Denver Bar Association
December 2012
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Standing the Heat, in the Kitchen and in the Courtroom - Four Attorneys Share Their Love for Culinary Pursuits

by Sara Crocker


Karissa Donnoe

Jay Fernandez

John Vaught

David Zisser, with his sous chef, Samantha Thomas.




ooking. It’s a way to gather friends and family. A good use of the right side of the brain. Relaxation. An outlet for creativity.


To some, it may seem like an anomaly that people in such a formal, rule-driven career as law would take up a skill that has evolved based on breaking rules and adapting ideas on the fly. Four attorneys share how they were drawn into the kitchen and how it continues to be an important part of their lives, even while they maintain a fast-paced career.

Stepping into the Kitchen

For Karissa Donnoe, Jay Fernandez, John Vaught, and David Zisser, cooking is an intense hobby, if not an outright passion. Though each of these attorneys shares this same interest, they each came to cooking in her or his own way.

Before becoming an attorney, Fernandez worked as a chef locally and in the Pacific Northwest, even splitting his time as a deep-sea diver. Growing up in California, he learned to cook at an early age from his mother, who ran a cooking school at a vocational college.

"From the time I could see over the stove, I was cooking," said Fernandez, a small-firm attorney based in Longmont. "I just love cooking. When I was 12 years old I’d come home and cook dinner for the whole family."

On the other end of the spectrum, Zisser said cooking wasn’t exactly emphasized in his home growing up, and his mother to this day jokes that they all ate her food because they didn’t know any better. Zisser had to learn to cook out of necessity while in college and law school.

"How I got into cooking was more of a practical thing after my freshman year in college when I lived in the dorms. I shared an apartment with a friend and we had to cook, so just out of necessity I started cooking and I actually enjoyed it," Zisser said.

Pierre Franey’s "The 60-Minute Gourmet" was an influence and taught Zisser more about food and cooking.

"That was a really good introduction to doing different kinds of things that were a little fancy or unusual but weren’t super time consuming and didn’t take a particularly fine-honed technique," said Zisser, of counsel with Davis Graham and Stubbs.

While in law school in Houston, Donnoe wanted to focus on two of her passions, running and healthful eating.

"Food is a culture there, I wanted to give my perspective on trying to eat healthy in a city that is all about overdoing everything," Donnoe said.

She launched the blog CardioFoodie, offering insights on cooking quick and easy meals (she credits her mom as the person who taught her about cooking), fitness, and surviving law school.

Just as a new culture impacted Donnoe’s views of food and cooking, so did the military for John Vaught, a partner with Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, while he was serving in the Navy in Vietnam.

"I had been a picky eater as child, and even as a young adult," Vaught said.

But that had to change when he and two other officers were invited to a local religious leader’s home for dinner. The entrée was eel coiled in a bowl of coconut milk.

"The only thing on the table I was willing to eat was rice and sliced cucumbers—and, out of desperation, I fell in love with cucumbers that night," he said. "In addition to a new love for cucumbers, I also came away that night with the sense that I was missing out on a world of fine food, and that my attitude needed to change."

And it did. Vaught opened himself to experiencing the food of Vietnam, and then was stationed in Naples, Italy. He lived next to a family who showed him the culinary delights of the country.

"They introduced me to pressed olive oil (17 cents a liter), home-canned tomatoes, fresh basil, not to mention the art of making wine from grapes stomped by their daughters. I was introduced to wood-fired ovens, pizza margarita, and spaghetti carbonara," he said.


Finding Time

When it comes to fitting in time for these culinary pursuits, Donnoe suggests starting by finding staples, those meals that you always enjoy, and use them as a jumping off point.

As of late, Zisser has been focused on Asian cooking, and enjoys trips to the Pacific Ocean Market in south Denver on weekends. It’s benefited him in two ways: allowing him to put together a weeknight meal quickly and helping him to focus on healthful eating, with lots of vegetables and less protein.

For Fernandez, it’s simple: "I just make time."

He and the others note the importance of being a weekend warrior and using that time well to prep for the week, which will mean less time in the kitchen during more hectic weeknights. It’s a good time to make a stock, cook in bulk and freeze items, or plan a large family meal, without the pressure of the next day’s work looming.

There’s plenty of ways to get healthy by cooking at home, too.

Donnoe harnessed the Internet and the connections she created in the healthy living blog community to really expand her culinary repertoire and get more ideas for cooking. Moderation and careful attention to food labels are a good start. She also loves to incorporate vegetables, especially spaghetti squash, as a base for a dish that could normally be heavy, like a casserole.


Cooking Traditions for the Holidays

This same attention to health continues during the holidays for Donnoe. Her focus on making items healthier is to add more herbs, spices, and garlic to pack in more flavor with fewer calories. She’s found ways to make lighter versions of the fan-favorite but calorie-laden green bean casserole and cut the sugar in pumpkin pie.

"Basically I just research a lot," said Donnoe, who since graduating has worked as a finance consultant in Denver.

Nevertheless, there are still those old favorites. Donnoe always requests her great-grandmother’s sourdough rolls, which she says are so good they don’t need butter.

Fernandez loves to make prime rib with au jus and Yorkshire pudding, but he also mixes up the meal with new recipes he creates, like chestnut puree. He looks forward to passing on cooking traditions (such as baking cookies) to his daughter. Since she’s been able to sit up, Fernandez has had her in the kitchen with him.

"One of my favorite things is passing it on to her," he said.

For Vaught, the holiday meal that never varies is on Christmas Eve. He makes his mother’s gumbo, Caesar salad, sourdough bread, and bread pudding.

Holiday traditions have evolved and changed in Zisser’s life—some years he has made goose but others he has made brisket. Somehow, one thing seems to remain constant: He always manages to clog the disposal, "usually putting too many onion peels or potato peels or stuff like that."


Cooking: Doing Something New and Unique

And, there is even an aspect of left-brained activity to cooking. Zisser said he finds cooks from America’s Test Kitchen helpful because they focus on how to make a recipe better, and they show home cooks how they tinker with a recipe to make it the best. Fernandez echoed his sentiments, saying that his approach to cooking has always been scientific, but adds, "You have to have this passion [for cooking], and it really is doing something new and unique."

Fernandez loves to share his food. He fills in for the chef at the Longmont Meals on Wheels when he is on vacation, and Fernandez gives friends and family his homemade salsas, spaghetti sauce, bouillabaisse, Creole sauce, smoked meats, and even home-distilled gin and absinthe. It’s his way of making things easier, and a little tastier, for people.

"My real passion is I hand-craft foods," Fernandez said. "I just love giving joy, and I don’t mean that sarcastically."


From Their Kitchen to Yours

 Attorneys Karissa Donnoe, Jay Fernandez, John Vaught, and David Zisser agreed that cooking is most rewarding when it can be shared with others, especially around the holidays. These recipes have become standards for their holiday gatherings.


(Not) My Mother’s Brisket

From David Zisser, adapted from Gail Zweigenthal’s "My Mother’s Brisket," which appeared in the December 1995 issue of Gourmet.


5-to 6-pound first-cut beef brisket
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large yellow onions, about
3 pounds, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, or to taste, minced
1 teaspoon paprika,
  preferably Hungarian
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1½ cup red wine
1½ cup beef stock

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a Dutch oven or other heavy baking pan large enough to hold brisket, heat 1 tablespoon oil in oven 10 minutes. Pat brisket dry and season with salt and pepper. Roast brisket in pan, uncovered, 30 minutes.

While brisket is roasting, in a large heavy skillet cook onions in remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat, stirring, until softened and beginning to turn golden. Reduce heat and stirring, cook onions until deep golden. (This is probably the most important step; don’t rush it.) Stir in garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper and cook 1 minute. Stir in red wine and stock and bring to a boil.

Spoon onion mixture over brisket and bake, covered, with lid ½ inch ajar, 3½ hours, or until brisket is tender. (Check pan every hour and, if necessary, add water.) Remove brisket from oven and let it cool in onion mixture 1 hour. Remove brisket from the pan and wrap in foil until ready to serve. If not serving for several hours or until the next day, refrigerate.

Spoon onion mixture into a 1-quart measure and chill, until the fat congeals and can be easily removed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Discard fat from onion mixture, add enough water to mixture to measure 3 cups total, and in a blender blend gravy until smooth. Slice brisket against the grain (thick or thin, as you prefer). In a large ovenproof skillet heat gravy until hot, add brisket, and heat in oven 30 minutes.

*A note from Zisser: Because no Jewish mother of my mother’s generation has (or will admit to having) measuring cups, spoons, or scales, all quantities should be considered approximate, or to taste.

Serves 8 to 10.


Chestnut Puree

From Jay Fernandez. He developed the recipe after reading about Chestnut trees in America. He serves it like mashed potatoes. It’s a fun side for the holidays because "it’s delicious and nobody has had it before," Fernandez said.


1½ pounds roasted and shelled chestnuts
3 cups chicken stock
1 medium rib of celery
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup heavy cream
ground black pepper and sugar to taste

Place the chestnuts, stock, celery, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, partially covered, and simmer for 45 minutes. There should be about 1 to 1 ½ cups of cooking liquid left.

Puree mixture along with cream and butter in a food processor until smooth.

Push mixture through a sieve to remove any lumps.

Adjust seasoning with additional salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Serve warm with a small dollop of butter.

Serves 8 to 12.


Great-Grandma’s Sourdough Rolls

From Karissa Donnoe, whose great-grandmother still makes these rolls in Lafayette, Ind., each year for the holidays.


Sourdough Starter—

¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons instant potatoes
1 package yeast

Sourdough Rolls—

½ cup sugar
½ cup corn oil
1 cup stirred sourdough starter
1½ cups warm water
6 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt

Mix dry starter ingredients and stir in 1 cup of very warm water with a wooden or plastic spoon. Let stand 8 to 12 hours.

Mix all ingredients for the rolls in a very large mixing bowl. (Batter will be stiff and sticky.) Cover bowl of dough with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

Punch the dough down and knead three to four times. Divide dough into three parts and knead each one-third on a floured surface 10 times.

Place each section of dough into a greased loaf or muffin tin and gently stretch dough over the bottom. Lightly brush dough with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm environment for 5 hours.

Bake at 325 degrees F for 30 to 45 minutes or until lightly golden brown. Remove from pan and let cool.

Each third of dough will make one loaf of bread or can be made into 12 rolls.


Rich and Famous Gumbo

John Vaught’s mother discovered this recipe for seafood gumbo in Louisiana in the 1960s and it was a hit at her dinner parties. It was published in the Denver Junior League’s "Crème de Colorado" cookbook. Vaught makes this gumbo every Christmas Eve for his family.


Roux Mixture—

½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 celery stalks, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
1 small green bell pepper,
seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
½ pound fresh okra, sliced, or one
10-ounce package frozen sliced okra
2 tablespoons butter

Gumbo –

1 quart chicken broth
1 quart water
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
18 dashes of Tabasco sauce
¼ cup ketchup
1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound Andouille sausage (New Orleans-style sausage), sliced
1 bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon dried rosemary
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup diced cooked chicken
1 pound crabmeat
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon molasses
¾ to 1 cup cooked white rice per serving

In stockpot, combine oil and flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until roux is the color of a copper penny. This could take 1 to 1 ½ hours. Do not let roux burn. Stir in celery, onion, green pepper, garlic, and parsley. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. In skillet, cook okra in butter until browned. Add to roux mixture and stir over low heat for 5 minutes. At this point, mixture may be cooled, packed and refrigerated or frozen for later use.

Add chicken broth, water, Worcestershire, Tabasco, ketchup, tomato, salt, sausage, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and red pepper to roux mixture. Simmer covered for 2 ½ to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Thirty minutes before serving, stir in chicken, crabmeat, shrimp, and molasses. Pack cooked rice into a measuring cup and turn cup over in individual soup plates to form an island of rice. Ladle soup around rice mound.

Since preparation time is long, consider making roux mixture one day and completing the gumbo the following day. It is well worth the effort, and gumbo freezes beautifully.

Makes 4 quarts. D

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