December 10, 2002

Cooking for Crowds

Every year I have a large party on or around my birthday. I invite friends over who I think will enjoy having the food that I cook. It's always a great time, and I can't imagine any other way to spend this day of the year. But lots of people can't imagine how it is possible to cook more than a dozen dishes on a four burner stove. Here's some things I've learned over the years.

1. Have help

You can't pull off this much work without at least one person helping. I have a team of four very talented amateur cooks who help me. This includes prep work, setting up the ingredients, cooking, plating, and even cleaning.

2. Know your limits

I've cooked with as few as one helper and as many as four. Depending upon how much help I have, I adjust the complexity of the dishes. I also plan more dishes that are "make ahead" when I have less help.

3. Test recipes

Complex dishes that you haven't made before need a trial run. Weeks or months before, I'll make the dish. I'm testing a few things -- does the taste match up with what I want, does the assembly work, are the temperatures and times accurate?

4. Preparation

You have to do things ahead of time. During service, there should be no cutting of vegetables and other tasks that can be done ahead of time. All of the ingredients for a dish need to be measured out before hand. I use disposable containers such as drink cups or paper bowels. I place the ingredients into disposable aluminum sheet pans and cover with plastic wrap -- writing the dish name on top.

For cooking, the entire pan can be brought to the stove, unwrapped, and is ready to go.

5. Lists

I cannot live without lists. Typical prep sheets run 3 to 4 pages. I write down the steps to each recipe or dish. Each step also has a number of the dish it goes with, so that people can tell what they are slicing carrots for. I then place next to each one a time when I think that step should be started. I then re-order the list sorted by time. If I see too much stuff at a given time (such as around 2 o'clock) I see if I can shift some of the tasks around to eliminate the bottleneck.

During the day, items are crossed off the list as they are completed. During service, likewise, steps are crossed off to keep track of what needs to be happening. Any of my helpers can also see what's next and what needs to be done.

I typically shoot for all prep work to be done by four in the afternoon for a six o'clock start time. We usually hit this or slightly early. This leaves time for final checks and run-throughs before we start. Anything that gets missed will likewise have time to be corrected.

6. Menu Development

You can't cook 16 dishes if every one requires 4 burners plus the oven. You need to have dishes that require no cooking, or just reheating. Some dishes that use the oven, others that use the top of the stove. If the oven is at 450 degrees, you can't also have a dish that needs 325.

A good mix of cold, warm, last minute cooked items, and those done in the oven lets you produce combinations of dishes that go out together. That having been said, it is difficult to get out more than two of these dishes at once time, so a typical course (which will have four dishes) is usually served two and two, with a small delay between them.

Posted by dowdy at December 10, 2002 08:21 AM