—we were ready.
What we weren’t ready for was Tramonto himself.
Photograph: Chris Lake
Tramonto schools the author
He silently glides into the kitchen while I’m assembling ingredients for the scallop dish. “I’ve done this a few times,” he says, flashing a grin. “Let’s fire it up.” The truth is, I am hoping to glean some cooking tips from the Top Chef Masters contestant. But I hadn’t expected him to get so excited swirling a pan of sizzling mushrooms that he wouldn’t leave the stove. As we stand shoulder to shoulder at my range, I’m emboldened to ask him how to sear the scallops, which is like asking Eric Clapton to show you how to play “Layla” on your own guitar.
“If you flip them too soon, they start poaching themselves and get rubbery,” he says. “Wait for it . . . wait for it.” We finally flip the plump, pinkish mollusks, and they have a beautiful brown crust. Tramonto points to the second batch and tells me it’s time for my solo. I nail them. “It takes a line cook six months to learn how to do this,” he says enthusiastically, and I desperately want to believe him.
Next up are the steaks. It’s 30 degrees and windy, and I’m nervous my undersized Weber gas grill won’t get hot enough to sear them. Tramonto follows me out to the balcony and holds his hands over the grates. He nods: Everything is going to be fine. We toss the long hunks of beef onto the fire, and the flames lick the edges of the meat. They cook for 15 minutes, and we flip them only once. After letting the steaks rest, I slice them and the knife goes in like butter. I’m so proud of this that I fail to notice Tramonto walking around the dinner table, serving my wife’s impressively executed twice-baked potatoes. The guy just can’t help himself. “Let me take that, Rick,” I say, gently wresting the platter from his hands. He sits down and digs into the steak.
The wine flows, conversation continues past midnight, and just before Tramonto leaves, we get the courage to ask for our report card. The steak was right on, he says, but the potatoes could have used more salt. (Later, Jen confesses she forgot to add any salt at all.) “And the beets were a little under for me,” he admits. “They had a little too much tooth.” But they couldn’t have been too bad, because after we say our goodbyes, I notice Tramonto has taken a Tupperware full of leftover beets prepared—without help—by yours truly.
Photograph: Chris Lake