It’s about 11p.m. Friday night, I’m starting to get race prep done for Sunday’s race. My good friend and room mate comes home really flustered, borderline panicked.
Actually, let’s start with a bit of history. He is an event producer, singer and actor. He has been planning this event for roughly 3 months. A sensory experience. A french evening, with fine French dining and some personalized French music. The planning that went into this was astounding. I had seen him do big gigs before, but he really spared nothing for this experience. Personally, I couldn’t wait to see the final result. About a week before, there were some concerns raised with the venue… kitchen staff, kitchen and fluidity of movement on the night being some of them. From what I could tell, raising these concerns did not go well, but end result… he was assured everything would go swimmingly.
Fast forward to Friday night, and he is frantic. The kitchen staff and chef had still not been briefed, ingredients had not been bought, nothing had been prepared. He asked for help, and my first reaction “not possible, how could 1 person make a difference in cooking for 135 people, that’s a weeks work that had to be done in an afternoon?” Ordinarily, it would probably have taken at least 3 days of prep for something like this. Recipes tried out, ratios checked and rechecked. Portions weighed out, cut and cleaned. My second reaction however,was admittedly a bit selfish, “this would be a phenomenal experience… trial by fire, after all, the hottest fires forge the strongest steel. So I agreed.
I immediately started calculating recipes, portions, and logistics I thought I could verify with the chef from the venue the next day. Assuming that he did the same research that I did. At about 2 I went to bed feeling a lot more confident that with some planning and hard work, it could be done. 6a.m. seemed early enough to get started again, I checked my measurements I’d need for the recipes and not knowing what kind of equipment they had to measure, converted everything into every unit of measure I could think of. Realizing that I wouldn’t have time to prepare for the race on Sunday, I serviced the bike and did all the usual race prep just a day early. I was ready for anything.
Getting to the venue, the atmosphere seemed a bit too casual for my liking, but I shrugged it off as just how much experience they had… it was my first time in a kitchen after all, and these guys did this for a living. Initial evaluation of the kitchen was… a bit more rustic than I had anticipated. Dark seedy and cluttered, like the kitchen of an old 80’s disco. The flow of traffic seemed to bottle neck at a narrow stairway (where only 1 person could pass at a time) between the kitchen and tables. The cooking area appeared to me to be much more industrial than I had anticipated. Not in size, but just a general feel. Not as deliberately laid out or planned as I would associate with a hangar, but a bit more dark and disorganized like I would associate someone working on a car in their garage. Not unhygenic or dirty, just dungeon-esque, movement was restricted, but I thought it would be manageable. It had 6 gas burners, a griddle and a fryer. A decent oven, and a huge electric pot that would work perfectly for the one dish. Seemed sufficient to me, time to meet the staff and get ingredients.
First warning bell starts softly tingling at the back of my head. The resident chef, knew even less that I did about the recipes. The first time I saw them was the night before, the first time he saw them, was when I showed him. The extent of his experience or knowledge was finger foods that was served at the venue, this was a totally new experience for him too… as well as the rest of the kitchen staff. It’s now 11 a.m. and we have 8 hours to get done. I am making food for the first time, with recipes I’ve never tried, for an insane amount of people. Already my heart is pumping, and excitement is building. This is fantastic! The beef needs to cook for 4 hours, the fish for 1 hour, the mushrooms 1 and… wait! Ideally I would have had most of that already done, but this is far from ideal, so we get on with it. Divide the staff into 3 groups so we can have them start the mez… (prep, cutting, cleaning, gathering ingredients and such) I start with the beef because that’s the longest dish. Staff bring ingredients…. ding ding, warning bell a bit louder. Where’s the leeks? Where’s the fennel? Forget that plan, first take stock of all ingredients and figure out what is missing. Another friend was pulled in to help,and he took care of that… without any further hitches, I am back to cooking.
The day is biting huge chunks of time by this stage. It’s already 12 and we haven’t even started preparing yet. I cancel the race knowing that making it was not a possibility, and head back to the dungeon, to start looking at measuring out the ingredients that we do have while waiting for the rest to come. Luckily the staff had already started chopping what they had… not so lucky, there was no control of quantities. They brought buckets of hacked vegetables with no way of measuring weight, how many of each, size, etc… so the recipes will be done by feel. This could get interesting. Portions judged out, settling for whatever they could give me (the fish was a bit scarce) not much time was wasted and we were ready to start cooking by 12:15. Ding ding… warning bell screaming at this stage. Of the 6 gas stove plates, only 1 worked. There are no pots to cook in. No utensils to cook with. A quick glance around, I see some big chafing dishes. Grab a few of those and throw them on the griddle. It’s slow, but it will work. The beef is pretty easy, and that gets underway without any further hiccups. The fish takes a lot of beating and whipping, so my attention was there for a while. With the fish sauce done, we only need an hour before we’re ready to plate, so that can wait. It’s 3 and I’m confident these guests will get a meal. Taste couldn’t be guaranteed, but they would get a meal.
I ascend to give a progress report, and grab a coffee. It’s already 3 and I haven’t had anything to eat yet. Now that everything is under control, it’s a good time to think about plating. It takes 3 minutes to walk from the dungeon to the tables, starters need to be out the oven by 20:00, plated and on the tables by 20:15. Mains, 40 mins after that. That is enough time, we just need to plate and keep warm… in what? Crisis! There’s 1 warmer that can keep 8 plates warm. That’s a big problem. All I can think of is keep what we can on the griddle and try to keep rotating it on and off to minimize the food drying out and trying to keep it as warm as possible. Being a French family style plating meal, meant bigger screen dishes could help with food staying warm longer.
By 7, all the food is basically done, and it gives me some time to focus on special requests. Salads, grilled fish, gluten free, nut free etc. I made a orange vinaigrette to go with asparagus and salad that wasn’t on the menu… that was a good idea, it turned out to be a life saver. Luckily, dessert was not my responsibility, so after mains I could finally relax. Starters go out without a hitch… or at least I thought so. Apparently, the salads didn’t find all their owners. Now the mad dash starts. Somehow, the orders get messed up. Wrong portions go to the wrong tables. Waiters take orders for the same tables 3 times. They don’t take orders to some tables. This draws unnecessary attention from the venue higher ups, and they decide they need to oversee the handing of plates over to the waiters. When this doesn’t solve the problem, they sent someone else to help the helper oversee us, causing further chaos. Results, colder food being added to the incorrect portions. At this point, total loss of control. All 15 extra portions of special orders were also lost. After the chaos, we had to grill more fish, a few steaks and somehow make it presentable as well as delicious. They turned out to be really good, if I say so myself.
So,I know it may seem like I’m complaining, but far from it. I’m purely showing the some of the challenges I faced, and oddly enough, the more challenges that came, the more I enjoyed. I was loving every minute of the chaos. It truly was a phenomenal experience. Looking back, I tried to think what I could have done different, but nothing comes to mind. I think, all things considered, I did a pretty stellar job… And judging by some of the feedback, I’m not the only one. I’ve heard comments like “magnifique”, “I realise there may have been a couple issues – but they did not detract from the EXCEPTIONAL food (that fish stew . . . mannnn) and our thorough enjoyment of your beautiful choice of music and your singing. ” , “food (again) exceptional,” With feedback like this, it only serves to prove that doing what you enjoy, and enjoying what you are doing is guaranteed to give good results, regardless of obvious faults or challenges.