The Unlikely Chef: Harry Gesner

At his Malibu beach house, the influential Californian architect introduces Julia Sherman to a signature dish set to feature in her new cookbook 

Photography by Julia Sherman
Harry Gesner’s architecture heightens your awareness of the sun, the horizon, the water, the overwhelming improbability of being perched on the edge of a cliff. His work is an homage to the earth itself. He sketched his most famous project, the Wave House, directly on his handmade balsa-wood surfboard, bobbing in the ocean and looking back at the land that was his to adorn.
I first learned of Harry when I stumbled upon the little-known Scantlin House (referred to now as the Trustee House), which remains hidden behind a grove of trees on the Los Angeles Getty Museum grounds. It was built in 1965 and features a swimming pool that reaches under a rock wall and into the living room, an indoor waterfall and fern garden, two fireplaces, and sweeping views of the city. As soon as I stepped foot in this mysterious building, I accepted my mission to find its creator. 
Harry stopped surfing a couple of years ago (in his eighties), but he swims in the Pacific Ocean every morning. He has adventured around the world, befriended the most eccentric of characters, and loves to tell a good story. When I finally finagled my way into Harry’s Malibu beach house, a cylindrical building anchored by a cavernous central fireplace, he put on his chef’s hat (literally) and got to work. 
Harry Gesner’s Red Fresh Dates, Marcona Almonds, and Upland Cress Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
For the dressing
1 teaspoon flavourful honey such as buckwheat
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon minced shallot
3/4 teaspoon grated tangerine zest 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
For the salad
2 cups (360 g) fresh whole dates
1/2 cup (55 g) chopped salted Marcona almonds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head Red Ruffles or Red Oak leaf lettuce
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Make the dressing: Dissolve the honey in the vinegar in a large salad bowl. Add the shallot, zest, and mustard and stir to combine. Add the oil to the dressing in a slow stream, whisking to emulsify. 
2. Make the salad: Remove the base of the dates’ stems. Smash the dates with the broad side of a chef’s knife to crack them. Remove and discard the pits and toss the fruit in the bowl with the dressing.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Toss the almonds with the oil and spread them on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, until golden brown. 
4. Wash and spin the lettuce and tear it into bite-size pieces. Toss it in the salad bowl, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat with dressing. 
5. Sprinkle the almonds on top of the salad and serve immediately.
This is an excerpt from Julia Sherman’s forthcoming book, Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists, available May 16. For more information, click here.