31 July 2009

How to cook a meal for one-hundred people (and actually feed ninety-five).

Last week I was kitchen lead for the Hot Yam! and here is my experience report.

Short version:
Take a recipe which you like and which you think more people should taste. For me this was "Stewed Taro with Green Onions" which I had discovered after falling in love with taros in Taiwan.
For all other meal components, take some recipes which you liked from previous meals (they should be on the blog). Replace as many ingredients as you can by seasonal things.
Write a shopping list and be around all day so volunteers can ask you questions. They know by themselves how to do all the things needed to make a meal, likely even better than you do.

Long version:
Here are some of the troubles I ran into, some tips, and finally a list of ingredients which I think made up the final meal. (But I am not sure about the details of it.)

My zeroth mistake (before even starting, that is) was to not ask for directions to the Farmer's Market on time. I was saved because one of the volunteers who came shopping knew the location.

My first mistake was to take a recipe off the Hot Yam! blog without checking the numbers. In June, we only cooked for about 50 to 60 people and I was planning for a hundred. Fortunately the recipe was for our dessert and I had bought enough peaches for the crisp and could run and get more of the other stuff, too. So we didn't manage to bake the dessert on the evening before, but we had it all ready to bake in the fridge and it took us almost no extra time to deal with in the morning.

My second mistake was not to check with my lovely volunteers whether they had actually bought all the things on the shopping list. In the case of lentils we had wisely foreseen that the store might not have enough on display and told the shoppers to ask the clerks for refills from the back. But apparently the back of store also ran out and I noticed the lack of lentils only in the early morning when cooking them. In the end, it turned out that having 17 cups of lentils instead of 25 was not much of a problem, but it made me feel that our success was more due to luck than due to skill.

My third mistake was to have three people peel and mince garlic for two hours. Maybe it was less than six person-hours spent on this, but I think that it was a bit of a waste of time, given that there were lots of other things to do. When some of the people had to leave and the garlic was still not done, we just chopped it up coarsely which was good enough for the meal.

My fourth mistake was to give somebody a laborious job and tell him to grab more help once more people showed up. Half an eternity later, he was still doing it by himself and not much advanced, while other people were standing around looking for work.

My fifth mistake was to do things by myself instead of helping people do things. Sometimes I was too busy to know what's going on in the kitchen at large. Also, it's not fun to work by myself when others are working together and happily chat while they do it.

My only advice is what I think is the most important function of the leader: make sure that nothing that needs to be done is forgotten and make sure that new volunteers learn enough to be productive helpers.

Now here come the recipes: For the stew, I bought 27 lbs of taro of which we had to throw one or two away because it didn't meet our high quality standards. For garlic and green onions I don't know how much we actually had. The soy sauce was added to our taste; it was less than a bottle

The salad was planned for 100, we sold about 74 and I think with the volunteer meals, the recipe yielded about 90 to 95 servings. (At one point, we made the salad servings bigger, because it seemed we had more salad than soup, so there is no fixed measure of what a serving is. Feeds any number from 60 hungry people to 120 dieting ones.)

(Except for the onions, I bought all the herbs and veggies myself and the numbers are correct. For the onions, 10 is the number from the shopping list and I only saw them when they were chopped up. Also don't know if it was big or small ones. If recipes really mattered, we should go by weight for everything but liquids!)

7 cups of green lentils (cooked)
10 cups of red lentils (cooked, note: cooks faster than the green ones)
10 onions (marinated in salt overnight, which --as I once read-- makes the softer)

and all those things fresh from the Farmer's Market at Bloor and Borden streets:
5 bunches of coriander (cilantro)
5 bunches of arucula
4 or 5 bunches of basil
4 bunches of oregano
4 FMB green beans
3 FMB red tomatoes
3 FMB yellow tomatoes
4 bunches of baby carrots

freshly squeezed lemon juice (we had about net of lemons that did not give much juice)
less than a bottle of olive oil
other things which only the dressing-making volunteer knows and which might include some apple cider vinegar which I put on her counter.

Personally I was not much involved in making the salad. Maybe that's why I liked the salad most of all meal components.

As a bonus, I conclude my reflections with a list of most memorable moments:
  • my first taste of the salad when I got my full plate served by one of our lovely volunteers.
  • the scent of oregano and basil when I bought them and later every time I passed by the herbal volunteers just to take another fresh breath.
  • me in tears, handing back the unknowingly thrown away onion bottoms to Kira. I felt so sorry for my unqualified messing with her job. (But the tears were due to the frying of garlic.)
  • stewing the taro with Keith.
  • finding a job assignment that did not involve Giovanna washing anything.
  • Guru's smiling face and bright eyes when we went to the farmer's market. (Totally justifying the twisted reasoning I had to make up to justify her coming with me and the men going to Kensington market.)
  • full opportunity to engage with my most-loved job at the Yam: scraping the bottoms of the dessert-pans.
On my next meal there will be German food (but no sausages) and I will make different mistakes to make sure that I keep learning things.

Behind the curtain: Me and Giovanna in a heated debate. "Everything went wrong! We did not have enough lentils, the crisp recipe was not right, this is lacking organization."
- "No, I think you are doing great."
At this point one of our patrons walked up to us: "I just want to say that I am coming here often and this was one of the best meals that I had for a while. It was really delicious."
Giovanna: "There you go."
me: "Maybe you are right."


Sarah said...

Interesting, but could you add some background on why and where you were cooking for so many people?

Robert Jack Wild said...

Background added in the foreground. Thanks for asking! :-D

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