Cooking For A Crowd
A CHEF ACQUAINTANCE from Vancouver, B.C., was in town, and we met for lunch at Matt's in the Market. Over fried-catfish sandwiches he asked whether I'd ever considered becoming a chef.
"Are you crazy?" I said, then backpedaled hastily, explaining that I feel about chefs the same way I feel about surgeons and special-ed teachers: My admiration for what they do is exceeded only by my gratitude that I don't have to do it.
Chefs work insane hours in hot kitchens for little pay, and few of them will ever become celebrities or even be known outside a cadre of friends and regulars. Not for me, thanks. There's a reason chefs have a reputation as hot-tempered control freaks: They have to be. Few other jobs require that it be done immediately and perfectly or not at all.
I suspect there's another reason that chefs are grumpy: They're constantly being held responsible for things that aren't technically their fault. The only thing worse than being blamed for something you did do is being blamed for something you didn't. If your line cook burns a pork chop, you can't go out into the dining room and say, "Sorry about that, I'm a great cook, but my kitchen help is incompetent." That's "the dog ate my homework" all over again.
My apartment kitchen is small but open. I love the open kitchen because I can chat with people while cooking without actually having them in the kitchen. People stepping into my kitchen make me go from zero to jerk in five seconds. When I'm in the zone, I don't care if you're coming to present me with a pile of gold doubloons. Get out of my way! I'm cooking here!
I've often wondered whether I would be less of a kitchen sociopath if I had a larger space to work in, big enough for people to help me without getting underfoot. Then, one day, I got my chance.
A couple of summers ago, my wife, Laurie, and I went to a friend's wedding in British Columbia, and we rented a vacation house on Vancouver Island for a week with 12 other guests.
Vancouver Island is home to beautiful beaches, serene forests and miles (oops, kilometers) of hiking trails. Our rental house was not near any of those things. It was in Langford, a Victoria suburb. People who live in Langford probably come to Seattle on vacation. The house, however, made it all worthwhile. Billed as the Mountaintop Retreat, the place was an extravagant maze with a view, a view that got even better when combined with beer at lunch. It was also nowhere near an actual mountain, but the beer helped us get over that, too.
I was used to cooking for two, so cooking for 14 was a bit daunting. Fortunately, I had minions. "I need a minion here," I would say, and then I would send Emily or Liza or one of the two Dans off to find a blender. It was like getting to bark "scalpel, stat!" without all the boring med school.
We did our shopping at a warehouse store called The Great Canadian Superstore. This was during the Canadian Mad Cow scare, and the Superstore posted big signs declaring, "We support the Canadian beef industry!" So did we, carting off huge packages of ground beef. We also supported the Canadian pork industry by buying kilos of bacon.
Later, next to the cart-return area, a woman said to me, I swear, "Can I use your buggy? I don't have a loonie."
I decided to make phad thai, so I found myself back at the Mountaintop Retreat, soaking tamarind paste, measuring fish sauce and putting my minions to work.
Dan agreed to chop a head of garlic, and he did a fine job, but he left the garlic-encrusted knife and cutting board on the counter.
"Dan," I said, "the job's not done until you clean up."
You know what the best thing about the demise of the vinyl LP is? It's that when somebody makes an ill-advised comment like that, the music doesn't suddenly stop with the sound of a needle scraping across the grooves. To his credit, Dan did clean up the cutting board, possibly because I was still holding my chef's knife.
When I was a kid, I had this toy called Tipovers, which was a box of black and white dominoes aerodynamically designed to be perfect for setting up and knocking down. I still have all my Tipovers in an old two-gallon ice cream tub, and I am patiently awaiting the day when I can present them to my daughter and she will say, "Dad, what the hell is this?" Then, together, we will spend an hour setting up dominoes until one of us knocks them over prematurely and we share a heartwarming father-daughter tantrum.
Cooking for a crowd is like a successful Tipover knockdown. Getting all your ingredients ready before you cook becomes critical, and if dirty dishes are piling up, you call a minion to clear them out. When I cook at home, there's this awkward transition from cooking to eating, where I have to figure out how much quick cleanup to do before I sit down at the table. At the Mountaintop Retreat, there was none of that. I was the chef! When it was time for me to eat, the minions were well-fed and ready to take on cleanup duties, plus I got one Dan to carry each end of my sedan chair.
Not even a cabinet of minions, a kitchen with a view or free-flowing microbrews could cure my authentic chef-style grumpiness, but I made it through a week at the Mountaintop Retreat without murdering a single minion.
Dan, if you're reading this, sorry about the garlic incident, and could you fetch me the palm sugar? No, the other palm sugar. Dammit.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times assistant art director, newsfeatures.
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