Saturday, March 1, 2008

Chemistry and the Dinner Party (Pt. II)

The first part of this article was more about the buffet party. This second part is about plated dinners, how to plan them, and the factors that help you reach your goal.

For plated dinners, I generally offer three selections for each course. Using the client's feedback to your questions, come up with your entree first. Offer as much variety as possible within the constraints placed on you by the host. Even if they want all beef or all seafood selections, try to give them variety i.e. filet mignon, veal chop, or Chateaubriand OR snapper, shrimp, or salmon. For sauces, just think of the Mother Sauces and add ingredients to them to give variety and, unless requested, don't use the same sauce all three times.

Try to give a variety of starches. You could offer a roasted red pepper mashed, risotto Milanese, and roasted purple fingerlings or a pasta. Do the same thing with the vegetables.

I recommend giving your client the option of a very mainstream selection, a middle of the road, and a more adventurous selection.

Always keep the colors going on the plate in mind. Imagine the plate is your canvas and the food and sauces your paints. Some people may think a brown sauce with a brown starch and vegetable is pretty -- I don't. Color is your friend. People eat with their eyes first, remember.

Once you have your entree selections planned out, move on to your first course. Unless your client has a preference I like to offer a salad, appetizer, and a soup. If it's particularly hot I sometimes forgo the soup or offer a cold soup although they are rarely chosen. The entrees you offer will determine the selections you offer for the first course. A heavier entree will generally dictate a lighter first course. A simple way to organize your first course is to pick an entree and design a dish to go with that entree. Do this with all three entrees and you will have a dish to compliment all three. It's also quite interesting to see if the host will choose the pairings you designed.

For dessert use the same methodology as for the first course. Design one dessert for each entree. For the first course we used parameters such as salad, soup, and appetizer to get us started. For dessert you could go with parameters such as chocolate, vanilla, and fruit for variety's sake. Pair them up with an entree and design your dessert. Always keep color in mind.

If more courses are desired follow the same path. The parameters give you a starting point. Without them you could flounder around for days and get nowhere or wind up with a disorganized mess. This way you have a road map and at least the possibility of your client choosing the perfect dinners that you have designed.

Everything is a formula. Figure out your formula and plug in the elements. Don't make it more complicated than necessary. It's food, not rocket science. Have fun and stop fretting about it.

Chemistry and the Dinner Party (Pt. I)

When I was working in restaurants, I often had people ask me how I came up with specials and new dishes. I had a difficult time expressing exactly how I did it at the time. Recently someone asked me to put on paper exactly how I do it. I guess it's my chemistry background, but I view everything as a formula. My outlook on life and work is an interesting mix of my "right brain" and my "left brain". The first half of my life was spent studying chemistry in laboratories and the second half has been spent in Culinary school and professional kitchens (including my own). I guess I have a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on (Puck and Pauling might be more appropriate). Designing an entree plate and planning a dinner party are no exceptions to my belief that formulas are interwoven in everything we do in life and work. Here is Part I of my article on Chemistry and the Dinner Party:

It's Monday and I've been asked to do a dinner party on Friday. I've never done this before. What do I do?
The first step is gathering information -- what, when, where, why, and how questions.

What is the occasion?
What is the theme of the party?
What type of foods does the client have in mind?
What time of day will the party be held?
Where will the party be?
Will there be kitchen facilities be available?
What is the makeup of the guest list? Men? Women? Children? Ages?
Will it be buffet or plated? If buffet will it be a mixture of hot & cold items?
What is the budget?

Once you have the particulars on the party, you can start to form an outline of how you see the party going and flesh it out from there. Think of it in terms of building a frame for a house. These questions form the foundation for everything else to build on.

If you're client wants heavy hors d'ouevres for an evening party, you can bet people are going to be counting it as dinner. Plan on the usual courses of a dinner in bite size form. You need items that would make up an appetizer, salad, and/or soup. You need items that make up an entree: Protein (the number of choices will depend on the budget), Starch (a great way to give quantity and taste without the expense), Vegetable (just about everyone wants it there, but few people eat it -- unless there are a large number of vegetarians). Finally, you need a Dessert. This will also depend on makeup of the group. Women tend to eat more sweets and a group of only women will eat more sweets than a group of men and women. Alcohol consumption also tends to decrease the amount of sweets consumed.

For light hors d'ouevres consider what someone would have for a light snack. If the host is pressing for light hors d'oeuvres at dinner time, try to talk him into going a bit heavier. If there is no leeway go with more of the starch and filler items which fill up the table, look nice, and cost less. If you run out, it looks bad for you -- not the host.

For all of these options, consider the facilities available. If oven space is limited or non-existent, opt for all cold items or mostly cold items.

Color is very important, so think in terms of foods that have eye appeal. If the food tastes great, but is all a different shade of brown it won't be impressive and probably won't "move". People eat with their eyes first.

In almost all instances, you will want to give a variety of flavors so all parts of the palate are satisfied. Seasonal availability should be considered as much for what you can get as for what you can't. Don't offer heirloom tomatoes in December unless you live south of the equator!

For a mainstream party, think of your food questionnaire. What are the foods that people most often mark yes and which do most people mark no. Especially when you are starting out, it is a good idea to stick with more mainstream ingredients. Most people want to seem hip and may say they are open to anything, and this may be true, but the majority just aren't that adventurous. If you do opt to use more exotic ingredients, limit them to a dish or two and give plenty of alternatives.

When you have all of the facts and expectations, actually putting the menu together isn't that difficult. At that point, it's just plugging dishes into the equation.