Anyone who has ever thought about making a profession out of culinary arts, will at one point, fathom the idea of owning his own restaurant. At times, I would sit on my dining table and wonder where I’d like to open mine. Will it be in Santa Monica, Silver Lake or Pasadena? Anywhere would be nice. Daniel Boulud, author of the wonderful book, Letters To A Young Chef, once said that when a Chef pours his heart out into his own cooking, the people will find the food – no matter where it’s located. Perfect example – Thomas Keller, chef and owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, is located in Napa Valley. People will endure the two-month long reservation and tread up to wine country for a $210 prix-fixe menu. But there’s a high risk of failure in the restaurant business . Trends come and go, competition flares up with the arrival of a hot-shot chef and most importantly – location, location, location is ever so important.
I’m over the restaurant idea because in Los Angeles, you can find any type of cuisine out there. Take a drive down Valley Blvd. in the San Gabriel Valley and you’ll know what’s the hot commodity. Korean/tofu houses, Vietnamese Sandwich shops and most recently, Hawaiian fast food. I give it another three years before these tame down. What’ll be next? A Euro-Asian fusion restaurant sounds mighty clear. Some place that’ll serve Cha Shu pork, Osso Buco-style over some linguini.
With all that said, I’ve been focusing on a career as a professional caterer. And I got my first opportunity through a friend of mine recently. A grandeur opportunity. MH invited me to help cook for a 9-course tasting that was to be held in Montecito, a town outside of Santa Barbara with a capped population of 10,000. The clients for tonight are proud owners of an NBA team in the Mid-West and the largest shopping centers, also in the Mid-West. Who else lives here? Oprah Winfrey, who just spent $50 million dollars on her 42-acre, 20,000-square foot estate in Montecito. Know what I mean by grandeur, now?
With my iPod fully charged, two packs of Parliament Lights, black Dickies pants, oil/slip resistant shoes from Payless and chef coat neatly ironed, I drove down the 101 towards Santa Barbara. I’ve never felt such anticipation and anxiety for a long drive, but this could prove to be a twist of fate. I was dying to find out. After about two hours, I finally arrived in Montecito. On the way, I noticed a sign that clearly indicated that I was no longer in Kansas. When driving through BFE, I’m used to seeing a deer crossing sign. I thought I was exposed to the bizarre after seeing this freeway sign on the way to San Diego – but this was truly a ‘what-the-fuck’ moment. How many times have you seen a crossing sign with a golf cart on it? Anybody?
I pulled up to the estate and pressed the button for the intercom. A guard granted me access onto a pebbled road that led into the ten-acre estate. I parked my white Camry next to a Bentley, a BMW and two Mercedez’. The BMW probably belonged to the youngest child. An assistant to the family greeted me and re-directed me to the ‘proper’ place to park - the lot for the ‘under-six-figures’ people. I didn’t think my Camry really ‘fit’ in anyway.
MH then came out of the house and greeted me. I, along with five other employees, unloaded the supplies and went towards the house. I walked through a small patch of grass and was greeted by three weird looking bunnies, gobbling at nothing. I stepped into the house and looked like a kid discovering his first porno video. Jesus Christ. Why would anyone need THIS MUCH ROOM? Never mind the 20-foot ceilings, fine upholstery and antiques, I was drooling over the kitchen. Two huge sub-zero refrigerators disguised with wooden cabinet panels. A huge island with faucet, plus three long side counters for ‘prepping’ food. And of course, a Viking stove with six-burners, griddle and two conventional ovens. That stove alone is worth $10,000. If this whole kitchen setup took up my whole apartment, I would sleep on the floor.
MH showed me the menu card. In addition to hors d’oeuvres, there were nine courses with a $300 bottle of wine for each course. Nice. We then began prepping away. I had never felt so happy mincing parsley or brunoising mire poix. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as hectic as line cooking because we only had twelve people to cook for, plus we had prepped the day before at MH’s house. She actually said that she was nervous about this because she was used to doing three course meals for 300-400 people. It was usually something boring like chicken or grilled salmon. At the estate, there was a higher chance of receiving negative criticism because of the high profile clientele – people who normally experience haute dining. I made sure that each and every thing I prepped was perfect. The day before, I had cleaned off the bone lining on four racks of lambs. That alone, took one hour and fifteen minutes. I thought making mayonnaise from scratch was tough – this was excruciating. My arms were tired from the constant scraping with only the aid of a paring knife, but I knew this was the difference between a fine caterer and catering by Hometown Buffet.
Halfway through prepping, MH called the whole staff over to practice the ‘placing’ and ‘clearing’ of courses. I stood in the lavish dining room and watched as MH stood in the kitchen, with five servers dressed nicely in prom gear, minus the jacket. Each one held two plates and approached the table in ‘snake’ formation. One by one, they circled the table and stopped between two chairs. MH nodded and all at once, they placed the plates neatly on the table in unison. Smooth. The ‘snake’ then circled the table and exited through a separate door.
MH: “Ok, I need you to cook the fish, scallops and lamb. Do not overcook them. We only have one chance. You screw up, we’re done.”
Me: “Uh. You want me to cook?”
MH: “You bet. I gotta do other stuff.”
Me: “Yes, Chef.”
I’ve been at The Restaurant for nearly three months and I still have not touched a sauté pan. Nor will I get to unless I endure another nine. In the corporate world, you start out as a coordinator and make your eventual climb in the ladder. From coordinator, you become an assistant whatever. Then a senior whatever. Then a vice whatever. And so on. In the kitchen, you are placed in the pantry. You aspire to work the grill so that you can stand in front of the fry-a-lator for $8/hr. Next, you work hard for another few months so that you can sauté old, fish. After a few more months, you become the senior partner – which consists of cooking meat. Add another 4-5 years and you can become a sous chef. So on and so on. In two days, I was given the opportunity to cook meats for the client. This was gold to me and I had no problem cooking the food. I was already liking this catering vs. restaurant ordeal.
6pm. The bell struck and Cinderella’s Ball was about to begin. As soon as the guests arrived, the camera’s started rolling. Here’s what was served.
A. Edamame and White Truffle Puree on Croccatini - Tasty and crispy
B. Triple Citrus Tiger Prawns - A delicious MH signature appetizer
C. Three Cheese Plate
D. Lettuce Wraps
E. Miso Cured Hapu 'Upu' U on Sautéed Baby Bok Choy - Hawaiian Seabass
F. Lamb With Black Caviar Lentils
G. Arugula with White Truffle oil, Marcona Almonds and Parmesan
H. Black Truffle Cheese - best cheese in the world
I. Lemon and Mango Sorbet
J. Citrus Tuilles with Fresh Berries and Crême Fraiche
How did I know how these dishes tasted? Because there were tons of leftovers. I ate for about 4 hours straight and got a chance to try the $300 wine. My favorites of the night were the Triple Citrus Prawns, Diver Scallops with Beurre Blanc (not pictured) and of course, the truffled cheese. I made myself a small grilled cheese using that cheese, and let me tell you, it'll blow your pants off.
The clients really enjoyed the dining experience and came in to thank us all. They liked her food so much that they've already reserved her for two more occasions next month. It was nice knowing that a a family, who also own their own restaurants, appreciated all that we had made for them. I love working at The Restaurant because of the friends I've made and the energetic workflow of the team, but this catering experience was truly eye-opening. MH, is a mother of two, who started out working for her parents bakery in Solvang and eventually moved to Hawaii to work at Roy's and several popular California restaurants. She received all of her culinary experience through many kitchens and here she is, only after three years -- cooking a fabulous nine course meal for people who don't know what else to do with their money. MH thanked me for helping out and sent me home early because I had a long drive to endure.
As I drove, I was still in disbelief over the unfolding of events on this accomplishing day. MH asked me to come back to work for her future events and I gladly accepted. I couldn't wait to get home to write about this and share it with all of you. And now, I am very, very tired.
Thanks for reading.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Posted by e d b m at 1:44 AM