Gifting an Epic Dinner in the Desert at Burning Man

| August 23, 2012 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

Stilt walkers approaching Black Rock French Quarter at Burning Man 2011. Photo: Kristen Lanum
Stilt walkers approaching Black Rock French Quarter at Burning Man 2011. Photo: Kristen Lanum

Listen to the KQEDNews radio version of this story. Brownie points if you can identify the music under the scorpion car bit!

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In just a few days, Black Rock City will rise from the baked earth in northern Nevada: the arrival point of a mass exodus from all over the world.

Burning Man draws in all sorts of art installations designed to astound and delight. But for foodies, one of the top attractions is surely the Black Rock French Quarter. There is a cocktail lounge, supper club, bakery, coffee roaster, gumbo cookery, beer brewery, and wine cellar.

“The first word that comes to mind is romance,” says Ari Schindler, the originator of the concept. Only two years in, he leads a gourmet army of some 300 people.

Black Rock City French Quarter open signs. Photo: Blaine Ohigashi
All signs are the Black Rock French Quarter will be open for sharing of gustatory delight when Burning Man 2012 begins on August 27. Photo: Blaine Ohigashi

A few weeks ago in Sunland, north of Los Angeles, we caught up with about a dozen people constructing something akin to the Hollywood back lots of old — a virtual neighborhood reminiscent of New Orleans. But these are bartenders and preschool administrators, preparing this New Orleans for easy shipping and assembly. Because what comes in to Burning Man must leave the way it came.

On “the playa” as festival goers like to call the place, no money changes hands, except for ice and coffee at Center Camp.

But this year, French Quarter organizers want to thank about 40 core volunteers in a big way, with a big dinner on August 29. Candi Achenbach, packing up silverware, explains the dinner “will be a gift to the leaders and the movers and the shakers that actually made the French Quarter and all of these other camps in our village happen.”

Naturally, the meal will take place in an art car built by Kirk Jellum and Kristen Ulmer at Mantis Entertainment. Shaped like a giant emperor scorpion, the car is set atop a boom truck.  Hydraulic points make the limbs move and there’s a seven gun flame thrower on the tail.

Scorpion art car where the dinner will take place. Photo: Mantis Entertainment
The venue for the “thank you” dinner. Fortunately for the chef — and the servers — this beast will not be moving during the course of the meal. Photo: Mantis Entertainment

Achenbach’s eyes light up as she says “We’re going to put tables and elegant dinnerware on it and escort our guests on, and serve them what is looking like probably the most fantastical 12-course gourmet meal.”

It’s a given the dessert course will feature liquid nitrogen ice cream made on site, but beyond that, the menu is an open set of questions for the chef, Chris Prince, to answer.

At an undisclosed kitchen in San Francisco he muses, “One of the things that I think would be a lot of fun to do is to play on the theme of fire. That’s one of the central themes of Burning Man. You know, starting out with kindling, sparks, working your way up to fire and smoke, and then ending with embers and ash.”

Think red braised pork belly, “with Chinese long beans that have been cooked with fermented soy beans and chili sauce.”

Think white gazpacho “with a smoky element.”

Of course, at least one of the dishes has to include date sugar — a playful nod to playa sand — “So you get that sweetness, that powdery texture, but also the flavor of dates.”

The cocktail pairings follow in a similar vein: a Wasabi Cucumber Gimlet, for instance — and a Russian Caravan, with smoked tea, honey and bourbon.

Wasabi Cucumber Gimlet. Photo: Chris Prince
The Wasabi Cucumber Gimlet. Photo: Chris Prince

Here’s one of his recipes.

Wasabi Cucumber Gimlet

  • 2 oz gin
  • 3/4 oz cucumber juice (see below)
  • 1/4 oz lime juice
  • 1/2 oz wasabi simple syrup (see below)
  • Shake all ingredients together and strain into a cocktail glass containing ice.  Rub one or two thin slices of cucumber around the rim, then drop them into the glass.
  • For cucumber juice, puree a cucumber and press through a fine mesh sieve.
  • For wasabi simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and 2 tsp wasabi powder.  Shake and allow to set at least 4 hours before using.

Prince was the lead software engineer on Google Voice. He left a year ago to pursue other passions, including Lazy Bear, an underground restaurant in San Francisco. He’s the kind of guy who relishes a logistical challenge. That said, the scorpion will NOT actually be moving during the course of the meal.

“I think we’re close enough to the impossible level that we don’t need it to be any more challenging,” Prince says.

However, the scorpion will be parked at some distance from the makeshift kitchen where the meal will be prepared. And the forecast calls for dust storms — for which Burning Man organizers recommend goggles, bandanas and baby wipes. The playa demands radical self-reliance from those who dare to tread on its hot sands.

Prince’s right hand man in this endeavor will be his colleague at Lazy Bear, founding chef David Barzelay. “Chris and I have both done a fair bit of camping independently,” he says, “but I’ve certainly never tried to put on any kind of opulent meal in a camping situation.”

David Barzelay and Chris Prince of Lazy Bear
David Barzelay and Chris Prince of Lazy Bear, an underground restaurant in San Francisco, signed up to deliver a multi-course “thank you” dinner to key volunteers with the Black Rock French Quarter. Photo: KQED/Rachael Myrow

There will be refrigeration, but the men intend to sidestep dishes that depend on urban niceties like boiling water or, say, a perfectly calibrated oven.  Barzelay says “I think the tougher parts are going to be when we show up and somebody told us we had electricity and we don’t have electricity. Or when they told us we have a stove and they broke the stove getting off the truck. Things like that.”

Just the same, Prince and Barzelay are in a state of anticipatory excitement to join the masses headed east — slathered in sunscreen, lugging gallons of water with them — ready to look with wide-eyed wonder upon the collective creative work of thousands of people. This will be their first Burning Man.

Prince muses: “The scope of these things, for them to be carried to the middle of the desert, constructed in a small area over the course of a week, and then taken down, leaving no trace behind. That’s pretty magical to me.”

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About the Author ()

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness.
  • Rubylaser and Scribble

    Can’t wait to get to the Playa tomorrow! We’re in the French Quarter Bakery and Press Corps.

  • DB

    One error – the French Quarter will not ‘leave the way it comes in’. It will burn at the end of the week. This is certainly an amazing contribution to Black Rock City though.

  • Polly Stryker

    Thank you very much for reading/listening, DB. I had fun editing this story! I double-checked with one of the organizers of the Black Rock French Quarter to see if they intend to burn the set at the end of the week. They say they do not plan to burn it. Volunteers will take the French Quarter out the way it came in, and they plan to bring it back again next year.

    -Polly Stryker, producer/editor, KQED Public Radio.

  • QuickDraw Annie

    I was one of the lucky volunteers who got to enjoy the fabulous meal. It started with kindling & tinder and ended in ashes, with a beverage to match each course. The smokey mushroom soup and sweet pepper cocktail were the culinary highlights of my week.