Archive for June, 2009

Summer Grind and Mellon Rinds

June 30, 2009

I’m so tired.

And happy.

But really tired.

And really happy.

Ever since I can recall I’ve been a nose to the grind stone kind of guy. I’m always happiest whilst toiling away on some project or another in the kitchen, knocking out prep list item after item. Looking up and pondering where the sun went while I wasn’t looking or exclaiming my surprise to my worn out cohorts that I can’t believe it’s NO WAY o’clock. It’s been a while since I’ve done 6 events in three days and I definitely gave my shoes a run for their money with all the running around. That familiar ache that one gets after standing for 24 of 48 hours in the lower calf and Achilles’ heel. I can find few greater joys than reestablishing the calluses on the pads of my hands or the light twinge one feels holding the tools of your trade all day. Makes that beer at the end of the shift extra tasty as well as earned. (Calorie wise any how)

Granted, most of the work was comprised of Party Platters. Those ingenious orders comprised almost solely of trays of food. No servers. No buffet clouding. No chaffing dishes. No onsite work other than setting it up, wishing the client good luck, and getting the hell out of there in a timely fashion. To me, it is the greatest exhibition of a Chef’s food when it’s the star of the show and there’s no pomp and circumstance to cloud the vision of your dish. Décor and ambiance are nice and all, and definitely have their place in more sophisticated events. But if it’s grandpa’s 76th, or junior graduated from high school why waste the money when all you really want is a quick and high quality meal with out slaving the day away in your dinky kitchen when there’s a perfectly willing and able professional out there just waiting to make your event really pop.

I’ve tried doing the same thing at home I do at work and it’s always messier, more expensive, and time intensive than in a professional setting. And I do this kind of thing for a living! And it’s not like I’m trying to sell anybody on this catering thing, it generally does that for its self, (With the ample marketing and not-so-subtle nudges in the right direction.) any money you save doing it yourself is lost on labor and clean up. And WE bring it right to your table, not even Dominos can make that claim. Though depending on your delivery driver I could understand wanting to keep them on the porch.

At any rate, the wedding last weekend was phenomenal, and I don’t use that word lightly. The menu was excellently balanced and left no hole unfilled. (That one’s for you Caroline, like back in the day.) The appetizers were simple, clean, and authentically tasty. The well used and always appreciated Italian Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms complete with fresh thyme, oregano, and parsley combined with the sweet and salty pork really complimented the chewy earth flavor of the fungus. I don’t normally care for stuffed mushrooms but I felt no qualms at all that they didn’t go through all we made. Myself and Nick demolished those things and left no survivors. The other baguette laden app was our blushing pear bruschetta. A tropical treat consisting of freshly roasted macadamia nuts, merlot blanched pear reduced down so dark you’d swear you’re eating an odd textured plum, and a brie spread that leaves nothing to the imagination as to what it is.

 My only gripe there was the baguette it’s self, my usually supply bit the dust when it got wet in the walk-in. The condenser that drips water into the catch pan that drains outside the building got backed up and made some rather unique but culinarily useless science experiments. So settling for the local items a hop, skip, and jump away from the shop were both expensive and lower quality. But needs be as the devil drives and we made it work. The trick turned out to be that we pre-made the items and let the moisture from the brie spread soak into the baguette. The mouth feel was a little off but it was passable and I heard not a complaint so I must be doing something right?

The buffet it’s self is where things really get interesting. You see, on one side of the wedding party or another there was some islander blood and it shown through in their food choices. So off the beaten path of traditional Franco-American cuisine we trekked into the dark depths of quasi-tropical eats. The first item was a torte I’d never made before consisting of grilled run soaked pineapple, macadamia nuts, and perfectly toasted coconut. I had folks poking their head in all afternoon when I was handling that coconut. I swear, I should get a stipend from all the local eateries for making the residents above me in my building hungry all the time! Next came the Moroccan Fruit and Nut salad, comprised of more macadamia nuts (I love them things!), blood oranges, mint, cinnamon, spring mix (which has finally reached its seasonal peak), and sliced candied dates. I used blood orange concentrate to make vinaigrette that really sang. Not too sweet or too tangy, nor cloying like some of the citrus vinaigrettes can get at times. I also liked the mint in there, kinda threw the pallet for a loop with all the other flavors.

Another buffet oddity was our Pomegranate Chicken, something I’ve only made once before and apparently not correctly the first time around. The walnut flour coated chicken tenders were golden brown grilled and then glazed in a pomegranate white balsamic reduction. It was sweet, and early, and very very nice on top of the next dish, which was Lemon Grass Coconut Risotto. I haven’t made that stuff since culinary school back in ‘0 bloody 4! But like a duck to water I started that lemon grass coconut infusion hours ahead of time, which turned out to be a good thing. Because with all the other events going on that week I had left this one last, as it was in house at Suite 100, and it was my event. I was literally pulling the risotto out of the oven to place into a chaffing dish pan to go out on the buffet. We’re talking seconds from done to on the run here folks.

But all in all it was a pleasant event. There was bread, and a veggie platter to round out the menu for those less adventurous in their culinary exploits. As well as a live action crepe station, complete with three fillings and sauces instead of wedding cake. Very original, and more welcoming than another generic slice of butter cream laden white sheet cake. (You’d figure a group that goes to school as long as the Foodies do would have come up with some more main stream originality?)

Now to enjoy that faux-hito in the sun on my deck.

Kitchen’s closed.

-KMCD

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Longest Day of the Year

June 22, 2009

Solstice.

The ancient observance denoting the fact that the heavenly spheres are moving towards one of their respective extremes. In this case, Summer Solstice, and what better excuse do you need to put on your Sunday’s finest (which for me is still a chef coat) and drink the day away in sunny Tacoma. The longest day of the year has been a long time nemesis of mine, favoring the dark night as I do, the Day Star’s wrath has been a thorn in my side since I learned what a sun burn was. I have had to since abandon my gothic pale roots in favor of the farmer’s tan I now sport due to my morning commute. After years in the restaurant industry, lightless and windowless dungeons they were, the concept of a window is a largely enviable accoutrement to any chef’s domain. Even if it is a tad annoying for those “up with the sun” brunches.

The dinner was planned months in advance, after our earlier idea of a St. Patties’ day event got scrapped in lieu of guaranteed cash flow. The concept was sound: good food, great booze, a decent band, and an okay locale. For what we charge the waiter at El Gaucho would sneer at you and they don’t even have a view. But despite Tacoma’s slow and inexorable march towards class, (if the $180 bucks a night at the Marriot Courtyard is indicative of), our turn out was less than desirable. The room was festive, wild flowers from the local markets everywhere. Brilliantly colored linens with intricate center pieces, and not a bug in sight. The cocktail hour went smashingly, the plated salad a tad less enthusiastic, and the buffet it’s self followed by dessert station was a hit. But alas, despite the best attempts of Monica, Moe, and Heather our count was low and thus a wash. Sometimes being the chef just isn’t enough, and I know my cohorts did their best. So where did we go wrong? True, it is the first event of its kind (and had this one made money the first of many) and the word was definitely spread out digitally and IRL. I suppose its back to the drawing board, after all, there’s Christmas Parties to shoot for.

But if you were here to listen to me whine about failure I’d just link you to my livejournal. On to the food!

The appetizer portion was split into two attacks: a station and passed varietals. The stationary ones were Green Gazpacho Martini Glasses with Crab and Fruit Skewers with Passion Fruit Dipping Sauce. The Gazpacho was still too thick to slurp from the glass it’s self. I’ve either got to come up with a veggie stock recipe that doesn’t taste bad chilled or just dump a lot of good wine in because you shouldn’t need a fork to eat soup. And don’t tell Monica but I had this interesting idea (that follows along the lines of stupidly labor intensive and annoying) where we stuffed the crab into one of those over sized cocktail olives you see at Tacoma Boys or other upper end olive bars. The fruit skewers looked pretty with their pineapple, honeydew, fig, and strawberry but as always no one ever eats them. I shoulda just put it on the buffet for some color so they could be usefully annoyed instead of breaking them all down Monday morning for staff fruit salads.

The passed ones were more successful but just as lopsided. The veggie cakes with the new Lemon Thyme Topper were very popular amongst carnivores and sissies alike. (Hey, I may be an ass but I hold no love for those that deny themselves the sultry goodness that comes from animal sacrifice.) I’m always pleased when a staff member that hasn’t tried it yet gets swayed from the onion relish that used to top those suckers. Better living through condiment superiority. The new item, grilled fig gorgonzola toasts with thyme honey was hit and miss. The fig was flavorful, and the gorgonzola a creamy foil for the oily fruit. But drizzle of honey (which I was quite frankly surprised at how well it took to the thyme) was too sporadic in concentration. On guest said it was too much and cloyingly sweet, another too little and the balance with gorg was out of whack. I have hence proposed to make a walnut gorgonzola spread to put down on the baguette and candy the fig slices in the honey. Adding a much needed crunch and giving the honey a water proof platform to stand out on instead of making soggy bread.

Next the salad, a composed number on plates borrowed from Jonz Catering in a trade off for other services rendered. They have some really neat avant garde china ware that I would be willing to beg, plead, and generally swindle for. Gone are the days when the round gothic or oval espree patterned plates cut the mustard. Now we have bowls, squares, trapezoids, and many other shapes that mangle the eye and physics. But these petite plates were a touch small for my original intent. Despite my misgivings they were well received and I look forward to acquiring my own in the not so distant future. (If for no other reason than my own nefarious purposes.) The salad it’s self was a composed on consisting of chopped spinach, crumbled feta, white balsamic pickled red onion, and minted mandarin oranges. Though next time I think I’ll forgo the pretty arrangement for a tossed version as all the vibrant colors of the ingredients stand out on their own.

The buffet was ironically simple, as this crew generally favors the large and lavish type. Poor planning on my part held a buffet that held no hot items, the only cold ones present in the apps and the plated salad. We start off with an Orzo Primavera Orzo, composed of grilled artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, olives, and a roasted shallot olive oil and a heaping helping of parm to keep the natives from getting restless. We do so love our cheese at AGA. Next came the vegetable dish, stuffed tomatoes. Yes, I reached deep into my culinary school past for this time honored tidbit but it has always served me well and it did so again this last weekend. The carved beef steaks were a little under stuffed but the roasted corn, smoked Gouda, and vegetable medley bound with panko even sung for me a staunch tomato nay-sayer. I like them in sauces or a salad, but whole and hot generally don’t hack it for me. Needless to say I cleaned my plate of it despite many of the guests only eating the cores. Can’t blame them, all the flavor was there.

The other starch present were our Rosemary Reds, and after many years of spud preparation I have found the golden ratio of fresh to dried to give that earthy yet sweet balance to that oft sought after tuber. Borrowing once more from my past, the addition of Worcestershire sauce (something you don’t often see in potatoes) really helps cut at the butter and gives a different mouth feel as far as saltiness goes. Next came the rolled flank steak roulades, I swear, I need someone sensible to beat me about the head and shoulders during our staff meetings when I suggest these bloody items. The concept was simple enough: combine the quick and tender skewer method of cooking with the moisture saving formation of a flank steak roulade. The result was mostly as planned.

The filling ended up being a bit bland, but it absorbed the balsamic vinaigrette well and did indeed keep the steak moist. How ever even whilst slicing it in the meat lollipop style I determined the meat filling would stick to the grill tines so I chose to 9/10ths cook them in the oven and give the grill a shot at some color and presentation. If I had to do it again (and knowing my own big mouth we will) I would flat top grill them to keep them disc like and give them some real golden color that comes from ample fat and a little finesse.

The last item was one so popular we actually ran out the last time I made it. A HUGE culinary taboo and one made fairly early in my career with AGA, and one I’ve yet to repeat, thank god. A cedar plank smoked salmon with pear cider glaze. Sophisticated, popular, and always a crowd pleaser this dish is. Until that day anyway. Some way, some how, the salt cure I used the night before was just too strong. (Like my criticism I laid it on too thick.) I also wanted to smoke the fish longer but we had guests showing up and the idea of carrying red hot metal through a crowed ballroom on my way to the kitchen smelled of pain and lawsuits. The flavor was there, but hidden under dryness and salt. We still went through 8 sides of it so it couldn’t have been all bad, but it definitely could have been better.

Dessert was something that changed from moment to moment for me. In the beginning I imagined a plated dessert akin to the salad, but as this wasn’t a scheduled event like a wedding or bar mitzvah that would have been impossible. We had a hard enough time getting the people to sit down for the salad, let alone wrangling them in for a final course. Then the concept would be one similar to an event we did for the TCC Alumni party we did a while back where there’d be three tiered trays of varying types and styles but that got scratched when we realized there’d be nothing on the table as far as a center piece goes until dessert came out and that would ruin the look. Lastly we settled for a station where the appetizers were, and that turned out to be the best. I really like the Plexiglas and glass block tower though I wish it were wider and not as deep. Makes it hard for some one with ham fists like me to reach into the back for the delicate morsels.

The items were numbered three, nor more, no less, and five was right out. (Points for the reference) The first was a Lemon Curd Tartlet with strawberry slice garnish. I wish I had the ability to swirl a strawberry compote into it instead by alas I lack the knowledge. Next came a chocolate mousse cup with white chocolate drizzle. This was widely popular and easy to make, a staple for Mini-Dessert Platters me thinks. Lastly came the big disappointment of the evening. The banana cream bouche with grilled plantain. For starters, I didn’t pay attention to my order when it came in and got dark chocolate mousse instead of white, so the color was off. The banana concentrate REALLY tasted like bananas, not that plasticy artificial banana flavor you get in kids drinks. And sadly the plantains were just too under ripe to sweeten up on the grill when I had a crack at them. I really should have ordered them earlier in the week and done them the day of instead of ordering the day of. I’d also shred them and bake them for better color and texture. Now that would be a banana cream pie to write home to mom about.

All in all the event went well. I dunno if we’ll do another of its type, so far the feeling is no. People are just too used to getting free food at our open houses that the concept of paying for an event (no matter what the quality is) is alien to them. But we’ve learned and we know what to do for next time. Either way I’ll have lemonade all week to drink and that’s worth the trouble alone.

Kitchen’s closed.

-KMCD

Looking Back Part 1

June 18, 2009

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.

Kitchen’s Closed.

-KMCD

NACE with grace

June 17, 2009

In a field of entertainers we do so love to show off for one another. You’d think that after spending most of our cognicent waking hours toiling away for the parties of others we’d all just sit down in a bar and chat, complain, and trade war stories over cocktails and snacks. But if the National Association of Catering Executives has anything to say about it, we party on in the style of and some times better than, our clientele.

Case and point yesterday, at our very own Suite One Hundred (SOH for short), where the movers and shakers of the Tacoma Guild made their monthly meeting in the CTA building. Sadly, we drew the “Healthy” meeting package, an expose of how small changes in the diet can have tremendous results. This is some what regrettable as our general feel is something more upper class and extravagant. Our events are those times where you’re cheating this week because it’s so and so’s birthday, or wedding, or just cause it looks delicious. So we settle for a menu that nods at something healthy, but by and large it was our tag line: “A grand affaire, at a great value.” And being on the inside doing a good chunk of the purchasing I definitely think our group got it’s monies worth.

We had a stationary appetizer buffet which held a new version of the Gorgonzola Rose Petal, and a new item, Saltim Bocca bites. Monica had built a Plexiglas and clear block tower which hosted our new four compartment trays. Which I really want to use for a seated appetizer menu or wine tasting. A little something different in each one, with sauce and garnish. On the other hand, as my buddy Nick pointed out. Left to my own devices I have a nasty tendency to choose projects and ideas that are very labor intensive and annoying to the back of the house. Food items that I would be staunchly against if one of the ladies suggested them. Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment so long as I’m the one serving it, but I’ve gotten off track.

The Gorgonzola Rose Petals were very pretty, though the petals themselves were a bit large for our purposes. The Red Onion Relish with Pecan and Gorgonzola mousse had a pop of flavor but became flimsy if you had to take more than one bite. And if you have any sort of manners at all, you would for petals that size. I am happy to report after tinkering with the recipe I’ve finally learned how to candy nuts like Nick does. Before they always came out over done or bound together like peanut brittle. This only comes to mind because we’ve topped the dish with a candied pecan.

(Now before I start to get crap about not knowing how to candy nuts, ask yourself this: how bloody often does a standard dinner or catering chef need to candy nuts? Yes they covered it in school but I sucked at it then and to be honest I didn’t take full advantage of my two week pastry rotation. Down with Pasties, long live Foodies!)

Though with a throw back to last weeks post about food that induces a chef’s visual foodgasim response this would be it. If I had my way I’d serve that in a booth at Cater Source next year come winter. It looked THAT good. The Saltim Bocca bites were a bit of let down. To be honest, I left it to the end, and as I had to get the fish fresh off the truck (moar on that later) I was running out of time and told Nick to just deal with it. Something I’ve been burned on in the past, but to be fair, I can’t exactly expect perfect results when I don’t make it clear what those results should be.

Another odd habit of mine, when ever we put on an event for general populace consumption instead of say for a specific client’s family or organization we always choose things that are untested or worse experimental. I’m only now realizing the problem with this, as menus that have been unbroken and run wild are wont to throw you for unexpected loops. Case and point the Saltim Boccas. For starters, they were too dense. The mixture of egg and panko that made the for lack of a better term “meat ball” wasn’t in proper proportion to the chopped raw chicken. This also cut down on the chicken flavor that was really necessary to pull the dish off. I’ll definitely up the ration to 4 to 1 and mix some fresher cheeses like Gouda, brie, or even mozzarella to balance the dry sharpness of the parm.

But what the bites lacked in flavor they made up for in style. They had the shape of what would happen if you mixed a corn dog bit with a bacon wrapped scallop. The prosciutto wrap shrunk down in the fryer and hugged the meat ball tightly, whilst the fresh sage leaf between the two poked out from the sides still green and flavorful. They came out a little dark, but reducing the size and par frying them before finishing them in the oven will really perfect this dish.

The passed appetizer was a Green Gazpacho with Crab shooter. I was most leery of this dish because I had only made gazpacho once, eaten it thrice, and liked none of them. The mixture of raw ingredients just didn’t call out to me and while a tomato is a great food, I can find better applications for it elsewhere. But this green variety, partially altered for catering uses from the Herb farm book was perfect to round out the appetizer trio. It was cool, refreshing, had a good chomp too it with out being overly rich like the other two. And best of all, easy to serve and bright green. Call me juvenile but I’ve always had an appreciation for bright colors in my food.

The salad course was a new twist on an old favorite. I’ve been making Caprese salads for years, and they never piqued my interest one bit. To me a salad composed of three items is a sign insufficient ingredient, not avant garde cookery. And to be fair, this one had five, but the five impressed even Moe, our resident sales manager and avid salad consumer. The base was a series of heirloom tomato slices; I tried to make it so every one got a piece of each type. (Heirlooms being strange in that they come in different shapes, colors and sizes despite the singular name.) The rich purple almost brown mixed with the summery yellow. Paired with the smooth almost beef steak slices to rival the wavy odd ball ones that came from some long lost aberration of evolution. To which a faint sprinkling of CAPS (Colin’s All Purpose Seasoning, yes we have a bucket of it in the kitchen labeled as such and no you can’t have the recipe.) Followed by extra virgin olive oil, the pure and expensive stuff. Not that watered down pomace crap. The real deal. Cap that with a couple of breaded and pan fried goat cheese slices for flavor, texture, and FAT. To which we finish the dish with some chiffonade basil and balsamic reduction. (The tangy sweet sauce that the staff lovingly refer to as motor oil.)

Served with this was a house made Pesto Spiral Loaf with Smoked Shallot Butter. Sadly, the dish just didn’t come out how I wanted. If I were to do it again I would make a thinner pesto, almost a paste and wring all the moisture out of it. That way there’s less weight when the bread goes through its second rise. As it was, the final product was some what flat and the rings of bright green pesto not as prevalent as one would hope. By it’s self it was average at best. But slather on some of that “I will take the recipe with me to the grave” shallot butter and the dish came alive. I guess there is just no separating bread and butter.

The main course, served in the largest bowl I’ve ever seen on a plated meal, came the thyme infused cous cous with Romesco Halibut. It could be my upbringing, or my training, or perhaps my job experience but I’ve never really had a lot of call or use for cous cous. It’s certainly a cheap pasta, easy to cook and maintain. And it’s striking me more and more as an invaluable staple for the aspiring chef. (Not that I qualify, but all the same.) This held flavor and heat well with out getting tacky like rice or over cooked orzo. The halibut was perfect, could not complain in any way. And coming from the eternal pessimist that’s saying something. I literally watched them butcher the fish and back the sides in ice that morning when I picked it up from Northern Fish off of 56th. If you’re a lover of anything that swims or crawls in the sea stop on by and check out their retail outlet there or down on Ruston Way. They do fast, inexpensive and best of all, high quality work. Followed by a traditional Romesco style sauce, it was the perfect accompaniment to the fish and the cous cous. Mike from the Landmark was so impressed he poked his head in the kitchen and thanked me personally. And considering the size and volume they do DAILY over there, that’s a compliment.

This was all well and good so far, folks had enjoyed the informative speaker and were enjoying their second round of drinks when Monica and Monique made their way to the front and had a small stage show to explain the dessert. They had chosen a flambé, bravely enough, because if I had to stand in front of my peers wearing clothing that isn’t strictly flame retardant like my coat you’d have to herd me toward the stage with a whip in one hand an my paycheck in the other. Could be my paranoia, but the concept of lighting things on fire in a place not designed for it harbors all kinds of problems but the ladies went on ahead undaunted so far be it from me to hinder them. I went through it with them once and was fine, dusting off that old knowledge imparted into my by Professor Mac Cabe from SSCC (Now retired and living in France with his boyfriend I believe) as he was the front of the house instructor. I was surprised, I didn’t even light the airy lace overlay the table was decked out with on fire. Then Monique gave it a shot, a little clunky but not bad for some one who doesn’t sling pans for a living. The main stage show was only interrupted when it became evident that when Monica came back for the dishes base I didn’t give her the finishing sauce so they had to call back to the kitchen for it.

The dish it’s self, was triple berry stuffed crepes with Chambord sauce, white chocolate drizzle, and chocolate covered strawberry for garnish. They, like much of the meal, were a hit and the staff in particular was quite voracious when it came to devouring them. In the beginning I was worried the crepes wouldn’t hold up long enough in the oven with the macerated berries inside as they were purging their juices long before they made it to the plate but the crepes were of excellent quality and soaked it all up after the initial purge. The only thing I would have done differently is display it on a larger plate, but that had precious little to do with the food quality it’s self and after seeing how much stuff was on the table they needed all the space they could get.

So all in all, a job well done. Many thanks were given and I’d like to think I accepted them all graciously. I look forward to next year when we don’t just have health to worry about. Now give me something like cheese to work with and I can pull all kinds of tricks that would impress even the most jaded member of my industries heart.

Kitchen’s Closed.

-KMCD

Rival Frivolity Part 1

June 11, 2009

It is rare in this day and age I think, where one invites the competition to an open house. In years past it was a display of power, proof positive that you were confident in your craft and they are restricted to the sidelines watching your prowess unfold on unwitting guests. But we live in a land of industrial espionage and back stabbing back room deals. Where as once it was a chance to pay homage to those that you suffer with in your field of choice now it is a calculated risk full of worry, intrigue and general malcontent.

This is sad because I personally love a challenge.

When I’m invited to an open house that says to me, “This is my best, I invite you do to better, punk.” And I love this kind of open challenge! So often are we restricted from real emotion in catering, constantly having to prostrate ourselves before ungrateful guests and humorless hosts that the very spirit of business is beaten out of us by bottom lines and bean counters. And thus a challenge was issued yesterday in Seattle. The Powers That Be insist I keep things anonymous to avoid legal battles and other lawful trifles but those that were there or heard about will know exactly who I’m referring to.

The event site, tucked away in sleepy industrial George Town, WA came complete with its own biker bar across the street. Lemme tell you, there are few sights funnier than the gentlemen elite having to park and circumvent their grittier neighbors. But no cross words were said or threats made so all in all the physical location of the building met my standards for interest. The building it’s self is an aging brick number that hadn’t been used for it’s initial purpose as a brewery in decades, and this rustic charm is preserved on the outside. You can feel the bygone eras wafting from the pitted brick and ancient lamp lighting. But inside it was a different story.

The concrete floor was brushed to with in an inch of its life and smooth as the day it was poured. The high vaulted ceilings, 50 feet or more up, were all painted as clean and white as the walls supporting them. And in the setting afternoon sun you can still see the traceries of the brick that lies just beneath a coat of paint. The large bay windows, reminiscent of the factory style of the industrial revolution were clean and allowed plenty of natural light in. The only complaint I could muster was that it was very warm and no source of climate control could be found outside of opening the two double doors to the shaded and very large parking lot. (On a side note for all caters reading this and caught unawares at this sight. There are 6 very steep stairs leading to the front entrance so either bring a ramp or travel light, you will be hand hauling things.)

The decor, I only mention because it was done well despite my lack of interest in such things, was a calm motif with old world charm.

And now on to my favorite part, the Food! First the Appetizers:

At a station we had Crab Cakes with Cumin Sauce, Spicy Chicken Wantons, and Starfruit with Ahi. These were presented by an offshoot company part of the whole but doing business in other sectors. I didn’t have any official names for these dishes as there was no signage or person explaining things, but as an industry member I had little trouble discerning the goal intended.

The Crab was colored strangely, no unappealing but not my cup of tea either. There were presented well on micro greens and garnished lavishly. There were VERY crabful, almost 80 percent as such, and they appeared to be done in the dumpling style with egg and flour or possibly tempura flour based on the color and texture. The cumin sauce was good, but it lacked dimension. Perhaps some finely minced red pepper or onion. Some variance of texture and flavor. My only suggestion would be to keep them hot in a small chaffing dish instead of tray. Crab cakes always struck me as a hot item; where as the cold style reminds me of a deli class presentation.

The Spicy Chicken Wanton cups were interesting to say the least. I’m curious as to how they got the cups to form like that, as they appeared to be house made, and fresh by the flavor and crunch. I envision a variation where the wanton wrapper is cut into a shape and pressed into a mold under the oil similar to a taco salad bowl. The chicken inside was flavorful and had just a kick of flavor to round off the dish. I couldn’t be certain but I think the green chunky sauce inside was a chimichuri, and a rather well crafted one. The only real downside to the dish was they were a might bit too large for two bites, even for my big mouth, and fell apart after your compromised the wantons structural integrity. But best of all, and this is a marvel the more I sample other folk’s food, the wantons weren’t over cooked and crumbly, or undercooked and oily. They were just right, and this is harder to achieve than one might be led to believe.

The last item was a Starfruit AKA Camambola and Ahi Tuna snack. It was by far the most beautiful and decadent of the three hands down. I would expect to see something similar in a Food and Wine Magazine cover or centerfold. This is the kinda avant garde visual that gives aspiring cooks food boners. The Ahi was well seared, with a moist pink center and given a light coat of black and white sesame seeds. Sadly, there was little tuna flavor but unless you buy the Grade A sushi product it’s hit and miss on the flavor. There was a creamy drizzle as well as a fruit and veggie salsa garnishing it, like a firework of explosive color, flavor and texture. The only real downer to the dish was the camambola, it’s bland flavor, albeit excellent texture, dominated the dish and it was just supposed to be the platform. And while I complain I’m hard pressed to come up with solution. A marinade would make it even more over powering, grilling would make the watery fruit purge and make it flimsy. Cut it any thinner and it wouldn’t be able to support the rest of the dish. I could see it as a pallet cleansing course part of a much larger dinner but not as a stand alone item.

Next were the two passed appetizers, bleu cheese endive and a beef tartlet.

I heard mixed reviews on the endive, but I always hear mixed reviews on endive. It is a hold over from our French inspired past and while it’s making a come back in the more blue collar arena it remains a more sophisticated item complete with over extravagance and opulence. A hard sell in today’s day an age of cut backs and down sizing, but still welcome on the occasional show of plenty. I thought the damn things were awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly. The bleu cheese was nice and smooth with out being over powering, and the walnuts were small and easy to chew.

The beef tartlet was another matter, while the shell was a new item to me. A small bready tart shell instead of the more traditional pastry dough I would be eager to get my hands on such a product for my own nefarious purposes. But industry secrets are to be kept close to the chest so it’s off to do some research and development of my own. The filling was quite the disappointment, despite the medium cooked and moist roast beef the large cut sage and gritty mustard made the dish try and strangely enough flavorless. Had I a crack at the item I would make the sage and mustard into a light but flavorful mousse, adding a hint of moisture to the much needed dish and then putting the swirls of a finely sliced meat on top, kind of like an open faced sandwich pie.

And then the buffet, the ear mark of a caterer and where the chef truly shows his mettle. It was an L shaped affair, tucked in a corner to allow for more seating and mingling for the crowd. For this, we were given a menu handed out by service staff as we sat down so the contents were no mystery.

The first item was a vegetable tray, a common buffet opener for both appeal and pricing. Couldn’t say I cared for the presentation because there was so little to see, the tray had fallen below 25% which is long after I would pull something to be restocked, and I was there early so it’s not like they were letting it ride at the end of an event. The cucumbers were good, but the eggplant was oily and cut too large for their purpose as a crudités. The carrots were grilled or possibly roasted, they had an odd texture and the flavor wasn’t there, but they looked good.

Next came a Ravioli in Lemon Browned butter, and with out a doubt the most disappointing dish on the table. Pasta, while a simple dish is one of easiest to screw up by not paying attention to the service style and mechanics of the pasta. Ravioli is a nightmare for the caterer, finding its safe lodging with the restaurant chef where he makes them to order. Ravioli does not hold well and drinks up sauces like orzo or penne. This stuffed pasta is also notoriously hard to keep to temp and I would never suggest it for a buffet unless specifically asked for. Even then I would shingle them in the chaffing dish to allow uniformity of cooking and sauce, because the ones I got were stone cold. The garnish was adequate but the arugula was cut to large and limply draped across the dish instead of adding some sort of intrinsic flavor or color. And lastly the sauce, I work for the Saucy Wench and personally believe that sauce is my strong suit and this was the most heart wrenching of all. The Lemon Browned Butter had no lemon flavor, wasn’t browned, and amounted to little more than an oily coating separating what could have been a show stopping dish.

Further down the line was the Lavender Pear Salad, presented in dual small mixing bowls so that fresh additions could be made frequently. So what it lacked in presentation it made up for in crisp greens. No mean feat when you consider that only micro greens wilt faster than spring mix when it comes to salad. The pine nuts and pecorino were good choices, adding both crunch and natural salty depth to the dish. The pears, were a little under ripe, and could have done with a night marinating in the dressing. The dressing it’s self was the confusing part to me. I couldn’t detect any lavender in it at all, I could tell from the tang that it was supposed to be vinaigrette of some sort and I know lavender isn’t the most brilliant flavor. But all the same, it just wasn’t there but then again, I have a hang up when it comes to sauce.

Next came a roasted potato medley, which was indeed fresh cut despite my cohorts inquires as to if it looked pre-bought. They were roasted perfectly, allowing for a firm skin but fluffy texture inside. The only problem with the medley is purple potatoes bleed their vibrant color and turns everything in the dish gray. This is why when ever I do them I roast three pans of one color separately and mix them on site. This is especially useful because red potatoes cook faster than yellow, and yellow faster than purple. The fresh herbs and olive oil that were supposed to complete the dish again were a let down. The herbs obviously dry and not nearly enough to make an impact on the spuds were drunk up with the oil into the potatoes. I would mix a bit of veggie broth with the oil, making a hot dressing of sorts and boil the herbs there to really awaken their flavor. Or if all else fails and I’ve the option, do small bits of partially cut up fingerling potatoes, which add both stability and more fluffy starch flavor. I’m noticing a pattern with the sauce craft and it really makes or breaks what should be excellent food.

After that we had another cold dish, a pair of small fruit trays, which looked like the lids to the salad bowls from earlier. Perhaps I’m spoiled at AGA but I would never choose some of the display pieces they used for this event if I had something more impressive to choose from. While I do consider the tray to be the least important part of the dish it is still important to a degree. The fruit more than made up for that though, the claim that it was hand picked definitely shown through in the quality and texture of the dishes. Not piece was soggy or had the old “I’m past my prime” texture. The pieces were good and small, so you could take a bit of what ever you liked with out compromising half your plate space which is something I see more and more chef’s forgetting. If they want more fruit they’ll take it, but by and large it’s just healthy filling till you get to the good stuff. My only question to the chef would be why you would put that it has dried fruit on the menu if you weren’t going to put any on the platter. Truth in menu is truth in value people.

Essential breads made an interesting on the buffet buffer, something we ourselves do quite often though I’m more traditional in insisting that bread is a valid menu item that deserves a basket instead of table mortar. But alas, with only 12 feet of table to deal with space cutbacks must be made. Essential does good work and their all natural approach provides level of quality I could never hope to duplicate in years of practice. The only down side is they slice the pieces too thick and they go stale very quickly in the afternoon sun. I also wouldn’t garnish the butter balls with bits of greenery. They just wilt where the melting butter is purging oil and it gets in the way of adding your fat to the starch.

By over all voting the salmon was voted to be the pinnacle of the buffet presentation. Its thick side with fluffy flakey pink meat was perfectly poached and the salsa added for an accent of color and flavor was masterfully done. It was presented well on a bed of greens and despite being Atlantic it was of excellent quality. I’m not a big poached salmon fan, preferring the hot smoke variety, but I would have no qualms ordering that for my own event should I get the chance.

Next came a grilled flank steak with bleu cheese and shitake mushrooms. My bit of steak was tender but Moe’s was tough. Which leads me to believe the chef didn’t tenderize the meat enough prior to marinating, or that the marinade wasn’t acidic enough to break down the firm connective tissue prevalent in flank steak. More likely, based on the flavor, it just wasn’t marinade long enough, we chef’s always run out of time even under the best of circumstances but the difference of an overnight soak can not be denied. The bleu cheese is classic on a steak while shitake mushrooms is a fairly recent infusion of the Asian persuasion. To be honest, it had little to no shitake flavor. And I actually like the earthy woodiness of the fungus. Reminds me of a teriyaki version we did at Jazzbones with flat iron steaks. So it is possible to leech a bit more flavor out of them. The trick I’ve learned is to use a mixture of fresh for the garnish and dried ground up in the sauce. Makes a world of difference and adds a much needed flavor profile to the occasionally two dimensional flank steak.

The last dish and my personal favorite was the basil and sundried tomato chicken. I know people generally scoff at chicken because anybody can make it and it doesn’t have any outstanding flavors on it’s own but I consider it the true test of any cook. Chicken is the blank canvas that you can do anything and everything to, freedom of expression in protein format. And this dish was excellent, could not say a bad word about it if you bribed me. The chicken was moist, kept so in an abundant but not overly coating sauce of creamy goodness. This sauce was not studded with bits of sundried tomato that made the sauce that awful orange nor were they leathery and flavorless. The basil, obviously dried with a little fresh mixed in, made a nice background note for the sweet and tender chicken breast that took it all in.

All in all it was interesting to see a presentation on par with our own. There were many similarities in both menu item and buffet set up that couldn’t be denied. Usually when I see other companies their setups seem cumbersome or alien and I could envision almost everything there on a buffet some where down the line. And so the challenge is accepted, and I have learned. Then when my own open house rolls around again I will invite my foes to sample my rebuttal. And would welcome them to critique my work and have the cycle continue.

Kitchen is closed.

-KMCD

The Terrors of Brunch

June 3, 2009

Love them or hate them, America can’t live with out them.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to that late breakfast in the morn in that I will crawl out of bed, shower and shave, even *gasp* put on a dress shirt and tie to sit down with my old man or mother and gab about nothing at all until we’re stuffed. But I will fight tooth and nail, eye and claw to avoid making them myself. Doubly so in catering because it financially comes down to me coming in before the sun and finishing after happy hour in the bars is over. I realize this is conceited and lazy of me, but dollar for dollar brunch is just bloody annoying. I am a night person by stock and trade, years in the industry have conditioned me to work well into the wee hours of the night, multiple nights in a row, should my masters require it of me.

But the AM, that’s another beast all together. Part of it stems from the fact that I’ve never worked with anyone that actually toiled BETTER at 6AM than 6PM that was under the age of 50, but all in all it just doesn’t interest me.

American classics like scrambled eggs, Potatoes O’brian, and the plethora of pre-made danish and pastries hold no culinary interestfor me. (I have no qualms buying said danish and pastry because I suck at making them and hold true to my Foodie over Pastie heritage, go Chefs!) And you can’t really tinker with them too much or the GUM’s will turn their noses up at the violation of a classic. And on some levelsI agree with them, many breakfast foods have been taken to their final conclusion, there is no reason to tinker with em any more. Aside from the culinary elite, there is no room for white truffle oil infused Potatoes with golden pepper and caramelized Bermuda onions. And I would never offer something as across the board annoying as Quail Eggs Benedict for fear I would actually have to produce such a labor intensive item en mass, first thing in the morning, for 300 largely unappreciative clients.

For that is the other side of the argumentfor the brunch, people are LEAST picky when they’re least awake. (Case and point for Taco Hell and Jack in the Crack’s legendary sales reports after 2 AM when the bars close.) So you can get away with a lot more, in terms of quantity and presentation. The person that would scrutinize that the carved tomato rosettes have fallen out of the poached side of salmon’s mouth is just as content to load up on her 5th cup of hot coffee she didn’t have to brew or wait in line for herself.

There’s also travel to factor in folks, I dunno about you, but eggs aren’t exactly the most resilient of dishes in my repertoire. And having to drive all the way up to Issaquah from Tacoma wreaks havoc on my products quality and stability. Even if I had the fortune of going to a facility that had a professional kitchen that could handle my work load there’s still the other staff to worry about with their own foibles like coffee, tea, and what not that must be brewed in shop and hauled hot. Imagine tacking an hour wait time at the restaurant from the moment the chef finished your plate to the time the server dropped it on your table.

Soggy hashbrowns. Rubbery Eggs. Stale Danish. And Cold Coffee.

So while yes, breakfast is easier to cook with a lower food cost than lunch or dinner, it comes with many more obstacles that must be over come. And unlike with the other two, working harder and longer isn’t always a fitting solution. It’s why I always wince when ever some one chooses to do one for a momentous event like a wedding or a 50th birthday party. True, last week went with out a hitch. It was by far one of the smoothest events I’ve worked to date for AGA, but there are so many places where things can go wrong. And not just for us, but on the client’s behalf.

Say they didn’t get their liquor permit on Saturday? No liquor store, even if it was open on a Sunday would open before noon, and we had guests there already at 10.

Turn out is always less on a brunch because unless it’s part of a work function where they HAVE to be there people always loose the battle of wills to the pillow. Lord knows if I didn’t have to be in the kitchen heating things up at 6 in the morning I would be soundlessly oblivious to the realms of man.

Last is just common sense. It’s a sunny weekend in Washington. Would you rather A) Spend it wrapped in a thick tuxedo or dress, having gotten up 5 hours earlier than you intended to drive out to the middle of no where and sip memosas to ward off the impending hang over or. . .B) Sleep late, grab a bite at Micky D’s with their magical unicorn meat and lay in the sun while knock back a cold one to the sound of the water and the wind.

I’ll take a sunburn over a late tux returnany day.

Kitchen’s closed.

-KMCD