Monday, May 23, 2011
Slopppping the Humans
It can't be this easy to be a caterer, can it? I attended an event, and it really looks like all you need is an inspected, commercial kitchen, some trucks and that's it. Yes, I deliberately left out cooking skills. Apparently they're overrated. Unlike restaurants, nobody attends most events for the food. Just make it safe for human consumption, within socially acceptable and legal norms, and shovel it out for guest victims to devour like uncaring animals.
It started with the crostini: one choice. With walnuts. It was apparently too much trouble to make some non-allergenic ones or heaven forbid, several different types for variety, interest and prestige. Asking if they had any other type got a blank look, a forced smile that stopped at the corners of the mouth and a "No. Sorry".
The other appetizer was smoked salmon. I know you had an image in your mind when you read those two words. Perhaps a canapé coated with a thin layer of dill-yogurt-cucumber sauce topped with a luscious, iridescent slice of salmon. Could it have been a bite-sized wrap rolled with chipotle-mayo sauce, finely chopped green onions and cilantro with an attractive pink spiral of salmon inside? Maybe the spinach and salmon kind tucked into luscious little puff pastry shells...
Well, you're wrong. It was blobs of gray protein stuck through with skewer sticks à la Yakitori, dipped in something that looked like an inept blend of corn starch and soy sauce. Was the salmon a sustainable wild Pacific variety? Doubtful. Asking, "Do you know where the salmon comes from?" got the same blank stare, but now with a quantum of annoyance mixed in. Same answer, though: "No. Sorry.". So, that leaves me to suppose that it came from a polluting, ultra-crowded salmon farm where lowest price was the foremost criterion. That would go far to explain why it wasn't even pink. It had so little salmon color that I mistook it for chicken. (Fool! The chicken is pinker!)
The event was ecologically oriented, so if you stuck to your guns about sustainable seafood you went hungry on the fish (probably a good thing, considering...). If you were allergic to nuts too, well you suffered until they took the lid off the main course.
Eventually the pre-appointed time came, the lids were removed from the steam trays and everyone lined up for their main course: pasta salad vinaigrette, another cold salad with walnuts, and thin "grilled" chicken breasts. Yes, they were grilled at some point - there were marks on them. After that, they were tossed in sauce gluante sans âme and left for dead on the steam trays at a safe temperature, over 140°F no doubt. Unless the fire went out under the tray... oops.
Dessert was mixed cookies and strange brownie-like objects.
So, I thought. This is all it takes to be a successful caterer. Food quality, flavor, originality and enthusiasm are useless. Churn out cheap, bland food without any planning of how the event meal goes together. Hire people who don't know anything, don't care, probably cost less per hour than renting a power tool at Home Depot, but who will put the food out and clean up the mess afterward. Secure your permits, pay your taxes, maybe donate some of your excess profits to a local charity for good will.
Turning my back on the artistry of making quality food just to churn out a belly stuffing mixture of proteins, fat, salt and carbohydrates for uncaring masses is exactly why catering does not interest me. More often than not, this swill is par for the course at this kind of event, yet only one person complained. I'll leave it up to you to guess that person's identity. Hint: it's the same person who asked the caterer if anyone actually planned the menu (nuts only, probably unsustainable fish, two cold salads... hello?).
Let's face it - nobody was at this event for the food. This is true of most events. Still, did it have to be that poorly planned and executed? Is bland, dry chicken coated with a gluante sweet-salty sauce with no redeeming characteristics really what these people deserved? Was brining the chicken really not an option, or did it aspire to become shoe leather despite this process?
Our local Culinary Arts program at ARC has a catering class. I've even volunteered for some events. The menus were planned, some with central themes others by flavor combinations. We had vegan, spicy, exotic, seasonally fresh and overall interesting food every time. There were even French garlic sausage corn dogs at one event, and thanks to Chef Ray's artistry there were a lot of happy people rubbing their distended bellies after it was over. So, catering can be done well. It can make people smile, surprise them with new tastes, rattle their sensibilities, tear down preconceptions... just like any well planned and executed meal.
Can catering be a rewarding profession? Does the torturer's rack of lowest cost force anyone embarking on this venture to submit to the formula of cheap ingredients and mediocrity, sacrificing originality, interest and good food on the altar of profit? Does one become a mindless drone bereft of pride, left like the Cheshire Cat with only a fatuous grin and some kibble? Must one murder their culinary muse, silencing her forever by shooting her through the heart with a greasy skewer coated with proteins of dubious origin? Do the food movements so hot in restaurants not cross the catering line? Where are slow food, sustainable seafood, locally sourced ingredients, seasonality... certainly all were M.I.A. at this event.