Philip and I joined some friends at a dinner/auction fundraiser last night for one of our local schools. The event was well orchestrated, and even though we were bested on almost everything we bid on, we had a good time for a good cause. The only thing about the whole night that struck me as a little odd is that the dinner was catered by a most peculiar source: The White Horse Tavern.
I’ve ordered off the White Horse menu more times than I can remember, and I love the comfort of their food, but I never imagined a bar getting into the catering business. The two modes of food delivery demand very different skills, but in these not so happy economic times, places that traditionally stuck to the basics are turning to catering as a way to supplement their lost income.
The catering business in Flint, though waning from its heyday, is still a way of life for many local food entrepreneurs. If you’re ever in need of a catered meal, your choices range from the elegant to the practical, from the wildly expensive to the moderately affordable. Chowbaby’s.com lists twenty two caterers in the Flint metro area, but I’m certain there are more. Some predictable names on that list include Creative Catering, Fandangos, and for awhile Good Beans Café. But other names on the list surprised me: The White Horse, Tia Helitas, Italia Gardens, Angelo’s Coney Island. Really? Angelos? Can you imagine what that wedding dinner would look like?
My favorite web site for local catering, though, has to be Kickin’ Catering. They offer a number of services including ice cream socials, candy bar boutiques, and full catering menus. They also specialize in some Eastern European cuisines like Hungarian and Czech. I have to admit, though, that until I searched them out on the web I had never even heard of them.
My friend Ginny, who hired me as a cook in her diner in the mid-eighties, also ran a catering business and on days when I wasn’t flipping eggs, I was doing all the set up for her catering gigs. What makes this kind of work so unbearable to me is that it involves a seemingly endless amount of prep work. Depending on how big the event, prepping could take anywhere from three to five days. There were times when I was peeling potatoes or skinning chicken for a four hundred person wedding wishing I had chosen a more useful major in college than English.
But when my friend Ruth approached me a month ago and asked me if I’d help her do a dinner for 80 at the church, I jumped at the opportunity. Maybe I was feeling a little nostalgic for my days in the restaurant business. Maybe I was craving the thrill that a challenge like this poses. Or maybe I just wanted to be in the kitchen again, where I could try recapturing some of that old black magic that drew me to the business in the first place.
Whatever the reason, we had a big chore ahead of us because not only were we cooking a meal for 80, it was a gourmet meal, and it would be plated in the kitchen and served at the tables instead of the more usual buffet style. And the biggest challenge, which may be the real reason I agreed to help, is that we would do this project from start to finish in three hours. We wouldn’t be prepping a day ahead of time; we were meeting in the kitchen three hours before the meal, and that’s when we’d get started. It was like Dinner Impossible on crack done by a group of four amateur cooks who were making their plan as they went along.
The entrée was a marinated chicken breast on a mound of mashed sweet potatoes with apple cider and topped with sautéed apples and cherries. This would be accompanied by a colorful tossed salad and warm bread. Dessert was a trio of chocolate-coffee cake, blueberry crisp, and peach cobbler. Two of the three desserts were prepared ahead of time, so we only had to worry about the chocolate-coffee cake, which was topped with a coffee whipped cream and sprinkled with pieces of candy bar. Three hours? No problem.
The first two hours flew by, but we operated with such precision and synergy that we put ourselves ahead of schedule. Peeling, marinating, chopping, melting, and mashing were the easy parts. Making it all come together would be a whole other matter. Timing is the most critical component when serving an 80 person sit-down dinner in a manner that ensures everyone gets their food ( and that ensures everyone’s food is served hot). We had our work cut out for us and I could see Ruth’s stress level rise exponentially in the last hour. I pulled her aside and had her rehearse her plan. She had a schedule taped to the wall that timed everything out to the minute. This woman was prepared.
And so the casual, shoot the breeze and core the apples phase having long passed, the kitchen became a whirlwind of insane activity. Big trays of chicken breasts were slid into the ovens. The sweet potatoes and cider were smashed. Salad baths were ending and assembly was under way. And the nearly five gallons of sliced apples were ready to sauté.
The original plan was to saute them in butter in single layers so we could brown them nicely on each side. That plan lasted for about five minutes, when we realized we just didn’t have the luxury of the time for this approach. We pulled out four saute pans, several pounds of butter, and between the two of us, tossed hands-full of apples into the pans. Since I was trained to cook without a spatula whenever practical, this was a complete rush for me, standing over an industrial gas stove flipping four pans of fruit at once, using only my wrists and what little wits I had to get the job done.
Altering our approach to the apples sped up the process and allowed us to turn our stress to another area: the chicken. We were fifteen minutes away from serving dinner and the chicken was only half cooked. It was a ghastly white-grey color, and it was laying there in the marinade and its own juices. I was in charge of the chicken and now I was on the verge of ruining the whole meal. Ruth would never forgive me if I screwed this up. I’d be demoted to dishwasher for sure. But out of the sheer panic I was feeling, my training kicked in. I moved everything off the ten-burner gas industrial stove and turned every burn as high as it would go. I pulled the trays of chicken from the oven and placed them all over the intense heat of the burners. It was my only hope.
I thought about gathering my fellow cooks around the stove and leading some kind of desperate prayer, but then I remembered that we’re Unitarians and we don’t really pray, so I just mumbled some “Oh Dear God” phrase under my breath and pressed on. To my shock, the juices and marinade began to evaporate and form a nice brown coating on the chicken. In minutes it turned from dead-skin white to a nice caramel color that complemented the potatoes and sautéed apples perfeclty. All was not lost.
Several helpers assisted us in an assembly line and with lightning efficiency, we sent entrees out of the kitchen as fast as the servers could carry them. We did it! We served 80 people from start to finish in three hours. I never said a word beforehand to Ruth, but I had had my serious doubts that we could pull it off. But we did. And every dish looked as elegant as the next. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back into the food service business yet, but if my friend Ruth ever asks me to help her accomplish another near-impossible challenge like this one, I’ll be there in a New York minute.