Well, here we go. I haven’t slept much at all over the past few days and certainly won’t until the weekend is over. The anxiety building up to a full house in the hotel packed with a series of food events has made it impossible to relax. The preparation has been mind boggling, now we just have to execute. Ironically, the work beforehand is more nerve-wracking than the actual production and service. Once we kick things off, I know I can depend on the team to do their work at the highest level.
It is the chef’s job to set the stage. Hours and hours of work went into planning menus, making sure that the best ingredients are ordered and in-house, scheduling staff, testing recipes and teaching others how to execute them, confirming that the right China plates are in place, and most importantly – the timing of every minute is thought thru. What can be done ahead, what items must be a ’la minute, when should ingredients arrive to ensure the best quality at time of service, how will they be plated, and can any plating be done in advance? It is the orchestration that relies on a chef’s previous experience – this is where his or her real skills are tested. The battery of cooks and service staff are the extended hands of the chef – the people who will execute a meal, an event, as it has been envisioned. This is what happens behind the scenes, this is what the rest of the team depends on.
I arrived in the kitchen way too early this morning, the first day of marathon events. There was no reason to stay at home, I had been awake most of the night anyway, might as well be awake in the kitchen where I might do something to help get the work underway. Over the past two days our kitchen crew had done as much in advance as was possible, but so much had to be done in the moment. All the meat and fish fabrication had been done yesterday, stocks were made the day before and volume sauces were well underway. The prep team had sorted, cut, trimmed, and blanched the stalks of jumbo fresh asparagus, blanched and peeled Roma tomatoes for salads, turned two hundred pounds of russet potatoes, trimmed mountains of haricot vert, and peeled 300 perfect cippolini onions for butter poaching. Today the cooking and finishing work will begin.
It was 5am and I had been in the kitchen for nearly two hours. The hoods were turned on, and ovens in the pastry department were up to temp. The morning baker had already arrived, and we were hard at work before Emmett the breakfast cook arrived. Coffee was on, Danish dough was being rolled through the sheeter, bacon and breakfast sausage was panned up and ready for the oven, and I was methodically reviewing all the production sheets and BEO’s one last time making sure I hadn’t missed anything. I walked through the coolers once again checking off advance prep and verifying the quality of ingredients. Things looked good.
Emmett arrived at 5:30:
“Morning, chef. You’re here early.”
“Good morning, Emmett. Are you ready for this?”
“I was born ready, chef.”
Normally, Emmett worked on his own. He could easily handle 125 breakfasts by himself. He really is amazing – some people are natural breakfast cooks, a job that requires speed, accuracy, confidence, organization, and the ability to dance when others would fall. Emmett had it all. This weekend, because the house was full and everyone would be coming down for breakfast, Emmett would have an assistant. Sally was not scheduled until 6am, but she walked in shortly after Emmett. She was working with us as an intern from a regional culinary program. Sally was full of energy and enthusiasm and had worked enough with Emmett over the past month that he was confident in her ability. They hit the ground running, rarely spoke, and only used eye contact to direct next steps. The dining room would open at 7am and we expected over 300 for breakfast with most arriving around 8am – crunch time. When things got intense, the morning sous chef, Scott, would expedite, and if necessary, I could jump in as well.
The event wall was filled with clip boards, each holding the food function of the day. Coffee hours, luncheons, break set-ups, and elaborate dinners for groups from 10 to 300 were on deck. At 7am, breakfast was underway, and the early crew of additional cooks were beginning prep and set-ups for additional functions that began at 10. All our ingredients were already in-house, only a produce ordered remained and we expected the truck around 9. By 8:15 the dining room was full. We had seating for 150 and there wasn’t an empty chair. A line of people was waiting for seats, so we knew that service was now on fire. Emmett and Sally were in the zone, Scott was on expo serving as liaison between front and back of the house, calling out orders, wiping the rims of plates, and setting garnishes in place. I jumped in for about 20 minutes to finish plating orders with bacon or sausage, making sure not to get in Emmett’s way, and then gracefully stepped aside when I saw they were in the zone.
Function prep was well underway by 10am. Since the house was full for one conference group, normal restaurant business had been suspended for the weekend. Lunches for the three-day conference were to be buffets so two cooks were dedicated to this. A variety of salads, poached salmon served cold with fresh mayonnaise, grilled shrimp, a different potato each day, and alternating carved meats including roast beef tenderloin with bordelaise, roast turkey with lingonberry relish, or roast loin of pork with pan gravy and fresh applesauce were accompanied by a variety of breads and desserts from our bakeshop. Since the group would fit lunch between breakout seminars, we only had a little over 90 minutes to serve 300. We offered two seatings that filled our dining room and set two buffet lines serviced by a carver at each and three food runners to keep everything stocked. While luncheons were taking place, the evening crew arrived to jump into prep for our high end, four course plated dinners in the evening. At peak time during lunch service there would be a kitchen crew of fifteen – from cooks and sous chefs to dishwashers and baking staff. Part of my job was to help keep everything moving smoothly, make sure that everyone was conscious of workspace, a clean-as-you go mentality, and focus on organization and quality assurance. As much as I would like to jump in and actually cook, these tasks were far more important. The team is good at what they do, aware of our standards, and serious about doing things right no matter how small or large the task.
Out front, the service staff is just as methodical and organized. Under the direction of our dining room managers, the service staff were busy setting and re-setting tables, clearing and serving beverages, helping our runners keep the buffets looking sharp, and attending to the needs of the guest. Once the last lunch was cleared it was all hands on-deck along with the housemen to tear down the room and re-set for more a formal, white tablecloth dinner each night. For this, silverware would be measured from the edge of the table and glassware for wines lined up using a string plumb line. Tablecloths were doubled up with a silencer cloth to keep noise down, and centerpieces were set with fresh flowers that arrived throughout the day. Selected white wines were chilled and reds were opened in advance to properly breathe.
In the kitchen, cooks were blanching and shocking vegetables, finishing sauces, making clusters of herb garnishes, searing meats, poaching shellfish, portioning desserts, and reducing coulis for Bavarians, house made ice cream and delicate cakes. At 5pm every station offered a tasting of prepared items for the evening sous chef, and I followed by a pre-meal with service staff where descriptors of dishes were offered and questions from service staff were answered.
At 7pm guests were seated using our ballroom and all ancillary restaurant space allowing us to seat the 300 hungry diners. Each place setting included a pre-set amuse bouche (single bite palate teaser). Like the conductor of a symphonic orchestra, the maitre’d signaled the start of service while her assistant helped me orchestrate the steady flow of plates from the kitchen. The amuse bouche was cleared as a fish course began to leave the kitchen. If you could put the kitchen scene to music, it would flow like a Bach concerto. The fish course was fully served within fifteen minutes giving the kitchen just enough time to clear the staging area, set new stacks of plates for the entrée and start the plating process all over again. In the pastry shop, the beautiful complex desserts that each night included something fresh, something sweet, something with texture, and a sauce were being assembled. Beautiful Bavarians with piped chocolate filagree garnishes, fresh berries, and spicy apricot coulis on the first night and cream puff swans with warm crème anglaise on the final night were being pre-set at a makeshift staging area in the hotel lobby. It was a picture of organization that took on a life of its own.
After three days of coffee hours, cocktail receptions, formal dinners, a ‘la carte breakfasts and buffet lunches. The weekend came to an end as guests checked out after their final workshop and lunch. The kitchen crew was immersed in deep cleaning mode as everything was scrubbed down, coolers re-organized, everything labeled and dated, and inventories taken so that we could begin to place orders and restock for normal business on Monday. I sat in my office with our two sous chefs, and the dining room managers as we toasted with a glass of wine. Another crazy piece of business under our belts. A team effort that most guests will never see or understand. This is what we do, it is in our DNA. Now maybe I can catch a little sleep.
The chef’s job is complex; success depends on the experiences that he or she brings to the table and the passion needed to seek excellence, always. The ability to pull off all the planning rests on the shoulders of dozens of individuals who all share that commitment to excellence. Every step, every job is important, and each person is essential.
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