A recent critique of my work has given me pause, it was conflict less and innocent of any malicious intent. But all the same, when some one questions your way of doing things it all ways rouses that paranoid part of your mind that makes you ask yourself, “Have I erred?” And this thought always sends me back to the beginning. Did I do this right? Was this the path in which I should have traveled? And I walk through my logic, my reasoning, and as long as I’m firm in my resolution through the gaze of hindsight I know I can continue on in earnest confident that the road I walk is the correct one. Even if I fail to make friends along the way. Because no matter how constructive it is, criticism is still basically saying you’re wrong, and no one deep down wants to hear that no matter how removed from the situation they are. But I strive to see their point of view, because they are not me, and as we all know. There are of hell of a lot more of them than there are of us.
So whilst I walk down memory lane I recall my first event, as the KM (Kitchen Manager for those outside the industry, hence my signature.) and what went right and wrong.
I think we all like to start with the best intentions when taking on the onerous task of a new job. As long as you aren’t jaded and actually want the job I’d like to think we all try to do our best at the get go, put your best foot forward, and start as you mean to go on. I’m a fervent believer that if you don’t want to work where you are you shouldn’t because there’s almost certainly some one around who will that doesn’t need their arm twisted. But I’m rambling.
The event was a unique one on multiple levels for me. For starters, it was the wedding for our very own sales manager Moe, at long last tying the knot with her long time cohort Jeremy out in the Nisqually Valley at the very rustic Red Barn. I’ve only been there once and direly want to go back. The rural appeal is a breath of fresh air after spending far too much time cooped up in windowless hell that was Jazzbone’s kitchen. Best of all, the barn had been renovated with new electricity, and the kitchen was full stocked with a fridge, shelving, plenty of sink space, and stomping room. Vital things to any catering kitchen not often found in off site locals. It was also unique in that it was the previous Chef’s last day/event and she was off the moment we stepped foot on the grounds.
At first things were fine, I had everything organized and set up in record time, even asked the lead if there was anything I could help her with. This elicited a quirked eye brow; apparently the back of the house never meddled with the front or vice versa. For you see, I had only ever worked Part Time/ On Call before this night for AGA. And most of that spent in the shop its self helping Caroline crank out trays or bulk prep, never actual onsite cheffing. (Yes, that would be a culinary verb, to chef. And if it wasn’t before it is now!) I quickly learned, like many revisiting a field left to rust in their minds that it looks a great deal easier than it is. From the get go problems started to crop up. Small things like the sauce was flimsy, the apples had to be acquired from the site it’s self and instructing new or rather poorly trained servers on where to put what where.
I was ill prepared.
I was with out aid.
I was completely boned.
I had swore to myself after the last time I quit catering for the god forsaken restaurant field that I would be a milder man, a kinder man, and more understanding man. But when the pressure started to mount I found myself falling into old patterns of barely controlled rage and caustic comments that withered what little server courage there was to start with. New job, new role, same mistakes. Looking back now it was almost all my fault, not something I’d normally admit so readily but that’s what happens when you take the details that are oh so pivotal to our industry fom granted.
The menu unfurled before me and despite my best efforts things did not go according to plan. . . .
For the appetizers we had an overwhelming five for 100 people, two at a station and 3 passed. The stationary one held Veggie Cakes and the Tapenade trio. Having never seen either of these in action I didn’t know the veggie cakes absorbed the sauce quickly so pre-saucing them is a bad idea. And as for the pita that went with the trio of sauces, well, smaller triangles would have made them easier to eat.
The three passed items were smoked salmon scones, duck flautas, and Italian stuffed mushrooms. The salmon was dry, but then again I didn’t make it, I was just responsible for it. The duck dish wilted in the cambro on the hour long ride there, making for a greasy wanton wrapped bit of cream cheese and duck. The mushrooms faired the best in appearance, but we had the fewest of them prepped so they ran out too quickly. Though that in the end was my fault as well for not noticing how often the servers were taking them over the other two.
But it wasn’t all bad, chalked up to a learning experience the food has improved a thousand fold from that day as I learned how to adapt her menus to my style. The veggie cakes now have a bit of flour in them, making them denser and more cake like, keeping them moist and less absorbent. The Tapenade trio got a rework, and my thyme butter pita bread is eaten out of hand just as much as it is slathered with spread. The duck was removed from general service, its fragility making it unsuitable for general catering work where a fryer isn’t readily available. But if some one does order it, I can make it in the Rangoon style, so it won’t wilt, fall apart, or need cutting. The mushrooms are always worked in mass and we’ve yet to run out for them on an event.
Work. Learn. Rework. Succeed!
The buffet I found, was wrought will other kinds of traps and pitfalls previously unknown to me. For instance: our Melons, Berries, and More. The “More” bit was supposed to be dried fruit, nuts, and other sweet things to accent the platter. Previous to then, I had only really used the cut fruit with perhaps the pineapple top as garnish. (Though I was against the pineapple top even back then, strikes me as VERY 80’s) The salad, one of Moe’s favorites, was made too soon because the buffet open time got pushed back and it was foolishly the first thing I made. The Veradura Platter (A veggie tray with marinated, roasted and grilled items for those not familiar) had not been allowed to drain before assembly, and the juices made the bottom bits soggy. So now I use a different tray and always pat dry my purgables. (Gonna need my own dictionary if I keep this up.) The Rissoni Gusto, a bastardisation between risotto and orzo, had too much browned butter and not enough of the good stuff. The sundried tomatoes, the artichoke hearts and what not that really makes the dish, instead of just another hot pasta salad.
The Blackened Salmon Alfredo really struck a nerve with me. For starters, the sauce was separate to prevent the pasta from going mushy. But once cooked and held warm the pasta continues to break down regardless of how the sauce is on it. The salmon was of low quality, greasy, over cooked, and not nearly enough of it. And as I mentioned earlier, the cream sauce broke in transit. After much tinkering the sauce is now on the pasta, and has held as far south as Tibits Creek. We haven’t sold that dish again, but if we do, I have an awesome blackening rub stolen liberally from the Creole recipes I lifted from my predecessor from Jazzbone’s Kitchen. The carne asada was really the only thing I couldn’t gripe about. It was moist, flavorful, and had I remembered the bowls for the pico de gallo it would have been smashing. The Chicken Apple Riesling Roulades were a bit of a nightmare; apparently it was status quo to cut them on site. But that raises all kinds of problems as they’re messy, you can’t reheat them onsite generally. And it’s harder to get accurate portioning when you’re under the gun to get it out pronto. Now they’re par cooked, sliced, and baked the day of. Other than the odd complaint that they’re dry at the end of service of 45 minutes the problem is solved. (I think a little extra broth in the sauce will extend their buffet life to an hour.)
The Rosemary Reds (Potatoes) were cooked alright, but didn’t have enough sauce or rosemary in them to give them a definitive flavor. Now we use a mixture of dried and fresh in a butter sauce to bring out the full body that those spuds deserve. The bread situation was also new, Essential Breads out of Seattle, make some of the most awesome loaves I’ve ever had the privilege of sinking my teeth into. They need to be cut onsite when possible as they go stale fairly quickly, and the company standard is to artfully arrange them between two dishes on the buffet it’s self. I did not know this and was swearing up a blue streak when I couldn’t find the bread basket that was never meant to be there in the first place.
So there I was, fuming and practically foaming at the mouth when Moe and Jeremy came into the kitchen to thank me personally for making their event so wonderful and I was dumb struck. They either didn’t notice, or didn’t care that things had gone so rockily. They hadn’t seen me running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to put out one fire as another cropped up.
They were content.
They couldn’t be more pleased.
They looked forward to more of my work.
So I learned a few valuable lessons that day:
1) I am on my own, because I’m the only one that knows what needed to be done as far as the back of the house goes.
2) Don’t Panic. (Points if you get the reference.) Chances are the client will never know anything went wrong unless it’s blatantly obvious or you tell them. And if they don’t care, why ruin the evening?
3) Mistakes will happen. There is no such thing as a perfect event. And while we should strive for it, something out of our control will always crop up.
4) Never give up. You can always come back and do it again. And again. And again.
So it is with this thought of constant renewal that I journey down the road to Chefdom. It’s taken me to places I never expected to go and I’ve had to endure all kinds of odd situations. (Kinda like a trip to Mexico) But I’m determined to enjoy it, even if it kills me. Because despite all the trouble, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.