A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Part 1

January 25, 2011

Turkey Chili

Have you ever cooked for 500 people a day for three straight days? I have, and I lived to tell the tale.

The story begins a little over a year ago, when my friends Rose and Josh called and asked me to buy and deliver “as much ice as I could get my hands on” for a cooking project they were completing. When I made the delivery at the apartment where they were staying I observed barely controlled chaos: pots everywhere, all four burners on the stove going full blast, huge piles of opened cans stacked up on the floor, and plastic boxes holding gallon-sized zip-top bags full of what appeared to be soups and stews. The ice was used to fill three 165-quart coolers, into which the bags were placed to cool down.

The next day, over a dinner I cooked for them, they explained what they were doing: cooking all of the hot food that would be served in the Green Room and Staff Den at Arisia, one of the area’s science fiction conventions. Unlike Readercon, which I have written about previously, Arisia is so big that it requires a staff of more than 200 people to keep it running. That staff needs to be fed, which is what happens in the Staff Den. Similarly, the Green Room is where the convention’s invited guests can go to hang out and grab a quick bite between panel appearances.

As they talked about their recent cooking ordeal, I realized that preparing food for that many people was a challenge I couldn’t ignore. It was too late to help them then, but I told them to count me in if they planned on doing the same thing the following year. Since Rose and Josh live in NYC, we agreed to do the advance planning online. I would take care of advance prep and purchases, and then we would all convene to do the cooking.

Be Careful What You Eat

Before we cooked anything, we would have to agree on what to cook. Our first clever idea was to prepare the same food for both the Staff Den and Green Room, which would allow us to take advantage of some economies of scale, and would also allow us to share common resources at the con.

After asking the Arisia staff to complete a brief survey about food allergies, we realized that the menu had to be diverse enough to ensure that everyone would be able to eat at least one hot meal on the menu. Here’s what we came up with:

Hot

Turkey chili
Vegan chili
Moroccan chicken stew
Moroccan vegetable stew
Beef barley stew

Cold

Salad bar
Pasta bar (pasta, vegan tomato sauce, roasted chicken, TVP, grilled vegetables, cheese)
Pasta salad
Sandwich makings (bread, cold cuts, cheese, condiments)
Snacks (chips, salsa, carrots, celery, fruit, candy)
Cookies & brownies & cake
Rice pudding

Quantities

30 gal turkey chili
15 gal TVP chili
30 gal beef barley stew
7 gal vegan Moroccan stew
5 gal chicken Moroccan stew
24 gal pasta + sauce + meat + veg etc.
10 gal pasta salad
45 dozen hard-cooked eggs

As you can see from the hot menu, we had complimentary versions of the chili and Moroccan stew, one with meat, the other vegan. There were meal options that were free of gluten, dairy, nightshade (tomato, eggplant), nuts, and soy – most of the commonly reported allergens. The “TVP” mentioned in the pasta bar menu is textured vegetable protein, also known as textured soy protein, which would stand in for ground turkey in the vegan chili and for ground beef to be added to the pasta sauce. Although the menu wasn’t strictly kosher, it wasn’t treif, and, due to a fortuitous purchase, would up being halal as well.

The Moroccan stews presented another challenge in that the recipes required us to use ras el hanout, a spice blend that has hundreds of possible formulations. One of the varieties I use is very expensive, the other lists more than a dozen ingredients including caraway, another reported allergen. In the end, we would up blending our own version from “safe” spices.

Come On In My Kitchen

With the menu set, we turned our attention to where we would do the cooking. Having seen the chaos the project created in a small kitchen, I knew the Belm Utility Research Kitchen wouldn’t be up to the task. A helpful Arisia staffer offered us the use of the common house kitchen at Mosaic Commons in Berlin, MA, about an hour’s drive from Boston. I scouted the location in advance and determined that despite the distance, it would suit our needs due to a key feature:

Yup, side-by-side five-burner GE Profile gas stoves, both with convection ovens (one gas, one electric). There was also a huge central butcher bock island for prep work and staging.

“Where Restaurants Shop”

While I scouted, Rose was busy converting recipes and quantities into a detailed shopping list, maintained as a Google Documents spreadsheet. I spent a day traveling to Costco, BJs and Restaurant Depot (RD), filling in prices for all of the items we’d need. Arisia has an account at RD, so they provided me with a membership card.

I had never been inside a RD before. It’s quite overwhelming to walk into a store in which half of the floor space is a separate refrigerated section for meat and vegetables. I learned more about large-scale cooking operations by walking up and down each aisle than I would have learned in a year at the CIA.

After several hours of gawking, I had all of the price info we needed, so it was time to finalize a shopping list and a timeline. Arisia would begin on January 14 and we needed to have all of our supplies loaded in on the 13th, so the majority of the cooking would have to occur over the weekend of January 8 & 9. I would buy the non-perishable ingredients in the preceding week and hit the RD on the morning of Friday the 7th to buy the meat and vegetables.

Which is exactly what happened. I loaded up She Who Must Be Obeyed’s Subaru urban assault vehicle with about 500 pounds of food, drove out to the Mosaic kitchen, and unloaded everything into strategic locations around the kitchen. Canned goods (18 6-pound cans of  black beans, 6 6-pound cans of chick peas, 12 6-pound cans of crushed tomatoes, 24 2-quart cans of beef stock) and onions (20 pounds each read and yellow) on one counter:

…vegetables (2 25-pound bags of peeled carrots, 50 limes, one bushel of red bell peppers, a half bushel each of  yellow squash, zucchini, and jalapenos, 36 2-quart boxes of vegetable broth, 4 pounds of pearled barley, more onions) on the center island:

…and meat in the fridge (68 pounds of ground turkey, 20 pounds of turkey bacon, 60 pounds of stew beef, 40 pounds of boneless skinless chicken thighs (the fortuitous halal purchase), 50 lemons, and 40 cups of reconstituted TVP):

I had just organized the largest mise en place in my life. Now it was time to cook, but that will have to wait for the next post.

My apologies to David Foster Wallace for nicking his all-too-perfect title.

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