Finally it’s picnic weather again — the shank end of the season. Who doesn’t love a picnic? Only the most hardened cynics and eye-rolling hipsters could ever admit to such with a straight face. Get out your favorite cookbook; you know, the one with the gingham-checked cover. You’ll need loads of eggs to devil, lots of sliced meats, cheeses and breads; perhaps a roasted chicken or two. A bottle of wine, some fruit, and don’t skimp on the cookies. Ready to go, yes? Whoops, nearly forgot the blanket.
Motoring down the road, windows open, a little “Sister Christian” on the radio. Finally, we arrive at our scenic destination. The fact that the Thermos of lemonade still sits, lonely in its own condensation on the kitchen counter, pales in comparison to another fact: We forgot the forks. You there — you’re not fooling anybody, pretending it’s fun to eat potato salad with your hands.
Such are the pitfalls of the movable feast. Oh, sure, they make it look easy on “Top Chef,” speed racks pirouetting neatly in a spiral of film wrap as the clock ticks down to zero. (If you’ve ever actually done that, you know it’s best to be the one spinning the rack, rather than the poor loser getting cardboard blisters from holding the roll as it spins out.) What they never air is the part where the lift-gate on the refrigerated truck suddenly decides not to work, or the part where five gallons of vinaigrette take a header off of a cart when you’re already behind schedule.
Once, years ago, I lost control of a speed rack full of plated salads in the kitchen driveway at the Kentucky Center. I watched, horrified, as it tipped over a speed bump and met the asphalt with a truly spectacular crashing noise during a soaring opera aria. To this day, I feel responsible for the inevitably furrowed brows upstairs in Whitney Hall, no doubt including the soloist’s.
Naturally, caterers — the tribe of which I am a member — get the shortest end of this stick. Sure, 99 percent of the time everything goes smoothly, but we have lots of war stories to relate, simply because we’re pretty much a movable feast all the time. And it’s not just about getting the food from point A to point B. It has to be gotten there safely. Proteins have to be maintained at a certain temperature, as well they should be. If that job’s in Lexington, we have to rent a refrigerated truck. Of course we have our load lists, carefully parsed. But you’ll almost always forget something. I learned long ago that the first item to pay attention to is garbage bags, and the second item is gloves. The third item is ice, but fortunately we can buy that within a couple minutes of most event sites. The big “we forgot” item is garnish, which is absolutely crucial for presentation.
Oh, crap. We forgot to load the bundle of kitchen towels. Now we’re all frantically wiping our hands on paper towels, and making little moistened paper cigar-rolls to wipe the edges of the plates with.
It’s not just formal caterers who struggle with the movable feast. Chefs all over the world are asked to prep in one kitchen and then move to another kitchen to execute — for celebrity chef dinners, for a charity event, for a collaborative effort.
I was once assisting a celebrity chef who asked me to hard-cook quail eggs for a garnish for his dish at a charity banquet at The Brown. I was tasked with peeling the eggs (I will never peel boiled quail eggs again, as God is my witness!), separate the whites from the yolks, and push the yolks lovingly through a sieve to make a perfect garnish for a caviar-and-deviled-quail-egg-ras-al-hanout dish for 400 guests. The event went off without a hitch; everyone loved the food. I later found the sieved quail egg yolks getting moldy on a shelf in the walk-in fridge, three days later. They never made it onto the plates. And no one noticed.
Have you ever had to tell a bride you need to cut her wedding cake now, because even though the guests haven’t been through the buffet line, that cake is melting, and you’ve got to portion it and put it on dessert plates? It’s 95 degrees outside, dear.
However, I do have this handy box for your cake topper. I don’t know how this top layer will taste a year from now. Probably not great. But it’s the ritual that counts.
Love your movable feasts. Often, there will be problems, but the experience will transcend them. Happy picnics.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.