It is 7:30 on a Saturday night and I'm leaning against a stove sweating. There's music blaring beyond the kitchen doors, but I'm contemplating the next course. We're at that inevitable lull, the point between appetizers and meal. Out front there are announcements to be made and toasts to drink. We've been rushing since noon, but now we wait. And Sweat.
Timing is crucial when cooking for a crowd and it's often dependent on longwinded speeches or announcements. In short, the initial push is a guessing game. It brings to mind a story of a banquet oversaw by chef August Escoffier. There were 300 guests and the dessert was soufflé. Soufflé has to go from oven-to-table before it falls. There was no way of knowing how long the awards presentation would take, so his staff baked 300 soufflé every 15 minutes. It was an hour before the fourth batch was finally served. Today we wouldn't consider such decadence. There's one shot, and timing is everything
Appetizers are served; next is French onion soup, which gets baked in the oven. The soup cups—filled and topped with croutons and cheese—are lined on sheetpans like planes waiting on tarmac for takeoff. There are 15 cups per pan on 12 pans.
The main course is a mixed grill of tenderloin, salmon, and shrimp. The beef and salmon have been seared and arranged on sheetpans and chilled; the shrimp is seasoned and also set on sheetpans. The beef and salmon occupy five pans each; the shrimp, two pans.
Here's the quandary of the evening. Twelve pans for soup, five for beef, five for salmon, and two for shrimp: 24 pans. This translates to 24 oven racks. I've two functioning ovens that normally have five racks each, but because of the soup we have to rearrange the racks (so the cheese won't hit the one above it), this drops it to three per oven, totally six. Sometimes I wish I could tell the customer to select a menu that is more "equipment friendly," because I don't feel like juggling hot dripping pans all night just so everything gets served properly. But I don't. Timing is everything.
As I'm leaning against the stove sweating I work it out in my head like this: soup and beef will take about the same time, but soup gets served first and the beef will hold better in the hotbox. So I'll fire the beef first, bring it to medium-rare and hold it, then fire half the soup and put it in the hotbox. Once the first six pans of soup are in the hotbox I'll fire the second half and hope that it's timed right. After soup there's salad, which will buy us time to cook the salmon and shrimp. We also need to mash potatoes, steam and butter asparagus, and strain and finish sauces. No problem.
Now here's how it really went. The beef was cooked perfectly, but as one of the cooks was transferring it to the hotbox he tipped a pan and juice ran down his forearm, blistering immediately; 36 filet hit the floor. As he tends to his arm, another cook and I pick up the beef, tossing them from one hand to another because they're so hot (picture the game "hot potato" only with meat). We then load the ovens with soup, as we slip and slide on a floor covered with greasy beef juice. A porter mops around us as we work. The DJ turns up the volume and plays It's Raining Men, by The Weather Girls, which means they'll dance, and my timing is off. My back is screaming.
Just as we finish reloading the ovens I hear a porter say, "chef, there's someone to see you." I turn and see two people from the wedding party. They're sweaty, and already half drunk. They've been dancing. His bowtie hangs loose; she's in stocking feet. "We're vegans and wondering what the vegetarian options are." Annoyed, I tell them that they should have pre-ordered. They settle for a grilled vegetable plate. A cook sprints to the cooler for vegetables.
Just before service we close windows to keep food warm, and it begins like an explosion. The dining room manager shouts into the kitchen to begin, and molten trays of soup are brought out. Servers grab and tray them like army ants; they're gone in minutes. Next go the salads. Then we stack the table with dinner plates that are too hot to touch and bring out the food. Like robots in a factory we line up. I stand at the head, plating the meat as people call out temperatures: two medium, one rare, six well. I mostly ignore the voices and pull plates, watching as they're fed down line: potatoes, salmon, shrimp, vegetables, sauces. A server picks up a tray with twelve plates. Three are stacked incorrectly and crash to the ground. We don't stop. 172 are served in 24 minutes. The DJ is playing We are Family, by Sister Sledge. Why, I think, do they play this music during dinner? My temples throb.
We scramble to wipe tables and set dessert plates. Cake is brought in, looking somewhat like a leaning tower. We cut and plate the cake, then ice cream, hustling servers before it melts. There's a mountain of dirty plates almost as tall as the porter behind the dish machine, billows of steam rise above and hover a foot from the ceiling. I look over and yell above the din of music and exhaust fans, "how ya doin?" He gives me the thumbs up. I send a couple cooks to help him. My back feels like it's on fire; I have to sit. I lower myself to a stool next to the stove, blinking as a drop of sweat falls from my brow.
A bartender rushes through the kitchen. He motions with his thumb and pinky at his mouth, sort of sign language asking if I want a glass of wine. I nod, then yell down the hall, "two, actually." He yells back, "D'ya got a friend tonight?"
Without realizing I drink the first glass in two, maybe three gulps. Now I can taste the second. I feel guilty for resting while the crew is working; cleaning, putting things away. Servers are bringing in dirty plates and glasses by the tray load. I look up to see the same shoeless woman coming through the kitchen, she's swaying a little now. So is the mother of the bride who trails behind her. It turns out the younger woman is her daughter, sister of the bride. They've come to say thank you, that the food made the evening special, and I remember what a sacred event it was. Their sincerity is truly felt, I tell them; it makes me remember why I cook for a living. It makes me proud. I'll pass along their accolades to the staff.
The 80's hit, What I like About You, by The Romantics, is blaring; the dance floor is throbbing. But in my head I hear another 80's song: In The Kitchen at Parties, by Jona Lewie…you will always find him in the kitchen at parties…you will still find him in the kitchen at parties…he's done his time in the kitchen at parties.