Oh January, we meet again– with your grey skies and empty afternoons. After all that delicious chaos in December you’d think I’d crave these quiet weeks, but alas, I thrive in pandemonium and January always hits me like a ton of ennui bricks.
Obviously, I can’t regale you with stories of recent parties because there haven’t been any, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a story from long, long ago.
It was a sweltering mid-July day in New York, 2009, and the window-box air conditioners of the Upper West Side apartment I was catering in were about to lose the battle against the heat. 75 mourners would be arriving shortly, trying to find a way to honor the sudden passing of a young woman dragged away forever by a riptide while swimming. Her parents were and are still good friends of my parents. Though I had never met their daughter I know she was a very strong swimmer. I know her body was never found. I know that I don’t want to exploit her story here on this blog, so I’ll leave it at that. It was sad. Like, really sad. Still is. I have a hard time fighting the tears back as I tap the words onto my keyboard right now.
When the family asked if I was available to cater the reception following the service in Central Park, I felt honored. In times of friends’ crises, it’s human nature to rally around and give support any way we can. Sometimes we’re desperate to figure out how. I was lucky to know what my role would be, and even luckier to know I could do it well.
I was struggling personally though and had been for a while. Two years prior, I had left work and friends in Los Angeles to be closer to my family in New York. It was a lot harder than I expected and I was struggling to find traction in my career and personal life. I was poor and scared, a cycle that just feeds on itself—especially in New York City. I was drinking way too much, almost always alone in my apartment, feeling like booze was the only friend I could be completely honest with. Catering this reception was so important to me. I needed the money, I needed the focus, I needed to feel in service to something bigger than myself.
Part of the performance of catering is providing an aura of confidence and luxuriousness. Sure, the food has to be great but lavishness is key, and that magical feeling was far from my reality at that moment. When I was asked to cater the party, I wanted to represent myself as someone who always goes the extra mile. I bought opulent flowers to adorn the platters and purchased expensive black cocktail napkins instead of the standard white 2-plys that I usually buy in bulk online. I know that these expenses might seem trivial, but when you’re really scared about money, spending an extra $25 on black napkins is terrifying.
I had a small pool of servers and bartenders from which to pull, nothing like I eventually had in New York or now have in Portland. Staff was rarely needed and not often test-driven. They were mostly friends of friends who had done some restaurant work. For this party, I set up a bartender who I’d worked with before and a server who I hadn’t. The server was named Lenny. He showed up late in a moist tie-dye t-shirt with his white dress shirt slung over his shoulder.
“Man, is it hot today,” said Lenny, starting with a complaint. It was hot. It was July. But bigger things were happening. Someone had died for crying out loud. I calmed myself down. He was opening up a conversation with an obvious statement. Nothing wrong with that really, he’s just trying to chat. He didn’t know how nervous I was about this gig or how sensitive I was about everything at that point.
“It’s true, it’s hot, but those window units are doing what they can. I need you to get into your button-down shirt immediately and then I’ll talk you through the menu. The guests should be returning from the ceremony in the park in about 30 minutes, so we need to get crackin’.”
Now, I know that the service industry isn’t for everyone. I’ve met enough people in 25 years of catering to see the difference between those that can and those that can’t serve. I cast no judgment, either way. The people who are great at this job are people who can easily intuit how they would like to be served, like an empath with a silver tray. It’s not hard at all if you think that way, but I don’t know if thinking that way intuitively can be taught. Lenny did not have this gift and mostly just wanted to tell me about the Grateful Dead show he had attended the night before.
Guests started spilling through the door, and I pushed a platter of food into Lenny’s right hand and a fan of napkins into the left.
“Here’s the prosciutto wrapped asparagus spears with basiled goat cheese.”
“Ok, chef. What’s it called again?”
A little while later, Lenny returned to the kitchen. I handed him the new platter with veggie spring rolls lined up neatly.
“Hold on a second, chef. It’s really hot out there.” And he took three black cocktail napkins from the side table and wiped his brow. I stifled my internal screams and handed him a glass of ice water.
“Um.. you can also use paper towels to wipe your head…” gesturing to the roll of paper towels on the countertop next to him.
“Oh sure, ok.”
10 minutes later, Lenny returned even sweatier. His dress shirt had become see-through, and he had no undershirt on. I took his almost empty platter and swapped it for a freshly plated one.
“Here are some endive spears with a red pepper mousse.”
“Endive? With what?”
It was kind of funny by that point. I repeated the appetizer highlights as if talking to a child and hustled him through the corridor to the living room. I was focused on wiping down the next platter when a man sauntered into the kitchen. I don’t remember much about him other than that he was wearing black leather pants on what was maybe the worst day ever for black leather.
The airless apartment provided no solace from the heat, and as more and more people were arriving guests were exploring every nook and cranny of the place to find some breathing room. I’m used to guests lingering near or in the kitchen, so I wasn’t that surprised to have company. He winked as he walked in.
“No way, you made chicken?” Leatherpants asked, seeing 20 chicken skewers lined up on a foiled sheet pan ready to go into the oven. “I love chicken!” and he reached over to lift a skewer to his mouth, winking again.
“NO!!!” I yelled as I wrestled the skewer out of his mouth. Cater-food is often prepped to a point but not cooked all the way through so that it doesn’t dry out or become over-cooked when reheated on site. This chicken was a perfect example of that. It was not quite ready for human consumption, but leatherpants saw an opportunity and took it.
I wish I had a nickel for every time a guest came into the kitchen to tell me they were special enough to eat food that’s still in production, often standing in the middle of the kitchen blocking all the necessary components for me to keep things moving. It almost always starts with the chicken remark, which is why I’ve named them the special chicken people. “You made chicken? No way! I love chicken!!” as if chicken was some anomalous specialty item that no one has ever made before. It’s normally followed by a qualifying remark; ‘I’m the cook in my family,” or my personal favorite, “I’m a FOODIE” (which is always used as if it’s a secret code word that will open the doors to some spectacular underground culinary mecca).
Oh, you’re a foodie? Well then, by all means; help yourself to my raw chicken skewers!
I’m sorry, that’s terrible… and something I would never do. It’s just hard for people to understand how important the mise en place and staging is in a kitchen, especially when it’s just me against a crowd of hungry, sweaty guests.
Leatherpants was a foodie in the music industry (explains the pants) and wanted to talk to me about clubs and bands while winking excessively. I took some hot, fully cooked chicken skewers out of the oven and plated some especially for him.
“I have to focus on the food now, sir. Enjoy your snack, and I’ll try to check out that band sometime.”
Leatherpants made a double click “catch ya later” sound with his teeth and passed an incoming Lenny on his way out of the kitchen. Lenny proudly presented me with his empty platter—an achievement for any server—and reached for the newly-loaded chicken plate. I looked up at his face to see little bits of black napkin strewn across his forehead and cheeks. Lord knows how long he had been walking through that very emotional reception with expensive napkin fragments all over his sweaty face!
Look, I don’t expect people to stop basic life functions; it’s just catering. But if you’re a person who tends to sweat and you know it’s going to be a brutally hot day, don’t you bring a handkerchief? Don’t you wear an undershirt? Poor sweaty Lenny’s shortcomings have become examples of the kind of forethought and responsibility I expect from my staff. I’ve told this story so many times, in fact, that my team often shouts out, “Don’t be a Sweaty Lenny!” in times of stress. They also know about the special chicken people and do their best to block incoming nibblers.
Lenny, by the way, was given another opportunity to work for me. He showed up to that party drunk, and the host asked him to leave. Some people just aren’t meant to cater.
Now let’s talk about that chicken. I love this dish so much, and I have put it on menus since the first time I made it. The sauce’s combination of fresh mint, rice vinegar, and mirin (which is a sweet rice wine similar to sake but with a very low alcohol content) is such a bright contrast to the curried chicken (that I prepare either fried or seared) that you can’t stop at just one. I’ve also discovered through the years that if you soak chicken in buttermilk (just as I’ve always done for fried chicken), it can be grilled or broiled without becoming dry, so I can cook it all the way through and don’t have to worry about accidentally killing the special chicken people. Live and learn.
Chicken Skewers with
Mirin Mint Dip
(needs a night to soak so give yourself time!)
- 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- Buttermilk to cover
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- For the fried chicken strips
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
- Black pepper to taste
- Vegetable oil
- Cut the chicken into bite-size strips (I can normally get about 20 pieces from one breast). Place the chicken strips into a bowl and cover with buttermilk. Stir the curry powder and the salt into the buttermilk and wrap with plastic wrap. Let it sit overnight.
- Take the chicken out of the fridge an hour before you’re going to cook it.
- Toss the flour with the salt, paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Heat about an inch and a half of vegetable (not olive) oil in a medium pan until it registers 350 degrees. Dredge the chicken strips in the flour mixture and drop them gently into the oil. They should cook very quickly, about 3-5 minute each side. Transfer the pieces to a paper towel-lined plate. Skewer and serve with dip.
If you’d prefer a more traditional satay style, simply preheat the broiler, line a pan with foil, and place the buttermilked chicken strips onto the foil. Broil for about 5 minutes each side. Skewer and serve with dip.
Mirin Mint Dip
This recipe will make ample dip for a party, but it’s a great salad dressing, too!
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/8 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/8 cup mirin
- ½ cup fresh mint
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until it becomes green and smooth. Serve with skewered chicken and enjoy!