Setta the Table!
Provenance | 2531 Eastbluff Dr, Newport Beach | provenanceoc.com
t’s a technicolor California Sunday in the backyard of Chef Cathy Pavlos and husband Elliot’s new home. We’re here for a taste of Chef’s Sunday Suppers, normally held at her restaurant Provenance, but in this instance, we’re getting a VIP experience at her home. We’re sitting at a long, cheerful table in the grassy part of the yard, eating raspberry cobbler ala mode baked in Grandma Maria’s 70-year-old lasagna pan … lingering … just a little while longer over espresso and conversation. The mood is natural and light, in a barefoot kind of way, filled with the playfulness of Chef’s little great-nieces who look adorable dressed in matching blue-and-white gingham. Some of us at the table are family, some of us are not, but you’d never know the difference — so much so that I find myself leaving our evening amidst hugs and a specially made doggie bag to take home to my family. It’s a warm, familiar gesture that slows me down and reminds me of my aunties who always sent me home with heavy bags of sweet homegrown oranges and jars of Japanese pickles. This doggie bag, however, is chef-next-level. In it, Pavlos put two huge, juicy heirloom tomatoes, two yogurt-sized containers of Di Stefano Italian Burrata and freshly clipped basil from nearby that later made my fridge smell like a garden.
But before raspberry cobbler ala mode and chef-curated doggie bags, we enjoyed a family Sunday Supper for my memory bank; warm farfalle alla checca with grilled asparagus, leeks, and feta, tres vert fava beans from the garden tossed with prosciutto and mint, rolled all-natural beef ribeye roasted on a vintage rotisserie (a wedding gift from 1975), and salad greens snipped from garden boxes in the sunny spot between Chef’s home and the garage.
Gathering for Sunday Supper like this is a family tradition that dates back to Chef’s childhood. She grew up in 1950s Huntington Beach in a large Italian family during a time when Orange County still had orange groves. Her childhood reads rose-colored and Steinbeckian; she grew up eating veggies from her grandfather’s farm behind Huntington Beach High, and every week her Grandma Maria was known to orchestrate Sunday Supper for 50, entirely ala minute. It’s a family tradition Chef continues to celebrate at quarterly Sunday Suppers she hosts at her Newport Beach restaurant Provenance.
“My grandma would wait until she saw all that she had to work with, and then she’d say ‘all right, dis is a whatta we gonna do,’ and then she’d proceed to list all the dishes that we were going to make,” recalls Chef. “She’d cook for 50 and she’d never break a sweat, all of it ingredient-driven and ala minute. … I was her sous chef from the age of 4, and I can still hear her telling me to ‘setta the table.’” Grandma Maria’s pragmatic, salt-of-earth style of cooking is applauded today as if farm-to-table cooking is something new, but for Pavlos there has never been another way. Inspired by her grandma — not to mention a 25-year career in architecture academia, Chef’s food is earthy and unfussy, guided by an axiom ingrained since childhood to let good ingredients just be. Her reverence for the perfectly ripe ingredient combined with her architectural design of flavor and texture is part Alice Waters and part Frank Lloyd Wright; it’s a style that has garnered her restaurant, Provenance, great respect.
At the heart of Provenance is an impressive 1,300-square-foot organic garden that guides her menu from season to season. Name-play intended, Chef’s food incites a Pavlovian response that her loyal patrons can’t ignore; see a wicker basket full of farm-fresh vegetables and instantly you’re mood lightens, and your mouth waters thinking about your favorite meal at Provenance.
For me, that meal is now, at her home with her family, passing around with equal frequency crisp bottles of Sancerre and precious little Baby Bobby — the first baby boy in the family to break a strong line of Italian women. I realize that after this meal I may never see farmer’s market vegetables any other way than how Pavlos would prepare it. Eggplant should be sliced a quarter-inch thick, grill-marked and served with bright, garlicky pesto. Perfumed cantaloupe from the Central Valley will always need salty prosciutto, and when I see a shimmery slick of olive oil, balsamic reduction and tomato juice, I’ll always think of the big, earthy slices Chef served that one day in her backyard for Sunday Supper.
Nothing speaks more closely to Chef’s culinary style and tradition than quarterly Sunday Suppers at Provenance, and if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, you must go. Take your family, take your friends. One thing is for sure; four courses later you’ll find yourself happy — perhaps lingering over espresso just a little while longer, maybe eating raspberry cobbler ala mode or Sophia Loren’s famous tiramisu. Maybe later you’ll leave with a doggie bag that makes your fridge smell like a garden too, and you’ll be taken back in time and place, where Sunday Supper is more than a meal, it’s a Pavlovian trigger to happiness.