Posted on August 16th, 2012
The summer after my freshman year of pastry school was hot and sticky. I spent it in Oklahoma helping a surgical nurse take over an existing bakery she purchased during some sort of mid-life career crisis. It was quite a successful bakery; the products were good and there was no competition except the supermarkets. The space was large but the resources were a bit limited. I had two mixers – a forty quart and a twenty quart – and two ovens – a standard double door convection and an old-timey carousel oven that functioned in a fashion more akin to a ferris wheel. You might be thinking, ‘that doesn’t sound so limited’; and you would be right if all this nurse wanted me to do was bake. But, in addition to my daily twelve hour bake shift that started at two in the morning, she wanted me to cater her best friend’s daughter’s wedding…..for three-hundred and fifty people.
In small-town Oklahoma, a black tie wedding for 350 people means fifteen percent of the town was invited to the community center for THE event of the summer. The idea was simple enough; appetizers and a mashed potato bar: mashed potatoes with all the fixin’s “classed up” in martini glasses. I had designed the appetizer menu around my limited resources in the bakery. Planning to make pretty much everything ahead of time meant hoping they didn’t notice they weren’t getting anything sauteed, boiled, pan-fried, or otherwise prepared on a stove top. The mashed potato bar was, unfortunately for me, non-negotiable. Having no way to boil one hundred pounds of potatoes, I personally sampled every prepared-mashed-potato-product available. Let me tell you: there are reasons people still bother to peel, cube, boil, and mash their own potatoes. Nevertheless, I settled on a promising high quality boil-in-bag redskin mashed potato. I had been promised that the community center would have a very well-equipped commercial kitchen, though all of my requests to see the kitchen before the day of the event had been met only with repeated assurances that it was indeed very nice and fully equipped.
Most of the potato bar fixin’s required little preparation: butter, cheese, sour cream, chives, bacon…but this was a wedding and the mashed potatoes – which were already burdened with the expectation of being the most dignified mashed potatoes that ever were – also had the distinction of becoming the vehicle for what was to stand in for the lack of an entree. Beef tips. On top of mashed potato cocktails. No big, right? I mean the community center has a commercial kitchen, right? Not knowing whether I would be able to mass-produce beef tips quickly enough in a kitchen I had never seen; remembering I would be working my normal 2-10:00 A.M. in the bakery before going to the community center to pull off this miracle; and not being a complete masochist, I decided to prep the beef-tips ahead of the event. However, mixers and ovens weren’t going to help, so I told the nurse and she returned with a Coleman gas stove. I didn’t read the manufacturer’s literature, but I’m pretty sure this piece of camping gear was not designed to double as excellent for large-scale high-end catering. I’m not a camper, but I am a trooper; once she showed me how to use it I was in business. It was 4:00 P.M. on a day that started at 2:00 A.M.; the fifth in a five-day series of eighteen-hour days and there I was, making beef tips for three-hundred and fifty people on a Coleman stove – one two-inch hotel pan at a time. In a professional kitchen we all come up though the ranks somehow, and we all pay our dues; I thought at the time I was just paying in advance and I was determined to pull it off.
So the day of the wedding comes and I open the bakery for the weekend rush before heading over to the community center. I have done all I could to make this go smoothly and really only need to boil some water, heat a few things in ovens, and keep them warm. What could go wrong? Well, it turns out the community center looked very nice and commercial; it had ovens, warmers, fridges, freezers, stainless steel tables, prep sinks and a very nice commercial dish washer. What it didn’t have was a single apparatus that would boil pots of water. There were two old electric hot plates that didn’t produce enough heat to make a grilled-cheese sandwich between the two of them. Instead of a commercial microwave, a sad little model whose white exterior made it look like it had come from the isle of misfit toys sat surrounded by its stainless steel brethren. But this was it, this was all I had, and there was no turning back. My best friend Laura had come out to visit and help work the wedding, and I enlisted her to man the potatoes and the microwave. Five cases of boil-in-the bag mashed potatoes went in that microwave before she transferred them to the warmer…one lonely bag at a time slowly rotating. I’m sure if it could have, that sad little microwave would have started to wonder how in the hell the family it was designed to be serving was going to eat that many bags of processed potatoes; but it and Laura soldiered on.
The reception was served to the pleasure of the guests, none of them suspecting the catastrophes behind it. So that was the summer I paid my dues and started my way up the ranks. As for Laura, who is a classical musician with no kitchen dues to pay, she became an honored civilian and refrained from using a microwave for a very long time.