(Even though I’ve said it before, many thanks to Coco-Mat SoHo for hosting, ARK for planning, and the numerous volunteers for throwing down….yes….uber-belated thanks)
My co-worker commented the other day that I haven’t blogged in a while and the fact that I haven’t puzzled me. I was finally out of Busy Season, I got out of work by 7 PM at the latest, and my weekends were not swamped with “work-from-home” tasks. But looking back, my life in food has taken some pretty sharp turns and it’s been a crazy few months. A while back, I wrote about how my friend Ricky and I kinda “fell into” the catering business after pulling off a four-course meal for a family of ten in deep Jersey. Soon after, our (dare I say) champion, Ayesha, of the international non-profit, Advancement for Rural Kids asked us, the newly formed catering crew Myster Meat Group, to cater her 80-person Poker Night fundraiser in a month’s time.
Just a short year ago,I was adamant about running my own restaurant one day or die trying. It was at the tough love advice of another Pinay chef here in NYC where I let that dream go in favor of opening myself to the wisdom of the universe. Had someone told me I’d be a “caterer” (I still use the word very loosely), I would have laughed since my image of that industry was one of tired menus of Chicken Cordon Bleu, stale buffet setups, and someone’s overly drunk Tito Boy unsuccessfully piling spicy chicken wings over his dessert.
The event we catered was nowhere near my misconception as we passed reimagined hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and desserts using a crew of volunteers and fellow cooks who have had absolutely no training doing this sort of thing…much less for a group of high-rollin’ foodies. As the $900 suits walked in and I looked down on a half-finished prep, it wasn’t panic that set in but some weird pseudo Zen-ness. The feeling that you’re absolutely fucked and well…there’s really no use getting your proverbial boxers in a knot over it.
We’ve now fed larger groups but the lessons I learned from that night were the ones that stuck and stung (in a good way) the most:
1. Less is More
Blame it on my ADD mind to get as many components using as various cooking techniques that would inevitably lead to a mad scramble come service time. We decided to make bite-sized Lumpiang Sariwa and anyone who’s had it knows it’s saucy, delicate, and takes time to make. Yup….Ricky was making the crepe-like wrappers for a good hour or so. When cooking for large groups, keep it simple stupid!
2. Tell ’em all their friends are doing it
I once asked Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain at an event they spoke at together how to convince picky eaters to try something new. They both agreed that it helps to use peer pressure and to make the dish in question the “in” thing to eat. After all, someone somehow got Americans to eat the raw fish in sushi and love it. In our case, we managed to get almost all the guests to eat our Spam Dogs. With a bit of “renaming” (though at one point, the Filipinos in the rooms were proclaiming the wonders of Spam that it didn’t matter) and enough raves in the room, one of the most divisive Filipino faves flew out the kitchen.
3. When faced with a problem, throw alcohol on it
There was a point early in the night when all we had out were the Lumpia and Ukoy, a fried shrimp fritter, and our meat dishes were nowhere near being done. I’ve found that there is no real cure for “h-anger”, the painful mixture of debilitating hunger and fiery rage, but copious amounts of alcohol do hamper its effects. And copious amounts is what we had: wine, Red Horse and San Miguel beers, and our cocktail for the night: a twist on the ho-hum gin and tonic. The syrup was simply equal parts water and sugar with a good handful of Shou Mei Tea tossed in and reduced. Our friend Chelsey, and now officially the third member of the crew, candied grapefruits using this recipe from her blog.
4. Have a Haymaker Dish
Up until this point, our dishes have been smaller in size and skewing towards the more refined end of the spectrum. When dealing with large groups, I find that it reduces stress to have at least one knockout dish that uses the simplest of methods but packs enough flavor to knock Manny Pacquiao’s teeth out. For tonight, it was homemade pan de sal baked by Chelsey (recipe here) filled with shredded beef braised in adobo sauce for the length of six Game of Throne episodes and topped with homemade atsara, Filipino-style pickles I had experimented with a while back. Meat, bread, flavor in the form of heavily reduced adobo-turned-BBQ sauce…doesn’t get any more primal that that.
5. Make it beautiful
Looking back, we didn’t really do anything crazy: Ukoy, Lumpia, Beef Adobo Sliders, a cocktail…hell, we had Spam! All can be found at the usual Filipino gatherings, but by trying to at least up the presentation factor, I believe we got it to taste that much better. To end, we put out our pièce de résistance, and the reason we pulled Chelsey on board: Halo-Halo Cupcakes. Just a few weeks prior, she had never tasted Halo-Halo, much less made it. One 15-minute tasting at Maharlika was all it took for her to create this beauty of a dessert topped with Ube (purple yam) icing, candied fruits, and a coconut curd. Check out the recipe here.
Maybe I haven’t blogged in a while because I’m fearful of what it means. Maybe I don’t like the withdrawal pangs of pulling off an event like this with my closest friends and having to find the free time to do it again. Maybe I don’t like the implications that the universe keeps pushing me where I really belong. Maybe, like that night, crippling self-doubt kept questioning whether people will like it…
The next morning, one of the attendees called up Ayesha with a complaint: “Their food is too gorgeous and tasty for them to call themselves the Mystery Meat Group….make them change their fucking name”. And just like that, the Mystery Meat Group was no more.