Becoming a chef allowed me to marry my creativity with my compulsive need for organization. It’s impossible to keep it all together when you are dealing with multiple dishes, different components for each dish or dinner for a thousand people. The kitchen is organized a bit like the military: everybody has a defined role and assigned tasks but everybody is also ready to jump in should a comrade or a situation require it.
Working in a professional kitchen teaches you not only to cook but, more importantly, to stay focussed and calm, to think on your feet and to improvise. No matter how carefully organized or planned a dish or an evening can be, things are bound to go wrong sometimes, and to come up with corrections or alternatives has to become second nature.
When I worked as Pastry Chef I always told my staff that “it was just cakes”, not brain surgery, so not to get too hung up on mistakes but they also knew, and probably made fun of behind my back, my insistence on precision, organization and cleanliness. After a transfer to another location, the new team awaiting my arrival called my sous-chef to get the scoop on the new boss. Her lapidary comment “She likes it clean”. And that, pretty much, summed it up.
Everything I learnt over those eight years comes back in a flash when I now work with other people, and other teams, as I have been doing of late. But it also surfaces in my every day cooking and my home kitchen, especially when I plan a party.
Without going all Martha Stewart on you, there is a method to a stress free dinner or party – and we are about to enter that season. Here in the States, in a couple of weeks we will be celebrating Thanksgiving and Hanukkah rolled into one, for the first time in a couple of hundred years.
If you entertain only occasionally, or just on a couple of given holidays a year, it can be daunting. Despite our obsession with cooking shows and food blogs, if you are like me, most nights will be cereal and tea sitting on the couch – twice a week, though, I will make a lovely meal and put a proper tablecloth out, a reminiscence of my childhood, when the table was set twice a day, every day, religiously.
But before you discard the idea of having family and friends over out of sheer panic, or opt for a potluck, here are a few tricks that would make even the novice relax a bit.
Planning the menu – Decide what you are going to serve a couple of weeks in advance. Sometimes pulling out and consulting all those pretty cookbooks you never look at can provide ideas. Or pull up all those recipes you bookmarked on your laptop. Don’t attempt dishes that all need to be cooked on the same day or, worse, at the same time. Make your life easier by picking at least a dish that can cook itself in the oven, and some that can be made or, at least, prepped, one or two days before. My suggestions would be to stick with dishes you have successfully made before and introduce one innovation only which, if it doesn’t work out, won’t be missed.
Make a list – Actually, make a couple. The time you will invest in this process will be time saved later, when you can just refer to your neatly organized list. First, a shopping list of all the ingredients you will need and that are not in your pantry. Then, a prep list, i.e. all the tasks, broken down, that each dish will require (peeling vegetables, making sauces, chopping nuts etc). Break it all down by day, starting three days before your party: what can you prepare in advance that can be kept, refrigerated or frozen, until the day of? Stocks for example, or some chopping – custards for desserts, or sponge cakes. Most soups can be made ahead, same for condiments or stews. Write down all the broken down tasks over the three days, print them and tack them to your kitchen wall. Every morning you will know what needs to be done, taking the guessing game out of the process, the same way a cook walks into work and looks at the list she, or her chef, made the day before. On the day before the party, make a list of everything that still needs to be done, in chronological order, and cross each task off as you go along (now, can you tell I am a compulsive list maker?).
Shop for the ingredients about 5 days before
Set the table – Always the day before the party. You will be more inspired to take out the pretty china you never use, those glasses you were given by your aunt when you got married and that linen tablecloth that’s been rotting in some drawer. Yes, washing and ironing tablecloths and napkins is one of the banes of our existence but they make for such pretty tables and warmer and more festive rooms. If you don’t have matching china and silverware for all your guests, don’t worry, mixing and matching is all rage. Just arrange the mismatched items symmetrically over the table or, for a buffet, stack them in neat piles. If you are ambitious, some simple flowers or branches from your yard or balcony will save the expense of a florist. I always forage around the house for decorations: branches, leaves…one doesn’t need much. A simple candle, some glass pebbles…just look at utilitarian items around you and re-imagine them.
Ask for help – If you have children or teenagers, good luck cajoling them into helping you chop and stir. But, rather than becoming cranky or overwhelmed, it’s perfectly fine to rely on your guests. You know they will be bringing the customary bottle of wine so, if you are not a baker, why not ask one or two of the guests to bring a dessert? If you have a friend who makes a mean Martini, ask him to be bartender. Unless it’s an extremely formal occasion, guests like to be involved and it’s a nice ice-breaker for people who don’t know each other well.
Relax – It’s only food. Even if you make a mean turkey, your family and friends are around your table to celebrate the occasion – or to tease each other and argue, depending on your particular family. A slightly burnt casserole or a chewy meringue will only be noticed by you. Since time immemorial, and modernist cookery notwithstanding, food is not meant to be a display of wizardry and technique but, rather, a display of love.