During my professional career in engineering and project management, I have worked and consulted for some of the largest companies in the land.A while back, a Director of one such client decided to take me along with her team to a company-owned farm for a two-day planning meeting.The site is on the Eastern Shore of Maryland right next to the Chesapeake Bay, a serene, pastoral setting replete with ducks, geese, cormorants, loons, deer and a Pepsi machine.
A few weeks before we went on the trip, the Director came to me, knowing some of my history with Home Cooking Parties, and asked if I would be willing to orchestrate a big cooking event and dinner party for the entire team.She wanted the cooking experience to be a team building exercise.Now, the farm does have a three-person professional cheffing team that cooks all of the meals for farm guests, so I contacted them and let them know that our team would be doing all of the cooking for our dinner meal on the night of our stay.In fact, I told them that I would plan the menu, work up the shopping list and direct the entire group of twenty.All the chefs would have to do is buy the groceries, stand-by, show us where the pots and pans were and join us for dinner.They were delighted.So there was me, sixteen of my working associates and the three chefs, 20 in all.A Home Cooking Party for Twenty was about to be born.
The first thing I did was have the chefs take pictures of their kitchen and dining rooms and e-mail them to me.They had a professional sized cook top, but only one oven so special planning would be necessary to rotate the various items through the baking and roasting parts of the event in a timely fashion.I decided to use the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Garlic Home Cooking Party for Four plan as a starting point.The shopping list was the easiest thing to change.I just multiplied everything by 5 and there I had it, food for 20.I e-mailed that to the pro chefs turned Shopping Team and they said that they would take care of it all.The farm also has a bar so we selected the option for cocktails, wine and liqueur all the way from cocktail hour to the end of the night.That was easy.
Next I had to decide how I was going to use the other sixteen people on my team.They could not all fit into the kitchen.It was an old farmhouse kitchen from the turn of the century (19th to 20th) with only a few professional upgrades.Hip room was not one of them.In fact the pros were afraid that we would overwhelm their little country kitchen. We would have, so I decided to segregate the team.Eight of them would be sous chefs working under my direction.Six of them would be waiters working under my direction.The remaining two would be sommeliers working under my direction.Since I did a three year stint as a waiter in New York City when I was in college, I knew how to direct the wait staff part of the team.I made my own wine, beer and liqueur in the 1970s and drank a lot from 1965 through 1995, so I was completely comfortable with the sommeliers.The good fortune of this arrangement was that I did not have to change my meal preparation plan from a timing standpoint.I had noticed over many of my Home Cooking Parties for Eight that the four two-person chef teams always seemed to have plenty of time to complete their cutting and cooking jobs, so I went on the hunch that increasing the workload from 8 to 20 portions would not be that much more work.I was almost right.Boy oh boy, some of them worked like dogs in the kitchen, but I kept telling them to have faith and confidence and it would all work out okay.
My plan was that once the sous chef teams were launched on their first courses I would show the waiters how to set the dining rooms (we needed two rooms in the small farm house for the large crowd). We had two very long tables, one in each dining room, and a small side table for the three professional chefs who wanted to eat but said they would be more comfortable not encroaching on our party.The wait team was divided into two groups of three, one team for each dining room.We did some social engineering experimentation, as well.We assigned all of the waiters to eat in one dining room with one sommelier serving them, and all of the chefs in the larger dining room with the other sommelier serving in there.Interestingly enough there was a huge esprit deícorp among the chefs and a similarly robust one among the waiters.The teaming experience worked well from that standpoint.
The first lesson for the wait team was the place setting.We needed wine glasses, water glasses, soup bowls, salad plates and dinner plates.The dessert plates and coffee cups were kept on a sideboard until after the main course. It was a good break that one of my sous chefs was also an expert napkin folder, so she took a break from cooking and trained the wait team in several folding techniques.They wound up choosing the one they could do 20 times in a row.We had a marvelous menu and would be serving everything banquet style with arm service.I showed them how to carry up to four plates at a crack in their arms.Consensus was reached quickly by the slightly tipsy team that each of them would handle no more that one plate in each hand at a time.They were greatly relieved.
Since the sommeliers were mixing cocktails and serving wine like champs I spent almost no time with them.They were both sauced, so additional training would not have stuck.
The sous chefs were magnificent, especially when you consider the fact that they did not have any idea what they would be doing right up to 15 minutes before they started.
That afternoon, when we finished our last business meeting of the day, I was given the floor by the Director.I handed out hats which the sous chefs wore with bills front, the waiters wore them with the bills back, and the sommeliers wore them with the bills right or left, their choice.Everyone of the team received a booklet with the prep instructions and recipes for the meal.I told them to meet me in the kitchen in 15 minutes and we would start with our first cocktail and I would give out a few other instructions.
Everyone showed up in the kitchen on time and proved that 17 of us plus the three pros would have never fit.We did put our aprons on.Sous got to wear them straight up.Waiters and sommeliers folded them down to the waist and wore them French cafe style.I told the waiters to go into the bar room, drink and wait (makes sense).The sous chefs were instructed to open their booklets and see who each was partnered with.The pros armed the sous with knives and cutting boards and the work began.Each team simply followed the prep plan and recipes and was focused on a different task.Some cut baguettes, some chopped vegetables, others strained lentils, others chopped fresh herbs and still others prepared tart fillings.They turned to me whenever they were not sure how something should look or feel, but for the most part they worked merrily along until there was a dispute.
Two of the teams quickly turned out the Antipasto, so at least the booze was being accompanied by something, but the dispute was between the other two teams.One of the sous (an engineer) insisted he was supposed to finish the soup because he started it.The plan really called for him and his partner to make the base soup, while another team was in the plan to make the roux, finish the mint infused butter and plate the final soup.It took all of my might to convince him he did not have to finish every item he started, only the parts the instructions said to finish; besides he had to jump onto the deep fried vegetables preparation.He relented, even though he didnít buy in completely, and did a great job on the vegetables.
The steak cooking was a trip!The waiters took orders from everyone whether they wanted their filets rare, medium rare, medium, medium well or well-done. Have you ever worked with someone who has only cooked a little bit for himself, has not been married and never threw a dinner party? Fortunately he was an engineer, understood process and how to read instructions.He followed the directions explicitly and my subtle nurturing.You know what?Everyone got a steak exactly as it was ordered.He seared, ovened, also set some steaks on the top shelf of the stove to achieve varying degrees of doneness.That night he was superb.
The courses were served in perfect order, just 20 to 30 minutes late each . Itís okay to not be perfect!The confluence of flavors and doneness was magnificent.Everyone had a great meal, and they were stuffed.They could barely move by the time we finished the main course, so we put off dessert for an extra thirty minutes and went on the front porch of the farmhouse for cigars and brandy.Even a few of the women smoked stogies.It was a riot.When we went back in for dessert, they were floored by the creamy and lightly sweet creation.Since the Director had worked on the dessert, they were all very complimentary.She deserved it.The tart was really good.
Thus ended my first try at a Home Cooking Party for Twenty.What I learned from that night was that any of you could run such an experience for a large crowd like this simply by splitting the jobs like I did.I also learned that the size of your kitchen wonít matter much, so if you have enough dining space in a private home with a large kitchen you might not have to rent a banquet facility.In my TeamBuilding plan for 20 I have revised the shopping lists and menus and even made a few changes in the Preparation and Service Plan to balance the work properly.You can even vary the group size up or down a bit.Good luck if you ever try it.I promise you will thrill 16, 20 or 24 people with a classy, arm-service sit-down dinner.