Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Learning From Kitchen Disasters

Dinner was supposed to be served at 8 p.m. At 8:10, I was asked when the gourmet cheeseburgers would be on the serving line. “Five minutes,” I said. Then I heard one of my teenage servers say, “Ten minutes. They’ll be ready in 10 minutes.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.

At 8:15, I sent two trays of 20 “gourmet cheeseburgers” to feed the group of 140 single adults at Cornerstone Fellowship’s Dinner for Six on Saturday. Already on the line were chicken and cheddar sausages, Louisiana hot links, macaroni salad and cole slaw. To doll up the burgers, we had grilled onions and mushrooms. The three appetizers had been served up, and my crew was prepping strawberry shortcake for dessert a half hour later.

These weren’t your ordinary, everyday burger patties with a slice of American cheese thrown on at the last minute. These were a cross of four cheeses stuffed inside thick, juicy burgers. The test tastings were phenomenal. I know; I was there.

At 8:30, word began filtering back to me on the grill. “Some people are complaining their burgers are raw.” Ugh. Those are words a caterer doesn’t want to hear. By then, ensuing darkness had exacerbated the problem. The truth is, the burgers were between rare and medium rare, and a few I saw were even medium. It doesn’t matter; the paying customers were not happy.

The problem wasn’t that the burger flipper – me – didn’t know how to tell the difference between medium rare and medium well: The problem was that the grill, actually a smoker, wasn’t keeping its temperature much over 225 degrees. To grill burgers, the barbecue temperature should be between 350 and 400 degrees. Lower temperatures means a longer time on the grill. My tests the previous week, done at 300 degrees on my home grill because that’s the temperature I thought I’d get at the church smoker to from past experience, had the burgers finishing at roughly 20 minutes.

To make matters worse, someone at the church had forgotten to refill its four propane tanks. I was left with one half-full tank and three pretty empty tanks. Twice, the tanks ran out, which caused a temperature drop to under 150 degrees. Time is of the essence in such cases, because food that is cooking is meant to increase in temperature; a decrease is not good, and the local health department sends out “helpful warnings” against such practices. At one point, I found one measly piece of wood, some cardboard, but no kindling or newspaper. I tried getting the wood to burn, because it would increase the temperature to well over 300 degrees. No burn.

During one of the tank switches, the regulator hose was not tightening enough into the tank because the male piece was stripping, and I could hear a leak. One of my workers is a plumber during the week, and he had plumber’s tape in his truck. That fixed the leak. My hero.

Eventually, we started sending burgers back to the kitchen to cook for another 10 minutes in a 400-degree convection oven. That did the trick, but by then, the customers were groaning about having spent good money on lousy burgers. They were ready to listen to the evening’s entertainment, two clean comedians (no swearing, dirty or off-color jokes).

So how can such catastrophes be avoided? I did my homework, because even though I swore I’d never use the hunk o’ junk again, I probably will have to use it again. The answer is making sure at least two tanks are filled before hand, and having a few pieces of wood on hand – plus kindling and lighter fluid. Part of being a good cook is how you respond to kitchen mishaps. Sometimes, that means coming up with a better plan the next time out. Caterers who continue to make the same mistakes over and over will soon be out of business.

Alas, all was not lost. Every time I do Dinner for Six, I try a new recipe, with a few tests under my belt. My barbecue wings (done on the same, dastardly barbecue) were a huge hit. I know because every time we sent a plate out, they came back empty a minute later. All the workers raved about them. Maybe seeing a server with barbecue stains on his lips and shirt was a selling point to the crowd.

Oh, and by the way, as the last batch of burgers cooked, I looked down and could see a flicker of flame from the fireplace and the barbecue temperature was at 325. Nice timing.

To find my barbecued wings recipe, go to my Web site at http://www.dougmeadweb.com. Enjoy.

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