We’ve all been to schmancy events, right? Have you ever thought about what’s going on behind the scenes? Probably not and quite honestly, that’s the point. You’re not supposed to. As I’m usually working them and not actually attending, I wanted to give you an inside peek at what really goes on while everyone is dancing, eating, drinking and making merry.
When we arrived at the event, the designers were already there setting up the ballroom and decorating the space. There were long-stemmed white roses piled high like a snowy mountain top, their discarded petals and leaves strewn about all over the floor, the florist standing beside “rose mountain” quickly sheering off the thorns.
The musicians were setting up to do a sound check, the wait staff was beginning to trickle in and we were trying to locate the kitchen and assess the situation…
We wind our way down several flights of stairs to the basement, which is where most NYC kitchens are located, and start to look at the equipment. There was one oven. I turned it on immediately to make sure it actually worked (horror story from someone else who failed to check equipment, I learned my lesson from his mistake!)
I made my way to the walk-in cooler, opened the door and a waft of hot air slapped me in the face. This was not good. As the name would suggest, it was supposed to be cold. Naturally, a slight panic sets in and we race around trying to find ice… lots and lots of ice. We open up a chest freezer, put a layer of ice in the bottom and lay all of our precious food around it. The entire kitchen is then instructed not to touch it. An hour later, the walk in is less “Mojave desert” and a little more “cool autumn day”, so I know we are making progress.
The room is coming together upstairs and the mood has started to shift from jovial and chatty to “boot camp”. I had never met the line cooks that were working with me prior to that evening, so you can imagine the anxiety of walking into that situation. Would they be really good? Would they be awful? Would they care about the job? Would they be helpful or actually hinder? I am thrilled to report they were magnificent. They were five of the most respectful guys I’ve ever met, everything I asked of them was met with two words: “Yes, Chef”. Luckily for me, they had worked together before and knew each others strengths and rhythms, so service was damn near flawless. It was pretty great.
The captain (of the wait staff) came down to the kitchen to alert us that cocktail hour was ending shortly and the salad course had to plated and set on the table before the guests came downstairs. Ok, no problem… Oh, I forgot to mention that the kitchen staff had to take it up because all of the servers were upstairs. What?! (This never happens. I mean NEVER. Kitchen staff does not deliver food, so we had that “deer in the headlights look”)
Luckily I had already laid out all 200 plates, prepped everything for the salad and was ready to go, but we were not prepared for that little wrench in our timeline. With all hands on deck, the salad was plated and dressed in record time with all of us politely encouraging each other to MOVE FASTER! Taking stairs 2 at a time, while carrying trays holding 10 salad plates, the tables were set and we were back downstairs before (most of) the guests made it into the ballroom.
We all know how much time it takes to eat a small plate of salad, so now we are starting to feel the pressure. Remember when I said we had one oven? Think about Thanksgiving with the family. Typically 15 – 30 people, right? One oven isn’t always enough is it? Ok, now multiply that by 10. As quickly as humanly possible, we lay out another set of 200 plates, this time spanning 3 different rooms because the plates are bigger, which means fewer of them fit on a table.
We can hear everyone dancing upstairs, (the sound of 100 pairs of high heels kind of sounds like wild horses, in case you were wondering) and we know that means dinner is over and the dessert course needs to go up. Once again, 200 plates are laid out. 200 martini glasses go on top of them and they are filled with rose water rice pudding, garnished and whisked away…
As the last of the never ending rows of rice pudding makes it’s way upstairs, there is a collective sigh of relief. We all smile and hug, congratulating each other on a nearly flawless execution, especially given the circumstances of the evening.
That’s the thing with “food people”. We’re a crazy bunch. You have to be to willingly stand on your feet in a 100+ degree kitchen for hours on end, hunched over a cutting board or a stove or rows and rows of plates. But the exhilaration is absolutely intoxicating, that rush we feel when we’re in the thick of it, there is nothing else like it in the world. When it’s good, it’s GREAT. There is a camaraderie unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and although I’m glad that I don’t have to do it day after day anymore… A little taste every now and then is perfect.