Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Weed Whacking

I generally have a hard time admitting when I’ve bit off more than I can chew. So, when I agreed to make more than 1,000 pastries for a 300-guest wedding in addition to my full-time job as pastry chef at a renown restaurant and my part-time job as a corporate coffee barista, I figured that a few more hours in the kitchen could only be a good thing: more practice, more catering, and, most importantly, more money. I took it on without thinking twice or looking back even once.

The wedding reception was set for July 7th, 2007. Thirty-three percent more couples got married on triple-seven than any other day of the year, so I felt pretty special to be a part of the whoop-la. The chances of my being wed on 07/07/07 were less than zero, so catering was my only in. Besides, as I always say - those who don’t wed, cater.

Catering is one of my favorite things. When I attended culinary school, I never intended to work in a restaurant, even though Fate had different plans. I am, and have always been, deeply interested in catering small dinner parties and events. The intimacy of the interaction with customers, getting to know their personality to create a menu distinctly for them, has always held such appeal for me. Living in France, I was able to cater a few small formal dinners and to this day they remain the most fun work I have ever done. Except for rolling out 300 buttermilk biscuits every morning for six months. That’s the apex of fun. But when I got the opportunity to be the pastry chef for this huge wedding event, I jumped at it.

I received the e-mail with the seemingly innocuous dessert menu four days before the event. On first glance, it was pretty straightforward: mini key lime tarts, petit fours, éclairs and profiteroles, mini flourless chocolate cakes, and mini cheesecake bites. After three hours of math (figuring portion size, ingredient amounts, components, temperature and time for baking, etc), I deemed it a surmountable task. What I didn’t take into account was the inevitable time crunch. Whip 1,000 servings, 7 different pastries, and 2 other time-devouring jobs until fluffy. Fold in endless fatigue, a sick pet rabbit, and gallons of sweat and bake. A recipe for disaster.

On the morning of Saturday the 7th, my best friend and I had our pet rabbit euthanized. The ordeal took more than the three hours out of my day. It also took all of my emotional commitment to my work and threw it in the incinerator with our white-and-tan bundle of joy. In the restaurant business we use the term “in the weeds” or “weeded” to describe a situation in which there is no way (short of a foodservice miracle) that all the food will be at the ‘ready’ stage on time. Saturday morning, I was past the weeds and into the rainforest. To get out of the jam, I would have needed more than a Troy-bilt lawnmower chipper-shredder. I needed a team of Amazon indigenous persons with machetes in hand and blowdarts to fend off Poison Dart frogs.

By 7:15pm, guests began arriving at the historic Exchange office building in Thomasville, Georgia – 45 minutes to the north on armadillo-strewn County Road 319. Two buffet tables sat in the middle of the rococo ballroom drenched in magenta and black flowers and ribbons and candles. After 2 hours of fretting over melted ganache, bruleeing the meringue on top of the key lime tarts, barking out orders to my impromptu assistants, filling the profiteroles, and topping the cheesecake with finely-chopped strawberries, we overflowed the tables with beautiful platters of sandwiches, fruit, and sweet things.

Taking some trash down the elevator, I ran into the bride’s father, a tall, handsome salt-and-pepper gentleman with a genuine smile and ice-blue eyes that glistened with tears. He thanked me for making his daughters wedding great. “We have been to 6 weddings this summer alone, and we had the best food at our own. We were so blessed to have had you. Thank you.”

At the end of the day, as the last guests danced to Don’t Stop Believin’, everyone was happy. Backbreaking and heartbreaking though it was, no one noticed that there was not marzipan on the petit fours, the ganache on the éclairs had melted into almost non-existence, and the meringue on the key-lime tarts had begun to weep. The bride and groom were off to Jamaica, and Steve Perry was on the speakers. It couldn’t have been better.

Looking back, I probably should have looked before I leapt. I probably should have taken into account that the restaurant was going to be closed for a week and would reopen on the Friday before the wedding – doubling my workload at the restaurant and leaving me little time to get anything done for the wedding before the night-crew came into the kitchen and usurped my stove and convection oven. But I didn’t. Through my tears, I lit my blowtorch.

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