When I prepare a dinner party at home I try very hard to put together a plan with menu, ingredients list, preparation schedule, dinner service schedule and all. But I have never been able to put together a foolproof plan. There would always be last minute items I forgot to buy or cook. Warren will always be the one to rescue me by going across the street to Pathmark and get whatever I forgot. Now imagine working with a group of star chefs preparing a six-course Chinese banquet for 250 guests at the James Beard Foundation gala dinner and auction. The logistical problems as you can imagine increased many fold.
After two days of relative calm I was becoming rather complacent with the pace of escorting the visiting chefs. Then came the Wednesday, when we started the preparation work. I had no idea what we were facing. There were last minute run for ingredients, searching for the right tools and transportation mishaps.
The night before the first full day of preparation at Chinatown Brasserie’s kitchen, we were notified that almost all the chefs did not bring their own knives. So we scrambled to buy knives for them. Fortunately there is a great Chinese restaurant supply store not too far from the restaurant. Like a school field trip we led all the chefs in a row into the store and purchased all the required implements.
Wednesday started out without incident until just before noon when the deliveryman brought the tomatoes for use as cups to contain stir-fried beef. Chef Patrick Lin immediately sent them back because they were beefsteak tomatoes and much too large for the purpose. Another type of tomato was immediately ordered and this time a specific size was ordered regardless of the variety.
Just as the new tomato order was called in Chef Lin noticed that we had not received our order of Canadian ice wine, which was needed for poaching the Anjou pear for dessert. I was sent off across the street to Astor Wine and Spirits to procure the wine. By the time I returned with the wine it was lunchtime. Since all the chefs were busy with the preparation work, the duty of getting lunch boxes from Chinatown fell on me and another volunteer chef, Peter How. After lunch I went off again with the James Beard Foundation coordinator, Shellley Menaged, to buy cartons of aluminum baking pans so we could transport all the prepared food the next day from Chinatown Brasserie to the Edison Ballroom. By the end of the day I realized I had hardly spent any time at all in the kitchen. Yet I still had a ray of hope I’d work in the kitchen the next day.
Thursday came and my duty was to arrive at the Edison Ballroom kitchen early, and be ready to receive the food transfer from Chinatown Brasserie. Rain was pouring outside and New York traffic was at a standstill. It was not until almost one o’clock in the afternoon before the refrigerated truck arrived. By that time all the volunteer chefs had been waiting for two hours idle and starved. Once again while everyone was busy carting the baking pans full of prepared food into the kitchen, I went off to a pizza parlor down the block and ordered lunch for everyone.
As the delivery truck was arriving at the Edison Ballroom we were told that some dim sum were left at Chinatown Brasserie. Shelley immediately ordered a car service to send a volunteer chef to pick them up. All the rest of the afternoon volunteer chefs worked unceasingly to start portioning the food and making garnishes. I managed to do some work with Chef Chen Jun helping him prepared the sea bass for deep frying and poured egg custard in cut up egg shell cups.
Then before we realized it our guests started arriving and we needed to start sending out the hors d’oeuvres. I was assigned to work with the dim sum chefs and manage the hors d’oeuvres service. For an hour and a half I worked with the wait staff to send off evenly paced dim sum to the guests. I’ve never worked in a situation serving such a large number of guests. I must admit feeling exhilarated sending off two thousand five hundred pieces of dim sum. The rest of the evening I joined the other chef volunteers and formed production crews to finishing and plating the other banquet dishes. Miraculously the remaining banquet service went smoothly without incident.
After all the courses were served, and all the chefs were introduced to the guests, we all returned to the kitchen and looked at each other relieved and exhausted. Although I’ve worked in restaurants serving a normal busy night I’ve never had the experience of serving such a large crowd with six-course meal. The coordination by Shelley, and the cooperation and camaraderie of the staff is something I’ll not soon forget. In the end I got home and told Warren that he is never to complain about the occasional last minute supermarket run. I’ve seen that in a much grander scale.