Frenchie – The Statler Hilton butcher – 1970
Don the banquet chef had his full crew in place by 10 a.m. – the work in front of them was daunting. With 12 events scheduled for the day culminating in the evening banquet for 1,200 there would be no time to waste. Fortunately, much of the prep work had been accomplished over the past two days, (potatoes washed and oiled, green beans snapped and blanched, salad greens washed and spun dry, salad garnishes done, 1,500 clams casino prepped, 2,000 risotto croquettes ready for breading, mountains of mushroom caps peeled and stuffed with duxelles, canapé spreads done, parsley washed and chopped for garnish, etc.), but the finishing and service coordination would still be monumental. Six of those events were just coffee hours in the early afternoon and two were private luncheons in the Beef Baron Restaurant, so that work would be handled by the a ‘la carte line and service staff – the other four were dinners that would happen simultaneously. Two dinners were for less than 50 persons and Don assigned those to his most accomplished cook to handle entirely, the final two were the banquet for 1,200 and another for 150 – both had the same menu (a stroke of luck). Don was left with three cooks to take care of these larger events. The Executive Chef would, of course, be there at crunch time to help with plating while the sous chef would focus on support for the a ‘la carte restaurant.
As was the case with any influx of substantial banquets the hotel would bring in temporary service staff members who were hired through an outside company. For the two larger banquets this would involve 40 servers and 3 captains who were well trained, but not necessarily familiar with the Statler. Don didn’t worry much about this since the maitre’d and banquet manager were seasoned veterans of the hotel – this was their challenge, not his.
As time drew near for service, Don checked in with his trusted cooks to make sure that everything was in order for the two smaller events and all of the mise was in order for the two main dinners. The menu was very typical for the era – a standard array of passed hors d’ oeuvres – three hot (Clams casino, stuffed mushroom caps, and risotto and cheese croquettes) and a full array of cold canapés that came from garde manger. For the sit down dinner they would pre-set a tossed salad, plate the prime rib with baked potato and sauté green beans and almonds, and have the service staff follow up with table side finishing of au jus. In classic Statler Hilton style – Patsy, the pastry chef had prepared logs of Baked Alaska complete with house made spumoni ice cream, genoise cake, and beautifully piped meringue.
Staff meal was always a rush on days like this and as was usually the case servers and cooks were provided with the tasty, meaty bones from the prime ribs, baked potatoes and a left over vegetable from yesterdays events. Almost 80 staff members devoured their dinner in about 20 minutes at the 4:30 mark.
At 6 p.m. hors d’ oeuvres were being passed in the reception area outside of the Grand Ballroom and a secondary, much smaller room for the party of 150. While this was taking place the service kitchen was systematically plating dressed salads on 8 inch plates that were spread out on the kitchens more than 60 feet of stainless steel counter space, then to be transferred to Queen Anne carts so that service staff could access them quickly. In a few moments those salads would be pre-set on the 140 round tables of ten in the two banquet rooms. When guests arrived the first course would be there to greet them. The Grand Ballroom, in particular, was spectacular with crystal chandeliers, gilded railings, an opera house style mezzanine surrounding the room, lush carpeting in the colors of the hotel, doubled and ironed linen on the tables, sterling silver flatware, and a set plate emblazoned with the hotels distinctive logo. First impressions were very vivid. A string quartet was playing in the reception area during hors d’ oeuvres and would move to the dining room as soon as the doors were open.
Back in the kitchen, now that salads were taken care of, Don was directing the set-up of four service lines as cooks re-arranged the stainless tables for plating. At one end of each line there would be a carver for the beef (back in those days we could never use an electric slicer – everything was sliced by hand). Slicing would begin approximately 5 minutes before plating and then would continue until all 1,350 plus guests were served. Every pot washer, dish washer, and spare bus person was recruited for plating since Don would need 12 additional hands plus 4 runners to restock during plating. Don would handle slicing along with two of his cooks and the Executive Chef. If a ‘la carte was not too busy, then the sous chef would also jump in to assist. The assistant maitre’d became the expeditor to direct service staff during pick-up while the banquet manager saw to the orchestration of 40 servers out front.
Plates were stacked 20 high in six rows on each service line. Pans of bakers, green beans, and the first run of sliced beef were ready on one side of each line awaiting the “go” signal from the banquet manager. When the order was given, the symmetrical process of each person positioning their piece of the puzzle on plates began. After the first minute or so a rhythm was apparent as hands never crossed and plates were assembled in exact duplicate, covered and transferred to server trays. It was a thing of beauty to watch as server after server stepped forward to receive ten plates stacked securely on their trays. These servers were pros with graceful confidence and strong arms and backs as they hoisted the trays on one shoulder and marched to waiting tray stands strategically placed throughout the ballroom. As each plate was presented to a guest a second server followed with a gooseneck silver sauceboat filled with au jus. A precise ladle of au jus was placed on each person’s slice of prime rib as the presentation was deemed complete. This process continued over the next 25 minutes, table after table. Within a half hour, the kitchen and dining room staff had served 1,350 people.
With no time to waste, as soon as the last plate left the kitchen, staff members were busy washing down tables and transferring leftover food to carts for return to the kitchen. The sous chef had pulled the 140 logs of Baked Alaska from the pastry chef’s freezer 15 minutes earlier so that they had time to temper a bit before slicing. Desserts at large events at the Statler were always a highlight for guests. In the service kitchen each log was transferred to a rectangular silver platter and topped with granulated sugar. The maitre’d was stationed at the entrance to the dining room and was ready with a torch. The Executive chef stood in front of him with a carafe filled with heated brandy. The string quartet stopped playing as the banquet manager took to the microphone and announced the arrival of dessert. The lights in the ballroom were dimmed till the room was nearly black and at that precise moment the parade began. Server after server stopped for a few seconds at the exit from the kitchen while the chef doused the top of each Baked Alaska with brandy and the maitre’d lit the Baked Alaska. Imagine the scene as 140 flaming Baked Alaska’s were paraded around the perimeter of the darkened ballroom, delivered to a waiting tray stand by each table, sliced tableside and placed strategically in front of each guest. It never failed – the entire room erupted in applause. This was something that never got old – it made all of us in the kitchen feel proud of what we did for a living. The servers were experts at presenting this part of the meal as something to be remembered.
After a solid hour of cleanup Don and his crew were untying their aprons and locking away their knife kits. It was 11 p.m. – Don had been here since 6 in the morning and now he was ready to call it a day. He had managed to finish the two six packs of beer and bottle of vodka during his shift while never showing any signs of intoxication. Apparently his large frame was a friend in this regard. Even with that extraordinary amount of alcohol in his system he didn’t turn down the shift drink offered by the chef to everyone just before the kitchen lights were dimmed for a few hours until the pastry chef and breakfast crew arrived to start all over again.
Tomorrow would bring more banquets, house guests looking for a hearty breakfast, an enormous amount of planning, and all of the unknown challenges that occur every day in a busy kitchen. Some of these challenges are handled easily while others can push a kitchen team to the brink of disaster. Wait and see.
**The next installment of this story of kitchen life in the 60’s and 70’s will be released on Thursday, October 19.
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Rick Farmer said:
Thanks Chef! reminded me of my days with Chef Guy Peuch at the Water Club in New York.
Reblogged this on 53 Dodge M-37 and commented:
A Chef’s Life!