A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Part 3

February 1, 2011

Food Bricks

Today I discovered another supposedly fun thing I’l never do again: standing on my side roof and shoveling show off it to prevent structural damage. I no longer have any place to put more snow, so if you’d like some igloos and snowmen, come and grab all you want – some assembly required.

A similar blizzard two days before Arisia wound up having a profound effect on the food delivery schedule for the weekend. In addition to all of the food we cooked, there were beverages and perishable items that had to be delivered as well. Coordination of those deliveries was managed by the quartermaster, who had shopping lists from us telling him what we needed. Unfortunately, the beverage delivery from PepsiCo and the bread & dairy delivery from Sysco were both delayed due to the blizzard, which would leave us scrambling to get everything set up in our prep areas in time to start feeding people.

Room With A View

The Staff Den was set up in one of the hotel’s larger suites, consisting of a main room

and a kitchenette, where most of the food prep would happen.

By the time I arrived on Thursday afternoon, a few of the chairs had been moved out and each of the walls had been lined with a row of tables. One of the Arisia refrigerators had been moved to the kitchenette, which also had a mini-fridge under the counter closest to the door.

There had been another delivery to the room, one that would be both a blessing and a curse over the course of the weekend.

A Visit from the Bread Fairy

One entire wall of tables was covered in boxes of bread, pastries, and fruit: all gifts, I was told, from “the Bread Fairy.” This person, whose actual name is Vicki, works at the Brookline Food Bank. She spends her days traveling around the Boston/Cambridge area collecting food from establishments that are required to dispose of day-old but otherwise perfectly good food items. All of the bread was day-old rejects from Iggy’s Bakery and Whole Foods, most of the pastries were from Starbucks, and the fruit was also from Whole Foods.

Later that evening Vicki showed up again with a truckload of containers of cut fruit and boxes of pre-made sandwiches, all again from Whole Foods. The fruit lasted us all weekend but took up a lot of refrigerator space; the sandwiches, which were mostly vegetarian offerings, provided us with more variety during our lunch and diner service.

We had bread, bagels, and pastries for breakfast, artisan loaves for lunch and diner, cookies throughout the day, and all for free. The only problem was that we had too much bread, so much that we barely had rom to store it. At one point we considered re-enacting the catapult sequence from El Cid, but we lacked the necessary artillery. Our diners did appreciate the variety if not the abundance.

Fight the Power

By Thursday evening we had the Staff Den set up with a microwave in the kitchenette, four crock pots on the table just outside, and a beverages and cold items setup on the tables opposite. The routine, as had been established in previous years, would be to place a crock pot liner in a large plastic bowl, empty a zip-top bag of frozen food into it, and microwave it in five minute bursts – stirring in between – until the food was hot and ready to serve. The liner (just a big heatproof bag) would be transferred to a crock pot set on low, which would keep things hot. In addition to being efficient, this method also meant we wouldn’t have to wash out the crocks every time we heated up different food.

People started arriving for breakfast on Friday morning at 8 AM, during which time the kitchen staff (i.e., me) would start heating things up to be ready for lunch, which would start at 11 AM. It was a good plan, with one fatal flaw: running four crock pots, two fridges, and a microwave simultaneously resulted in a power failure on that circuit. A quick consultation with the hotel engineers made us rethink our layout. Although it would be a bit more inconvenient, the tables on the opposite wall became the new home for the crock pots, a solution that worked for the rest of the weekend.

The Hand That Feeds

We discovered a second flaw in our plan: although some of the frozen food – like the beef barley stew and the tomato sauce – could be reheated in about fifteen minutes, the denser foods – both varieties of chili and the chicken stew – took almost half an hour to come up to serving temperature. We tried to bring a second microwave on line, placing it just outside the kitchenette, only to discover once again that the circuit couldn’t handle the load. For Friday, we were always trying to catch up to demand for hot food, a problem that was exacerbated by having many more people visit the Staff Den than we had projected.

Busy staffers had about fifteen minutes to get to the room, eat something, and then run back for the next shift. If the only remaining hot food was the vegetarian offering, they’d eat that instead, leaving the vegetarians with nothing hot to eat. We kept the room stocked with a constantly renewed supply of sandwich fixings while I worked the sole microwave harder than a fast food wage slave at the lunchtime rush. Continuing the movie analogies: “The sentries report Zulus to the south west. Thousands of them.”

We managed to survive Friday, and by the time we shut down at 11 PM we had a few ideas for keeping up with the demand. We set all four crock pots to low, lined them, and filled them with frozen blocks of food. By the morning they were thawed and hot when we brought them back into the kitchenette until lunchtime. This gave us enough of a lead in heating up food to keep us just barely ahead of the demand, which grew even larger as the weekend progressed. Word had gotten around that we were serving stuff worth eating.

You may have noticed by now that there are no additional photos. I didn’t have a spare moment to take any, nor did the rest of the staff. The rest of the weekend became a blur of microwaving, dishwashing, cleaning, resetting tables, and not enough sleep. At the height of the frenzy, Tamar, the pro chef mentioned in Part 2, tried to cheer me up by telling me “I once had to cater a dinner party for 200 with only two toaster ovens and a hot plate.” Very uplifting, but she didn’t offer to help. She knew better than to get involved.

I won’t bore you with any more details, but when we finally shut down Staff Den on Monday morning, we took a few minutes to work out the daily attendance figures. These numbers don’t reflect unique individuals, but rather a raw count of how many people entered the room each day:

Green Room total headcounts:

Friday, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.: 236

Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 489

Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 486

Monday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.: 212

Staff Den total headcounts:

Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 400

Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 574

Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 471

Monday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.: 139

Look at those numbers again. We fed between 400 and 600 people over the weekend. As Rose stated in our report: “We fed and caffeinated all those people. We feel pretty awesome about that.”

“I Only Am Escaped Alone To Tell Thee”

I survived my greatest cooking challenge with my sanity reasonably intact, if somewhat battered. Rose and Josh are stepping down from running Green Room and Staff Den, which means that I won’t even consider the possibility of running them myself. That, and the threat of divorce from She Who Must Be Obeyed if I so much as consider the idea, will keep me away in the future.

Taking on the quartermaster job, on the other hand, could be interesting. Running a central supply repository instead of distributing food across two kitchens would be much more efficient. And that level of efficiency has a certain appeal…

Be the first to comment

Previous post:

Next post: