Hours of preparation, minutes of enjoyment
Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part series. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first two. Have you ever spent weeks of planning, days of prepping and hours of actually cooking Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, only to see your work product consumed in a meal measured in minutes? Even a simple weekday dinner involves a disproportionate amount of time to prepare versus time to eat. Now imagine the time required for guest chef John Besh and Allie’s Cabin Executive Chef Kirk Weems’ teams of chefs and cooks to design, procure product, prep, cook and plate their four-course dinner plus hors d’oeuvres for 74. Don’t forget that Besh’s food had to be shipped from New Orleans! Weems and I put on our thinking toques and came up with a conservative estimate of 140 man hours, or 8,400 minutes. To dine? Approximately 160 minutes, and that’s from tasting the first hors d’oeuvre to departing the table. If you figure each course is actually consumed within 10 minutes, diners spend only 40 minutes eating the dinner. Eight thousand four hundred minutes of work, 40 minutes of eating. Think of that next time you go to a big event, including those your loved ones cook for the holidays!
Two teams became one as Weems’ potato-leek soup amuse-bouche was plated. Across from me, I watched three pairs of hands expertly working in tight quarters, each plating an element. Weems’ finishing touch was a generous spoonful of osetra caviar on top of each small dollop of creamed leeks. Pale green leeks, creamy white soup and shiny black caviar blended beautifully. The sight, smell and taste of the amuse-bouche were certain to prime diners’ palates for what was to follow. Allie’s last contribution was a four-element salad of seared scallops, heirloom spinach, Pommery mustard-bacon vinaigrette and crispy shallots. Like a Las Vegas card dealer, Besh dealt plates until every available inch of counter and shelf space was covered. Additional space was made on tray stands. My nerves were a little on edge, since the thought of knocking over a tray full of plated food is a recurring nightmare of mine.Chefs Besh, Brian Landry and Erick Loos and Patrick Berrigan worked side by side with the Allie’s team building the salad. Earlier, Weems fried the shallots. The smell had been intoxicating. Now with the aromas of the seared scallops filling the air, it was all I could do not to taste a handful of crispy shallots as I walked around topping each plate. My willpower saw me through!
The responsibility for the courses now shifted to Besh and his team. Duckling cassoulet was their opening act. Nothing shouts wintertime country French dining like cassoulet! Small, 6-ounce French copper pots on loan from Beano’s Cabin made perfect rustic bowls for the dish. With the rondo of cassoulet at one end of the line and all of the other elements neatly laid out, the chefs were at the ready. Fine-dining banquets predate Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line invention. Perhaps he got his idea from observing the plating assembly line in a restaurant kitchen, where fast and precise work is required. Chefs passed the small pots of cassoulet down the line, each placing an element of the dish – preserved garlic, heirloom vegetables and three slices of seared Chappapeela Farms Louisiana duck breasts (Besh insists the ducks go “quack, y’all”). There also was a foam, but I know you’ll forgive me that I can’t tell you what it was. No one seems to remember! The cassoulet was a meal in itself. Weems placed the pots on the shelves running down the center of the counter. I stood with Landry to garnish the pots with a sprinkling of green, place them on plates with Besh-autographed underliners and check that each pot handle was perfectly positioned at the server’s 2 o’clock. As expediter (expo), Landry’s eyes were the last ones in the kitchen to pass over the dishes before the servers whisked them away. Experienced servers, particularly career European wait staff, are keenly aware of the importance of presenting a dish according to the expo’s directions. Sight is usually the first sense engaged and helps the olfactory system prepare for that first bite. So it has to look good to do justice to those who toiled hours for the few minutes the dish is enjoyed. Each moment counts. Hence, positioning of plated food – meat on the left or right or pot handle just so – is important.As with each course, the moment the last plate disappeared from one end of the counter the other end was a hotbed of preparation for the next course: slow-cooked Wagyu beef with Perigord truffle jus and lobster mac and cheese. By now, the chefs were feeling comfortable with my still-nascent skills, or else they just desperately needed an extra hand. I like to think it’s the former. A bowl of black Perigord truffles sat on the counter next to several tray stands set up for garnishing the meat with thin truffle slices. Besh stood beside me with a lemon-size truffle in one hand and truffle shaver in the other. “Ok, Suzanne, here’s what you have to do.” Expertly, he rapidly shaved half the truffle onto a paper-lined plate, generously garnished the beef, handed the truffle and shaver to me and disappeared. I was alone but for this precious fungus in my hand and impatient servers waiting for me. Really? A bowl of truffles, a shaver and no direct supervision? Heaven! For most of the 74 plates that swept past me, I rarely had time to look up as I quickly shaved truffles, garnished the meat and positioned the plates such that the beef was on the left and lobster mac and cheese on the right. Good. I don’t think knowing that I was on my own for most of the time would have helped much. Landry joined me to shave truffles. In what seemed like an instant, the main course had been plated and served.
By this time, I would have been happy with plating gelato. Simple enough: ice cream scoop, bowl and gelato. But Besh’s dark chocolate hazelnut pot de creme required nearly every available hand to assemble the dessert. Besh made quick work of swiping a spoonful of caramel sauce across each plate. Another dime-sized spot of caramel served as “glue” to hold in place the pots de creme. Clever idea, and I’m certain it made the servers happy! With a container of tiny meringue drops in hand, I carefully positioned three on each caramel “swipe.” Tedious work. Others placed hazelnut chocolate pieces and roasted hazelnuts onto the caramel swipes and into the pots de creme, creating a beautiful visual effect. By the time the last dessert was served, sleighs were arriving, Besh’s team was packing and Allie’s staff was cleaning the kitchen. It was as though it had never happened. My dream of cooking with Besh had come true, and it was time to wake up. It would have been nice to interview him over a glass of wine after dinner, but diners were demanding his presence. More than once that weekend, Besh said to me in his kind manner, “Bless you (for helping).” Yes, John, I am blessed. Thank you for the experience. Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.