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A Taste of the Hat

The Brown Derby 1926-1985



So, three guys are drinking in a bar. No, that's not a set up for a joke. It is actually part of the origin story of probably the most well-known Hollywood Restaurants of the 20's and 30's. The three guys in question were: Herbert Somborn, a film producer and husband of Gloria Swanson; Wilson Mizner, a New York playwright and property developer who was intelligent and scrappy; and the then soon-to-be movie studio boss Jack Warner (He bought First National Pictures and renamed it Warner Bros. after his huge success with the "Jazz Singer" in 1928). So, there these men sit, and they begin discussing the state of Hollywood's restaurants and specifically the available food itself. All of them lamented the lack of good, hearty dishes of the New York restaurants they had experienced, and comments were said to fly into the fantastical. While the content of the conversation is generally understood, the actual words said at the time have always been paraphrased. Some of my favorite renditions are: "If you served decent food, you could sell it in an alley and people would flock to you." or "If you know anything about good food you could sell out of a hat." And so, the Brown Derby was born and opened in 1926 at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard.


Despite appearances, the Restaurant (Built in the shape of a Hat, of course) was indeed what the men had hoped. Good honest food that you could sink your teeth into. It was also supposed to be a place that offered Stars and movers and shakers a place for a little privacy, but that soon proved a wish too far. When Stars began using it regularly, they of course brought the fans and photographers with them. In all honesty, this was actually more of a lunch spot than a dinner spot at first but then it became popular all day - although most stars found places like the Coconut Grove across the street at the Ambassador Hotel more entertaining for their light evening meal (and dancing). The food at the Derby was a weird cross between a Steakhouse and a Diner. It was decorated in the normal style, that is to say leather banquets and 4-top tables. On the walls (much like the famous Broadway Restaurant "Sardis" in New York) were caricatures of Hollywood's Stars. One of these renditions required two drawings, the extra panel needed to accommodate Jimmy Durante's nose, as seen here.

One of the other unique features of the Derby was that nearly every table had an outside line telephone. This allowed for "Working Lunches" for agents, managers, press agents and Studio Moguls to make and receive calls. It was also useful to pretend to be busy when avoiding someone who just walked in. Table to table telephones which allowed Men to flirt with the pretty Girl at table 32 were never implemented at the Derby but appeared later in the 50's at a few other places.


When I moved to Los Angeles as a film agent from New York in 1982, The Brown Derby was my usual Lunch spot for a couple of years until it closed, and while it had changed significantly (the phones were gone), I still enjoyed memories of eating with Zero Mostel, George Hamilton (a regular), Marcel Marceau, and Philippe Mora among others. I found the Menu challenging as the fare had gone to the tourist side of the street by then. But after talking with few old timers, and my mom of course, a very different menu seemed to be center stage in their time. Actually, we'll be doing a bunch of recipes from here, but we'll begin with the legend of the "Cob Salad".


The Derby was indeed this now ubiquitous salad's birthplace which was rumored to have been invented by part-time waiter and cook named Bob Cobb. Apparently, one day on the lunch shift, he was faced with a salad order from a customer and discovered he was almost completely out of lettuce. In his desperation, he chopped up what little greens he had on hand and then added anything he could think of to make up the difference, including corn, bacon, cheese and even hard-boiled eggs. He chopped it all up into fine pieces to hide the lack of actual salad, doused it with his version of French Dressing and served it. It is said that the "salad" customer turned out to be a Press agent for Paramount Studios and it wasn't long before everyone was ordering the Cobb salad. Touted as "low-Calorie" but hearty, it was quite a hit with customers. Fittingly, Bob ended up as an owner of a new Brown Derby location a few years later, located further down the strip.


Because the Brown Derby is such a landmark, and probably because it remains a favorite of mine, we'll be returning to the Derby here in the Blog in the future. Meanwhile, let's get to Bob's Cobb Salad, (which is indeed hearty but hardly low-calorie!) It is very low-carb however, so Rob Lowe would definitely have liked it!


The Original Brown Derby Cobb Salad (serves 4)


Ingredients:

1 Firm (to the touch) large head of Iceberg Lettuce

1 Bunch Watercress (you can substitute with baby spinach)

1 regular bunch of Hickory (you can substitute with Kale)

I head of Romaine Lettuce

2 Medium Tomatoes briefly blanched and peeled.

2-3 Breasts of Poached chicken (Try and cut to 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch thick.)

6-9 Strips of center-cut bacon, crisp and diced

2 Avocados. (Ripe but still firm.)

4 Hardboiled Eggs, 2 fully sliced, two Halved.

1 Tablespoon Parsley

2 Tablespoons Chives finely chopped.

4 Medium Green Onions, finely chopped.

1 Cup crumbled Roquefort Cheese (Replacing this ingredient is tricky, actually darn near impossible. If you use Blu-cheese instead you get a completely different, but terrific salad, but not a Cobb. Stilton - forget it. Probably the best bet is Gorgonzola, although you may need to use a little more to compensate for its lighter flavor).

2 Cups of the now famous Brown Derby French Dressing (recipe is below the salad).


Let's start with the cooking.


Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Take four room temperature eggs and place them in the pot. Bring the pot back to a boil, turn off the heat and let them sit for 4-5 minutes. Remove the eggs and place in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. set aside.


Bring the pot of water back to boiling and add the tomatoes for 30-45 seconds. Remove to Ice Water to stop the cooking process. Peel when cool, remove majority of seeds and liquid. Set Juice aside. Set tomatoes aside. This is known as "Blanching".


In a pan on Medium-low, fry the bacon. As you are not making breakfast but an ingredient, you want to render the fat, that means cooking it low and slow. Eventually you will a get crispy result when blotted with Paper Towel, but you will release the fat more efficiently. Set aside. (Try and save the left-over Bacon Fat from the pan in a small heat-proof container for future use and store in the refrigerator. You're going to need it for several recipes in this blog later!)


Boiling the Chicken. Now here is where we have to do a little guess work. Relying on my own experience and my mom's, the Chicken in this salad was NOT poached in water. It was poached in Chicken Stock, and a good Chicken Stock. If you are a serious cook, you probably already know how to make your own (if not, there will be a chapter on that later) but otherwise I suggest that you use the best stock on the market at the moment called "Better than Bullion" Chicken Stock - Low Sodium. The stuff is magical and works wonderfully. Frankly however, most store-bought Stock or Broth is much better than it used to be and will still work - but nothing is EVER better than home-made.


Trim the Chicken to be sure there are no grisly bits or excess fat. Follow the Directions on the Bullion for at least three cups (1 Tsp per cup of water in this case) and bring to a boil. Place the breasts into the pot. Be sure your Breasts are submerged. Bring it back to a boil after adding the Chicken. Take off the heat immediately and cover. Set aside in the pot for 5-10 minutes. Run a knife through one of them to be sure it is cooked through which means a VERY pale pink is okay, but any trace of Red is not. MAXIMUM temp for cooked chicken (before resting for 5 minutes) is 160 degrees F. The Chicken will continue to cook as it rests to about 165 F. Set aside.


Time to Chop.


When making a Salad or any type of mixed dish like this, it is best to start with the least delicate items first - that way by the time you get to the others they will be less likely to have wilted or become brown or grey. First up are the tomatoes. Now if you feel you can peel a tomato as is, feel free, but the more accepted way is to blanch them first (see above). I seem to remember that the tomatoes I had were unpeeled, but I'm not going to argue with seasoned devotees! Dipped for a minute or two in boiling water frees the skin slightly from the body of the fruit (Tomatoes are classified as both a Fruit and a Vegetable apparently, so whatever.) The skin should be easier to peel after this treatment. Set aside both juice and the tomatoes.


Crumble the cheese you are using, or if not "crumbly" chop into small pieces or grate. Set aside.


Chop the Chives and Green Onions into small pieces. Set Aside.


The Greens. The texture of the Greens (especially the Iceberg Lettuce) speaks to the legend of the salad. Unlike most "tossed" salads this is a mélange of ingredients and so the greens have to take an equal place to the other ingredients. Use a mandolin or hand chop all the greens into thin strips, often called "julienned", or "chiffonade". The technique is to roll up all the greens tightly and then cut the roll into thin strips. Then cut the strips in half or even in 3rds. Set Aside.


Grab your biggest bowl. This is not for serving, but for preparation. You have a lot of tossing to do. Build the salad as follows: Place all greens in the bowl. Chop up the tomatoes into small cubes and add them. Chop up the Poached Chicken into 1/4 to 1/2" cubes and add. Crumble all the bacon into small pieces and add. Add the crumbled cheese and the chopped-up eggs.


Prepare your Avocados by removing flesh and cutting into 1/4" cubes. If your Avocados are really ripe wait until you have completed the tossing. If they are firm, you can mix them directly into the salad.


Pour the dressing (chilled) into the bowl and toss the Heck out of it all until you end up with a really well-mixed chopped semi-wet salad. The secret is uniformity. Everything in the bowl should be as close to the same over-all size as everything else. The trick is a fork full will contain several different ingredients all at once and provide that incredible mix of flavors.


Place the two reserved half-eggs on the top of the salad for garnish. Sprinkle a little Paprika on the eggs for color (if you have it on hand).



The Brown Derby French Dressing


Make ahead and refrigerate.

Ingredients:


1 cup of room-temperature water.

1 Cup Red wine Vinegar

1 Teaspoon of Granulated Sugar

1/2 of a lemon's juice

1/2 of a Lemon's Zest

2 Teaspoons of table salt or 3 Teaspoons of Kosher Salt

1 Teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon of Worchester Sauce (Lea & Perrins)

1 Teaspoon smooth (not grain) English Mustard

1 Diced garlic clove (use two if too small)

4 Cups extra virgin Olive oil or a combination of Olive and Grapeseed Oil


Set Oil(s) aside and mix everything else except the Mustard and Vinegar for the Salad Dressing well.


Mix oil(s) well. The Mustard is an emulsifier so the vinegar and oil should mix without immediately separating. Add more mustard if the mixture separates in under a minute.


Pour Oil into Salad (as much as you feel proper to taste.)


(You should have leftover dressing for the Salad recipe above, but how much you use is up to you. The Dressing keeps for about a week in the refrigerator.)


Serve in a nicely Chilled bowl(s). (3 or 4 minutes in the Freezer should do it).


I consider this salad a "Dinner" Salad, that is, that it is a meal in itself. Some decent bread and a crisp White Wine compliment the Salad well.


If you get a chance, say thanks to the one and only Bob Cobb from the Brown Derby!












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