It’s been about a year since we last hosted a proper formal dinner and despite all the praise, we did not get down to holding more dinners. Since then, all word about the previous party became stuff of memories. But strangely enough, the occasion was briefly mentioned during a recent family gathering and an aunt who missed the last party wanted to experience it for herself.
To be honest, cooking for family could be a very stressful job. Expectations were higher and the pressure to perform was more intense than usual. Families tend not to mince their words, no matter how awful they sound. But we were never one to back away from a challenge. We were given about one and a half months to start preparing: the menu, the wine list, the tableware and the decor. This includes a choice of two main courses (a beef dish was a must) for over 26 guests. It wasn’t a 100 person catering event, but over twenty diners for a course-by-course meal was equally intimidating. And it didn’t help that some of the guests had dietary restrictions.
To be honest, we were very frenzied by the amount of work that was needed for this dinner. And we didn’t help ourselves by deciding on an elaborate menu complete with a pre-dinner cocktail. The fact that we had to use an unfamiliar kitchen was already daunting. Doing a site recce of the kitchen was the very first thing we did off the checklist, which gave us a better idea of how the cooking should be done. There were two kitchens: one was located outdoors where the heavy work was done, and the other was the dry area where preparation took place.
Equipment was checked – oven was not working, certain kitchen utensils were not available, there weren’t enough tableware to go around, and tables needed for plating. Then came the front of the house: guests would have to be split into a few tables, the number of service staff needed (yes, even that!), and how the decor will be put up in the house. At that point in time, the both of us were slightly frazzled but the weight of the whole situation hasn’t really sunk in yet.We knew a lot of work was needed, and yet reality had barely seeped in.
The menu was the biggest hurdle. How were we going to serve 26 guests a range of courses in perfect timing, temperature and portion? We had a very clear idea of how the skeleton of the menu would be: an amuse bouche, a seafood starter, a salad, a pasta dish, the main courses and of course, dessert. And I was guilty of insisting on sorbet and petit fours (blame it on occupational habits). After a week of drafting and planning, the menu was sent over to the host for approval. Thankfully, it went through the first round which gave us enough time to start our trial tastings.
This was how the menu was like:
Pork Sausage with Brie Cheese and Red Onion Chutney
Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut
Cream of Broccoli Soup (served with sourdough bread)
Beetroot, Pear, Watercress, Walnut, Goat’s Cheese, Elderflower Vinaigrette
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc
Prawn, Bloody Mary Jelly, Avocado Puree, Watercress
Spinach Ravioli, Sage Butter, Parmesan, Pine Nuts
Green Apple Sorbet with Mint
Salmon, Potato Mash, Spinach, Dill Creme Fraiche
Beef, Mushrooms, Spinach, Foie Gras, Parsley Puree, Madeira Sauce
Orange Basil Mille-feuille, Chocolate Ice Cream, Assorted Berries
Freshly Brewed Coffee or Gourmet Teas
(served with Valrhona Chocolate)
(Looking at it now, I have no idea how we even managed to convince ourselves that this menu could ever come out of the kitchen.) The trials gave us a chance to gauge how much time each dish required in terms of preparation and actual cooking. Because most of it were done by hand, freshness was crucial. It also gave Ned a chance to perfect the recipes and tweak it accordingly to suit the overall menu plan. At this point, we were off pre-ordering the main ingredients like the beef, salmon and tons of vegetables. That in itself was another crazy affair of bargaining and endless conversations about the best cuts.
Tableware was another obstacle, though luckily we had our own private sources. We really shouldn’t say as it’s almost illegal how we managed to get them. In all, we managed to procure a range of pure bone china for all five courses, amuse bouche, sorbets, side plates, flatware, wine glasses, champagne flutes, water goblets, dinner trays and even table cloths. Simple arrangements of flowers were done the night before, crystal beads all strewn up like pearl necklaces, and candles were bought.
After five days of mise-en-place, barely enough sleep and weeks of planning, it was almost surreal when the Big Day arrived. Right off the bat, Ned and I were off doing specific tasks early that morning. Being the head chef, she was off to the venue in preparation (with two cousins helping out) and I was running around to pick up all the main ingredients for utmost freshness. That was when I realised our butcher forgot about our order and we had to get our steak off the shelf instead.
The dining space was transformed into a cosy intimate French bistro with warm lighting and jazz playing in the background. Three more cousins were enlisted to help out with service, and a small briefing was held to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was almost as though we were getting ready for a typical day at a restaurant.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to say that no matter how much preparation you have gone through or bad luck you can anticipate, when shit happens, it just does. That’s when you just trudge on and try to make do with what you have. Were we afraid? Yes, because screwing things up was just too easy. At this point, we could only leave it to fate and sheer hard work.
And the show finally starts.
6.45pm: The first stream of guests arrived. Many oo’s and ah’s were heard from the dining area. Canapes and champagne were sent out to appease any impending hunger. The host has given instruction not to serve dinner until more of the guests were here. We were playing the waiting game.
7.15pm: Canapes have ran out and the guests were pretty high on bubbly now. Some stray unwanted guests decided to pop into the kitchen asking for more food and were shooed out. Still no news from the host on whether we could start proper dinner service.
7.17pm: Oh fish, service starts. The guests have promptly sat themselves down. Soup was given a quick heating up and poured into tiny espresso cups. Bread was given a toasting through. Kitchen crew have started plating the beetroot salad. (The broccoli soup was inspired by our lunch in The Gingerman, Brighton and what better way to start a meal with warm creamy liquid in the tummy.)
7.30pm: The momentum in the kitchen had picked up a few notches. Thin slices of beetroot and pear were laced intricately round the plate, topped with watercress salad, crumbly goat’s cheese and walnuts and dressed with elderflower vinaigrette. It was a little messy trying to make sure there were no pink fingerprints on the clean porcelain plates. As the service staff brought out the salad into the dining hall, almost immediately, fresh plates were laid out for the next course to be plated.
7.33pm: Too much beetroot, they said. Well, we did want to push the traditional Asian palate a little with the ‘unconventional’ beetroot, and surprise, surprise, the older crowd wasn’t a big fan of the deep-burgundy vegetable despite its natural sweetness. It was something that appealed more to the younger ones.
7.35pm: Prawns were being stacked. Avocado puree was piped delicately on the chilled Bloody Mary jelly. It was difficult trying the get the jelly pieces to stay in place. The warm temperature in the kitchen didn’t help at all. Update from the service team was that the guests were finishing up their salads. Boy, they were really starving themselves before this dinner. Then actual shit happened, because Ned found out that the ravioli pieces for the third course decided to morph into one gigantic pasta monster.
7.40pm: The seafood starter was sent out while the kitchen crew tried to salvage whatever ravioli parcels that could be used. Instead of serving three patchwork babies, we could only save two pieces per guest. Imagine our frustrations and panic!
7.41pm: Guests have devoured the seafood starter in seconds. Were we serving giants?
7.45pm: Patchwork ravioli babies were still in surgery. More stray giants guests wandered into the kitchen. Pressure level was boiling way over limit.
7.50pm: First of the spinach ravioli pieces were popped into water. With pine nuts and shaved Parmesan cheese, the third course was finally served. As quickly as the ravioli flew out of the kitchen, the crew were armed with spoons to quenelle lovely ovals of green apple sorbet. We should actually be worried with plating the sorbet that soon because they could melt before they were served. Should we?
7.52pm: Sorbet was served. I swear we were cooking for actual giants here. Most of the guests ordered the salmon course, so that was the first main course we attacked with. Ned starts panfrying the pink pieces of fish and our designated chef de partie was in pots and pans with getting the mash potato and spinach ready. We could hear the guests leaving their seats to mingle around. Which also meant the sorbet was slurped off the moment it was served.
7.58pm: The salmon was still sizzling away in its juices. Watching them turn into a rosy cooked pink seemed excruciatingly slow than usual. We didn’t want to serve them raw or overcooked, or upset the hungry guests out there. We have not started on the beef and everyone was on their toes and screaming for time-check at every minute. “Is the mash ready?”, “Fish, give me fish!”, “Where’s the creme fraiche?” and “Fisssshhh, we need fishhh”. It was difficult trying to juggle so many things at a time.
8.10pm: Oh boy, were we screwed.
8.15pm: The mash was plated onto every plate and spinach was laid out as neatly as possible. Tender salmon pieces with a crisp skin was laced with a quenelle of dill creme fraiche. Those who ordered the fish course were served immediately. The next ordeal was the beef course – a meat that required time to cook and to rest. New pots sat on the stove to cook the mushrooms and spinach, while the sauce gently warms up on the side. Ned looked a sight with two hands full of pans grilling the foie gras and beef away.
8.17pm: The beef-giants were getting restless watching the salmon-giants eat.
8.26pm: *Listens to the soundtrack of sizzling beef.*
8.38pm: The mushrooms and spinach were portioned onto individual plates and were cushioned with beautiful succulent steaks of beef, topped with a perfectly seared foie gras and parsley puree. They were out of the kitchen the moment a spoonful of sticky Madeira sauce was drizzled over the meat.
8.40pm: A sudden wave of relief seemed to hit the kitchen crew. There was a minute of silence and stares before we got hold of ourselves. Dessert plates were laid out.
8.45pm: Seconds were requested. Could you believe it? (Giants. Giants everywhere.) Since it was actually a family dinner, Ned obliged to stir up more salmon and beef to appease the crowd.
9.00pm: A dessert factory line was born. Orange basil cream was piped gently onto strips of puff pastry. Icing sugar snowed on the top of the mille-feuilles. Quenelles of chocolate ice cream were sprinkled with toasted almond flakes. Berries were strategically placed. Dessert seemed almost a breeze after The Saga of Main Courses. Coffee and tea accompanied the dessert. The giants seemed appeased.
9.16pm: Service finally ended. The kitchen and service crew fell into a sea of utter exhaustion and pure exhilaration. Two full hours to put out five proper courses alongside canapes, amuse bouche and sorbet. Secret bottles of alcohol were opened to celebrate.
Looking back, it was surprising how we jumped at the opportunity to get waist deep into trouble. We did not have the proper experience nor training to execute such an elaborate dinner. Overall, feedback was pretty satisfactory and we definitely need to practice a lot more before we embark on another dinner party. Timing was still a key weakness and presentation of the dish was an area both of us have to invest effort in.
Yet again, the dinner party stirred up some need to pull out dinners on a regular basis. Sure, they were back-breaking but the end result was so satisfactory. It made our tummies warm and our hearts a flutter. So much so, Ned and I were even contemplating whether we should host secret supper clubs. Right now, the idea is still dangling in the air. But who knows, maybe there would be.