ROBERT ST. JOHN: Guess Who's Coming for Dinner?

By Robert St. John

A decade ago I wrote a column asking people to name the six people in all of history they would like to invite to dinner. I listed my six, and readers sent their dinner lists via email. I picked the most interesting guest grouping and posted it in a subsequent column.
It’s a game I often play with my friends. There are several factors that go into the decision making process. Sure there are people you have always wanted to meet, that’s a given. The potential for engaging dinner table conversation is a must. I typically base my list on the same principle I use at home when compiling a dinner-party list – a group that is just eclectic and inquisitive enough to bring engaging and intriguing conversation to the table, but not too dissimilar to make the evening awkward. Sometimes you pull it off, other times it gets weird.
People tend to over think the list. They say things such as, “If you invite Michelangelo you will need to waste another seat on an interpreter.” I don’t count interpreters. It’s a hypothetical game, so hypothetically – at least at my table – every one speaks English. Some say Jesus would need to be one of the guests. I wouldn’t argue that point. My Baptist friends would say, “If you’re right with the Lord, Jesus is already there with you.” Though it would be nice to have a pro say the blessing.
The interesting thing about this completely hypothetical and rhetorical exercise is that the members of the dinner party change from year to year depending on what is important to you at that moment. I looked back on the list from 10 years ago and the names included Paul McCartney, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Willie Morris and Shelby Foote.
If I made a list today, the list would still include McCartney and Churchill. But I would add my father (who died when I was six), his mother, my maternal grandfather, and Chef Thomas Keller.
In addition to hypothetical rhetoric, it can be sort of a bucket-list conversation. Strangely enough, I’m about to check an item off of the bucket list. Next week I am cooking a dinner for 100 men at a camp under the redwoods of the Russian River Valley in Northern California, and Thomas Keller is among the invitees.
For years people have talked to me about being nervous when cooking for me as a guest in their home. Those are obviously people who don’t know me very well. My close friends know – without question I am the easiest person in the world to cook for. I love food, and I love sharing a meal with friends, old and new.
Though I now know a little about what they were talking about – except this is Thomas Keller. THE Thomas Keller, owner of the nation’s top restaurant, my favorite all-time restaurant, The French Laundry.
I was asked to cook a Creole meal, so I’ll be serving Crawfish Étouffée, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, Baked Shrimp and Squash, and White Chocolate Bread Pudding. I have met Keller a few times but have never cooked for him. From everything I have gathered, he appreciates good food, too. Keep your fingers crossed.
Just to keep the conversation flowing, I think I’ll ask Keller who his six dinner guests would be. Stay tuned.
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Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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