Dateline: Dec. 31, 2002
On the road in La Mesilla, New Mexico
I was visiting with some old Chef friends the other day when the subject of cooking disasters came up. It occurred to me that the subject would be a great way to start off the New Year by remembering years past and sharing an experience with you that greatly influenced my professional culinary habits.
In 1976, while a very young Executive Chef at Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Hollywood, I was asked to prepare a series of formal dinners in conjunction with that year's Academy Awards Presentation. These were known as "screenings" and members of the Academy were invited by the Studio to attend a screening of new movies being considered for an Award. These were obliviously "high profile" dinners with the crème de la crème of Hollywood in attendance and Studio Management was highly interested in their successful outcome.
We had produced about 3 or 4 of these dinners over the course of the preceding two weeks, each a smashing success. This particular dinner was the second of three that we would produce this week. Each dinner was for approximately 250 people.
It should be noted that all these dinners were evening events, produced after the kitchen crew had performed our daily feat of preparing lunch for anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 Studio employees and movie "extras." The total count depending upon the number of people required for the various Television series and movies being produced on the "lot" that day.
On this particular day I had assigned my Executive Sous Chef to oversee the production of that evening's dinner. The main course was Coq au Vin. Our workday began each day at 5:00 AM. My crew quickly assumed the various duties necessary to produce that day's lunch and my Executive Sous Chef promptly began directing "his" crew in the production of that evening's dinner.
As I am sure you can well imagine, feeding five or six thousand people lunch is a very labor intensive activity and by 10:30 that morning I directed my Ex. Sous to suspend work on the dinner and put all his attention towards the days lunch. I then went to his work area and my Sous Chef and I personally counted the pieces of chicken to insure that we had enough for that evening's dinner.
My Sous and his crew dutifully cleaned up their work area and placed the disjointed uncooked chicken in a number of large food storage boxes, loaded the boxes on three rolling carts and placed them in the "cooks walk-in," a very large refrigerator next to the main cooking line.
About 3:00 that afternoon, when lunch was finally over and the kitchen had been cleaned, I directed a couple of my Staff to "bring out the chicken." We then began the massive three-hour production process of cooking Coq au Vin for 250 people. When all the chicken was cooked and the sauce prepared we turned our attention to the rest of the dinner and by 7:00 PM we were ready to serve.
The main kitchen at 20th Century Fox was built during the Golden Age of Hollywood and was a gargantuan space designed to produce food for thousands of people at a time. During these large functions I directed events from a small-elevated podium in the center of the main kitchen where I could watch over all aspects of the production.
A small army of waiters impeccably served our soup and salad courses and a fresh lemon sorbet had been served as a palate cleanser prior to the main course. The waiters were queuing up in their assigned positions to accept the main course from the battalion of cooks on the line as bus boys hurriedly returned with the empty sorbet cups.
After receiving the signal from the Head Waiter that the last of the sorbet cups had been removed, I directed the serving of the main course. Everything was moving quickly as each waiter picked up their required number of plates, delivering them to the guests and returning to the kitchen for their next tray. I couldn't have asked for a smoother operation. Everything was functioning like a Swiss watch and then.....
Tom, my Executive Sous Chef, yells out from behind the line, "Where's the chicken?" A sudden flurry of activity ensued with cooks and wait staff looking in each of the numerous holding ovens. "I can't find anymore chicken!" Tom yells at me. "What?" I exclaim, "How can that be? We counted the pieces ourselves?" Tom ran to the walk-in refrigerator, opened the door, paused and I could tell from my perch across the room, as his shoulders slumped forward, that he had found the missing chicken.
Disaster had struck. We were two thirds of the way through our dinner service when we ran out of cooked Coq au Vin. There remained, on the very top shelf of the walk-in, two large boxes of ready-to-cook chicken that Tom sheepishly brought out into the kitchen.
In the meantime, my carefully orchestrated food service plan went out the window as the army of waiters began to back up around me. Quickly a flurry of activity occurred behind the line as Sous Chefs, Cooks, Sauciers and assistants ran to turn on the vast array of deep fryers, ovens, grills and broilers that had been cold for hours. Frantically we ran to the coolers to see what we could serve.
Fortunately for us, we never knew exactly how many people we were going to have for lunch the next day until 3:00 PM the day prior. Consequently, it was necessary to always have on hand, and ready to go at a moments notice, some kind of entree for a thousand people. In this case, I had a couple of large Steamship Rounds of Beef, fully cooked and needing only to be heated.
While my staff quickly sliced and heated the Roast Beef, I calmed the waiters, reorganized the lines, and within ten minutes we were serving again. I made certain that the Roast Beef substitute was only served to tables that had not already received some of the Coq au Vin and everyone acted like this was totally normal. Of course we knew, and any discriminating palate could surely tell, the difference between Au Jus and Coq au Vin sauce.
None of the guests even commented about the change in menu and the head table even sent their "compliments to the Chef." Of course for all that mattered I could have just fed everyone Peanut Butter Sandwiches that day since the movie they were screening was Star Wars, the year's biggest hit.
I found out later that during lunch that fateful day, a waiter, needing an empty cart, had entered the cook's walk-in, placed the two boxes of chicken on the top shelf and taken the cart. Nobody thought to count the chicken a second time and everyone just assumed that we had cooked all the chicken.
To this day, I have never made that mistake again. I ALWAYS personally count the entree TWICE!