Money can only make your surroundings pleasant. It cannot create inner pleasantness.
In my job as Catering Manager in a large private boarding school I also have to cater for the Headmaster whose wife cannot cook.
Every couple of weeks he has a dinner for about twelve people from around the Community and he expects a first class three course meal with all the trimmings.
The school is 90 years old with 90 year old equipment and a staff of cooks who have learnt from each other and their fathers or relatives as time has gone. I cannot change the school menu too far from the norm as they only know what they have learnt over the years, so the menu hasn’t really changed over the years. In the time that I have been here they have been so grateful for all I teach them and any training or knowledge I share with them. Coming from a hospitality training to school catering is certainly a big step and was quite confusing in the beginning. I had all these menu changes which were soon shelved due to lack of knowledge; all these exciting salads and vegetable recipes to incorporate until I realised that I was feeding children who definitely weren’t interested in veg & salads. Everything had to be bland, non salted, non sugared and of course cooked in large quantities.
So with the above explanation you can understand that the cooks have no idea how to cater to dinner parties, so I plan and cook them myself. Its a lot of work on top of the rest of my job but I have become very clever and learnt to plan a menu (which has to be sent to him and his wife for approval) which can be prepared in advance, is basic and simple with the most flamboyant of names and presentation and which can be served by the Madam without too much explanation.
This dinner was :- Creamy Asparagus Soup with blue cheese crostini, Lamb & Bacon Casserole with sweet potato mash, sesame carrots, green beans & roasted beetroot & feta salad and for dessert was Creme Brulee.
My dinner plans never follow the menu I normally send to them a month before the dinner, I have never figured out if they notice this. Its hard to plan and organise a meal living far away from any decent shopping centre so its only really two or three days before the dinner that the menu comes together with what I have been able to find, and of course the progression of my cooking.
For this dinner the Creamy Asparagus Soup required fresh asparagus of which I only found 5 sticks – add in brined asparagus. I could only find one bunch of leeks – add in spring onions. The cream had, of course, gone off, and created a curdled look which made me panic at first but then after I had blended the whole lot for a good time and boiled and boiled it, it all seemed to come together.
The Blue Cheese Crostini – the french loaves I ordered from the town bakery turned out to be kitka loaves, and of course no blue cheese to be found. I found brie & camembert and melted it onto the halved slices of bread – my opinion was that it looked as horrid as it smelt but that must be the gourmet slant.
The main course was easy – but the old anthracite stove which normally doesnt get hot enough to boil anything suddenly had a spurt while I was out of the kitchen and I came back to find millions of burnt bits. I also realised that I wouldn’t have enough lamb so my casserole became loaded with carrots and potatoes. The sweet potato mash was good but as I had used the carrots in the lamb I had to replace them with something orange to balance my menu – roasted butternut, then I realised my beetroot & feta salad was not enough as the only packet of beetroot I could find had shrunk while roasting. So the beans changed to minted peas and the beetroot & feta salad became beetroot, green beans, onion slices & feta – a very nice salad I must say.
The Creme Brulee – oh those Creme Brulee! My cream was off, remember, so the first batch never set. I got fresh cream (we get fresh milk from the dairy down the road daily but I thought buying box cream would make it all taste better) and started again. We don’t have a blow torch or anything so I had to grill the sugar topping under the small salamander we have. It took ages and I was nearly late delivering the dinner to his Lodge. Wouldn’t have made a difference though as I never see anyone when I am offloading my car, I think they watch me from a window then only come into the kitchen as I am leaving for any last minute instruction.
As I said, I always plan a menu to be able to make in advance. I had made the soup, the lamb and the Creme Brulee the day before then finished things on the day of the dinner. That was something else I learnt, my cooking comes bottom of the list to the guys preparing lunch or dinner for the children so any of the equipment I need I have to make sure they don’t need. When there are sports function teas, plus lunch and supper for 300 to prepare the oven is much fought over.
I always get nervous over the dinners, but this dinner I lost my nervousness and developed a feeling in my gut that it was going to be one of my worst. I always cook from my heart and this time my heart just wasn’t interested. I felt disappointed, and worried all night.
The next morning was the first time ever that the Headmaster came into the Kitchens to say thank you for a lovely meal. He gushed over the deliciousness and said how happy all the guests had been.
We in the Kitchens always judge the meal by what gets returned in the dishes form the Lodge – they were clean, except for some stinky cheese crostinis.