In Japanese, tamago means eggs and onsen are hot springs. In the tourist town of Beppu - Japan's bubbling geothermal version of Yellowstone Park - onsen tamago is often prepared by sticking eggs in steaming mineral pools and letting them cook so slowly that after the shell is removed, a perfect oval of loose, almost custardy egg white slips out holding a soft core of bright yellow yolk in the center. This year, at Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff's 28th American Food & Wine Festival, a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels Programs of Los Angeles, Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, chef-owners of the award-winning St. Helena based Terra restaurant, and Ame, which is located in San Francisco's St. Regis hotel, offered a cold onsen tamago with delicate shreds of poached lobster, a dab of uni, Shemiji mushrooms and a slice of sauteed okra in a dashi broth and served in a swooping bowl straight out of
We know this because for the past four years we've helped out Sone and Doumani at their AFWF booth. We've spent hours slicing the thin membrane of scorchingly hot baby abalone to release the flesh from it's shell; one year, we held a post at what is the couple's most memorable AFWF creation - an interactive Rube Goldberg carnival game made of halved bamboo tubes that required the diner to send their noodles tumbling down zig-zagging chutes until it ended in cup. It was our job to make sure there were no noodle traffic jams as well as to regularly check the drain.
This year we were designated egg-cracker/egg-scooper. We started with flats of brown organic eggs which Sone prepared the night before by poaching them for 45 minutes in a rethermalizer set at 65 degrees Celsius. We tap, tap, tapped them on a plastic cutting board, repeating in our heads Sone and Doumani's respective warnings - be on the lookout for even the tiniest fleck of brown egg shell, stop leaving fingerprints on the bowls, keep gooey egg white from smearing the sides -- then gently let the glistening eggs, somehow both futuristic and primitive in appearance, slide out into a pan. After that, they were then carefully spooned into the aforementioned 50's-era space age bowls, topped with a light sprinkle of salt then sent down a human assembly line to complete it's journey at the front table.
Being located at one end of the Terra station meant being so close to a Fabio-like guitarist hired to serenade from a small terrace that we noticed he plucked out Kansas' mid-seventies downer hit "Dust In The Wind" at least three times. It also meant being quizzed by passersby who often assumed that they were at the end of the composed dish instead of at the very beginning. The confused would squint at our pan filled with trembling de-shelled eggs and ask, "What is this?"
Three hours after we started, we raised an empty egg carton, signaling to Sone that, with the help of Lissa's brother Jared, a whirring one-man prep machine brought in when we fell behind, we'd cracked all the eggs, over 66 dozen of them. Sone punched a triumphant fist in the air. Three hours had passed. It was our turn to feel soft-cooked.