This blog is about hosting, and on a major level, so this may be very disinteresting to the vast majority of readers out there. But, if you like preparing a meal for a large group of people then this might be right up your alley. Moreover, you might be able to help me with some of the issues I faced back in June.
I won’t bore the readership with extensive details of how I wound up as a fanatical cook/host, but I’ll summarize them below to lend perspective. Grew up a military brat to a Marine Corps officer thus I was exposed to hosting from infancy. Last of three boys (mom probably wanted a girl by then) and I sucked at sports so mom hauled me into the kitchen. I actually liked that a lot more than soccer or baseball. Fast-forward to adulthood and the beginnings of my relationship with Priscilla. Now it’s down to math:
(Me(likes good food) + Me(likes this girl)) / (Her(can’t cook)+(likes good food)) = Me(cook until death do we part)
You can’t argue with math. Add to the equation that we own a business and are active in leadership in the real estate industry as a whole and now there’s the occasional need to host a major event. Now your equation goes to the next level:
Me(likes to cook) + (Me+Her(business owners*marketing*leadership)) = Me(cook until my hands hurt)
So back to present day where I love to cook and host big events. This year marked the 3rd time we’ve hosted the annual TREPAC Major Investor’s Dinner at our home. A formal sit-down meal for 20-25 people, complete with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres all the way through dessert, wherein the donors to the PAC pay $250 a plate. Yes you read that right – $250 per seat. Despite the cause that’s a lot of money to pay for a meal, so the meal has to blow their socks off.
Again, I won’t consume this blog with details about TREPAC (except for this tidbit): The Texas Real Estate Political Action Committee is a fabulous cause. The PAC supports legislation that helps homeowners in Texas, keeps your costs down, preserves private property rights, fights new taxation, insures funding for roads and schools, and is primarily funded by donations from your Texas real estate professionals, like myself and Priscilla and the fine folks who attended the dinner, Friday, June 2nd.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s Tuesday and I’ve got reservations for 22 people to be at my home in 3 days for a sit-down, formal dinner. This is where the rubber meets the road, people, so hang on while I try to describe how this week went, and what happens behind the scenes when you build an evening like this one:
Tuesday, May 30th – House preparation
Wednesday through Friday will be all about the food, so you have one day to really get the house ready. Now with two kids off for summer break and a kitchen running full tilt you’ll be cleaning right up to when the first guest arrives, but this initial prep goes far beyond scrubbing. General house maintenance must be handled today, and finalized so it’s not in your way. Burned out light bulbs, those two new light fixtures that need installed, that towel bar that keeps coming off the wall in the guest bathroom, the box spring that’s still on the back patio after the guest room remodel wherein you went from a standard bed frame to a platform, the ping-pong table that needs a new home in the garage and the garage that first needs to be scrubbed out top down (including windows) before the ping-pong table can coexist comfortably with the other items that have called garage home for years, reinstall eight window screens, hose down the back patio which will become the formal dining room on Friday, haul off piles of post-remodel refuse that can’t wait for trash day, buy lumber and cut and install two birch wood shelves in a kitchen cabinet (whole separate saga there) and make sure you do this before you clean the garage, and then finally the overall organization-cleaning-purging of the kitchen itself to be ready for the contest to come.
This all happened Tuesday and it’s the best side-effect of hosting any event. You knock out all those to-do list items that have been building up for a while and as a result, your home shines like a diamond. By the time the sun went down I was tarred and feathered with sweat and sawdust and ready for a cold beer.
Wednesday, May 31st – Food, Stage 1
Today starts early and entails finalizing the exact menu, creating the shopping list from that menu, purchasing everything we’ll need then washing, cutting, storing, and the first level of pre-cooking. The goal is to make one trip to the store and one trip only. This is, of course, like trying to ride a unicorn. It’s not just that the animal hasn’t been exposed to a saddle, the animal just doesn’t exist. It’s the goal – I’m not saying it’s realistic, but it’s a nice thing to tell yourself when starting out. Best of luck with that.
The menu had to come about at the last minute because there were dishes I had never made and some that I was purely experimenting with. Starting with the cocktails, I wanted to come out with something new. It’s about to be June and promises to be a warm evening. The sliding doors are wide open to the screened in back patio, the AC will be at full capacity and fans will help. Thus, to compliment the setting I wanted a summery drink. This is when I invented the Cucumber Mint Martini. I played with the juicer and found that freshly-juiced cucumber, mint, and lime made a nice base. Mixed in equal parts of simple syrup and vodka and a tasty, cool, refreshing cocktail was born. Being an almost fluorescent green, the drink proved to also be pleasing to the eye. Ok, winning so far.
I had also concocted a seafood dip a few days prior and would haul that out but substitute fresh crab for the shrimp. The Caesar salad was also experimental as was the closer – a borrowing of Perry’s Nutty DeAngelo, a flambe dessert that’s as delicious as it is fun to watch being made. The other dishes I had extensive experience with so the challenge was simply in the process and scale.
Going into the day I knew these would all be on the menu although I was still working some of them out, so from this I began creating the shopping list. While some might scoff at the task of making a list, when done right it’s time consuming. First you list off the ingredients for each menu item, then you organize the ingredients together as many of the dishes use the same ingredients. Great, now you know you need five onions for everything, ten bulbs of garlic, a truckload of thyme, barrels of butter, every potato they sell, and you can try to find that crème frache but you are, once again, looking for that unicorn. Use sour cream. And yes, now you need more sour cream.
But it doesn’t stop there. Priscilla looked on in disbelief as I then took the ingredients list and organized it further from the left side of the store to the right. One trip to the store and one trip through the store. Doubling back for anything is failure. I’m pleased to have help today – Ava and I will brave the store together. I’ve begun her training early and she’s already a well-seasoned grocery shopper, possessing early signs of her father’s surgical skills at perishable acquisition. The force is strong with this one.
Off to HEB. One trip there, one trip through, two carts spilling over with everything we could need. Note: go left to right at the Belton HEB. That way you finish with produce last and it’s on top of the heavier groceries. Also helps to park by a cart return and on the same side of the store that you’ll exit from. Park well away from the front door as you’ll only get ensnarled in traffic of you try to park close. Here endeth the lesson.
Food comes home. All meats get stored immediately. All produce gets washed and cut. And now we chop. Some onions diced, some minced. Garlic pounded and peeled. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems. Soften the butter. Stale the bread. Thaw the frozen spinach.
We’re two days out so the dough balls must be made for the pizza. I’m serving a couple of hand-made goat cheese and venison sausage pizzas as appetizers. My range has a “stone” setting that actually works well and delivers a crisp pizza crust, but the dough needs 48 hours to rise. I also make the sauce two days ahead so the flavors can marry. A cooking down of fresh roma tomatoes, garlic, pepper, salt, and a little sugar to diminish the acidity.
And with that, I am now done with Day 2. Two days left before the event.
Thursday, June 1st – Food, Stage 2
Today should be fairly easy. I’ve arranged for one of my contractors to pick up and deliver the long tables and chairs from the Association office to the house. We’ll arrange them end to end, cover them with tablecloths, and form a single, formal dining table that will easily house all 22 guests. One extra table is delivered that will be used for the bar, also on the back patio.
Cooking today will start with the dessert, a carrot cake made by my 8-year old daughter Ava from the recipe my mother used. While this is going on I’ll try to learn how to flambe a dessert that I’ve already advertised for the event. No pressure there. I will also make the spinach stuffing for the prime rib roast and the Caesar dressing and croutons for the salad. Yes, I made my own croutons.
A few glitches come to light: I have two ovens – one large, one small. I need the big oven for the pizzas, which need to be cooked right as guests are arriving. I also need the big oven for the roast, which also needs to be coming out right as guests arrive. Fortunately, my father lives right up the street, so I made the command decision to cook the roast at his house. Of course now we have the added complication of running back and forth to his house to check the roast while finishing the appetizers as guests arrive. I’ve got this. As far as glitches go, this can be worked out.
And then, disaster struck.
You know how you’re one day before a big event and that day goes perfect? Yeah me neither. So I make the stuffing, which is a complicated mix of spinach, bacon, bread crumbs (that’s why I needed stale bread – don’t ever use store bought bread crumbs), garlic, sage, sour cream, etc. I painstakingly work this stuffing to perfection and finish in the afternoon. The cake is done, the other items came out great, and now I’ve tackled the stuffing and I’m done. Due to the activity I have zero intention of making dinner, so off we go to the taqueria for a family meal. Enjoy yourself Mike. Have a great time, drink a cold beer, smile and laugh now because when you get home you’re going to realize that you left the heat on under the stuffing.
Ruined. I caught the smell when I walked into the house. Now I go from ready to shower and chill out the rest of the night to 1) back to the store to rebuy the stuffing ingredients, 2) scrubbing the burned carcass of the old stuffing out of the pot, 3) trying to defy physics by making bread stale in a matter of about two hours, and 4) remaking what was a perfect stuffing in the first place. I got to bed well after midnight, a wee bit ticked off but the new stuffing was prepared. Now on to the show.
Friday, June 2nd – Go Time
Up early. Almost everything needs to come out of the fridge to warm. First order of business on the day of the show: eat. Because you won’t eat again all day, except for the repeated testing of what you’re throwing out. You rarely eat when you host. Not just because you’re busy, but because you’ve smelled this food for days now and, as a result, it’s the last thing you want to make a meal out of.
Stage: Trays for appetizers selected and placed, tables set, bar setup, and final clean of the entire house from front to back. This is all being performed by my team at this point: my wife Priscilla, both of my kids Gabriel and Ava, Gabriel’s high-school friend Pierce, and Bradd Stever our Marketing Director who we conscripted for this event. At this point we have our kickoff meeting, and I can’t stress enough how much this helps with the whole evening. No barking orders, just a team of experienced hosts (8 years old and up) stopping to plan the evening and make sure we’re all on the same page. Everyone has a say (I have veto power obviously) We’ve realized through the process that there’s items we need to buy and things we need to borrow. First, we don’t have enough forks, or matching glasses, or napkins. I’ll also need a second mixer for the mashed potatoes as you can’t feed 22 people out of the bowl from one Kitchen-Aid mixer, but two will do nicely. We borrow dad’s mixer and about 10 forks, simultaneously prepping his oven for the roast. We’ll go buy the rest, but we’re making a thorough list at this point because soon it will be too late to make a run. This is already the third store trip so I’m already two over unicorn level. This is also when I run the first batch of Cucumber Mint Martinis. This is Priscilla’s first taste of the drink and she immediately insists we buy more cucumbers. She thinks folks are going to like it. We’ll see about that. The list finalized, Gabriel and Pierce run off to make purchases. AC’s chugging along at full speed, let’s get cooking.
Cook: Final assembly of everything. Some items, like the pizzas, are real-time menu items that must be prepared and cooked during the show. Some are dishes that can be assembled now and set out when needed. It’s critically important to make sure everything comes out when it should, not before and not after. It’s also crucial that each stage (intro, salad, main dish, dessert) all come out en masse. It’s mission critical to deliver the plates all together, you can’t take 10-15 minutes to get them on the table. It’s imperative that the food be fresh and that everyone eat together. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Given that timing is critical, and that I’m highly cognizant of that fact, I already have the water warming for the potatoes. And yes, that is painfully obvious foreshadowing for any of you still actually reading this.
Final mix and tasting of the crab dip, soften the cream cheese for the caviar, begin making the baguette chips (or crustinis) for the dip (thin sliced bread, dab of garlic butter, broiled until golden brown and crisp), stuff and tie up the roast, coat accordingly, and get that baby in the oven right at 3:30 to be finished at 6:00 when guests arrive allowing time to cool, begin au jus and gravy, don’t peel the potatoes yet to prevent them from discoloring don’t forget (more foreshadowing), mix up a huge batch of martinis and chill, cut, wash, and tear the romaine for the Caesar salad but don’t mix and toss until go time, form ice cream balls for the Nutty De’Angelo and portion out other ingredients.
It’s now late afternoon and I have to allow time to clean myself up. Despite being the head chef I am also the co-host and must look presentable. And with this level of activity and heat that’s like trying to dig a ditch in a tuxedo and still look good, but I’m going to pull it off. That has to be worked in with repeated trips up the street to dad’s place to check the roast, and to again ask him if he’s coming because he’ll say he’s going to show then he won’t show. The roast comes out at six and stays at dads to cool before transport back to the event. Moving it from his house to mine was a bit like them trying to transport that egg in the second Ocean’s 11 movie. This was no time for a mishap.
Transport the roast. Shower and change. Back into the kitchen at 5:30, guests arrive at 6. Make sure the house is straight, the bar set up, the lights on, AC’s running non-stop, patio screens down but rear sliders stay closed until the doorbell rings, fans on high, music playing, fluff the pillows. Now we have our final team meeting, cover anything wrong, exact plating schedule, and everyone’s specific area of responsibility. Given the demand on plates and forks, and because of space constraints, we’ll need to wash and dry dishes during the event. After the salad this will become an issue, and not the only one.
And now, for me, it’s nothing but the food. The caviar is out, as is the crab dip. The dough balls are room temperature and ready, oven and stone searing hot at a steady 550 degrees. Doorbell rings at 6:03, rear sliders fly wide open, begin making the first pizza. Priscilla greets the guests, ushers them in, drink orders are placed. The bell rings again and now guests are streaming in at a regular pace and the activity level goes from feisty to down-right frenetic. Two pizzas in and out, sliced narrow, and served at the appetizer table that’s well-attended and received. Wasn’t real happy with the pizza dough (a mistake I had managed to make all by myself) but it was passable and no one seemed to notice. We have officially lifted off and ejected the first stage.
First challenge: I realize it can’t be all about the food. Stop what you’re doing and go mingle. Smile, make small talk, attempt the subterfuge of engagement via the societally acceptable head-nod with commensurate eye-brow raise, all the while freaking out about everything that’s undone and currently unattended.
Second challenge: we’re out of martinis. I already juiced the last of our cucumbers and that pitcher is on its last legs. Priscilla was right, the drink is a big hit and going like gangbusters. This, of course, means I was wrong. Stranger things have happened. Fourth trip to the store (I hate that unicorn by now) but we’re sending dad, which will make him come to the party. Dad shows up a bit later with eight cucumbers which are immediately juiced and served, and consumed quickly after that. The martinis are done for the night, but I’m keeping that recipe handy.
Final toss of the salad, mixing in the dressing and croutons. STOP – go say hello to more guests, engage head-nod technique. Gabe keeps serving at the bar while all other available hands meet in the kitchen to begin plating and serving the Caesar salad. Goes very smoothly and all guests are now seated and have started stage 2, which brings about the third challenge.
Remember those potatoes? Yeah, well, that makes one of us. Salads served, main course next, my mashed potatoes are cut and raw and waiting to go into the warm water. People please eat slow. And once again stop and engage.
And they did take their time with those salads so it wasn’t so bad, but the cold that grips your guts when you realize a dish isn’t ready and you have an audience is not a pleasant sensation. Crank the heat, drop in the potatoes and garlic, cover, wait. Untie the roast, collect the stuffing, remove the entire rib cage and save those bones! Don’t ever waste the bones. Plates start coming back from the salad and need to be washed for the dessert, forks washed for the main course. Roast ready to be carved, stuffing ready to serve, potatoes thankfully at least boiling at this point, dishes washing and drying, arranging plates for the main course, boats for the gravy, au jus, and horseradish. STOP! – go say hello, act casual, adjust head-nod technique to include the occasional eyebrow furrowing to show genuine concern. And we’re still waiting for the potatoes.
Done. Out of the water into the mixers. Butter. Milk. Salt. Pepper. Speed. Fastest mashed potatoes ever and worth the wait. The entire main course flies out of the kitchen on 22 plates in about four minutes, and it was sublime. Tasting as it came together I actually thought I would enjoy a plate of that, which as I’ve explained before is highly irregular. Overjoyed that we’re through stage 3. Now things calm down. The meal is well received and interrupted with the occasional toast and a few speeches about the PAC. For the first time since I can remember I actually made myself a plate of the food I had served and enjoyed every bite. Standing up but I usually eat standing up. Whole other story there too.
Time to clean, clear areas, haul trash, (STOP and enjoy some small talk. Yes I said enjoy because the pressure is subsiding) fill the dishwasher, refresh drinks, wash, dry, get a fresh towel. Plates start coming back and it’s time to hit them with stage 4. Ava our captivating waitress has everyone sold on her carrot cake, which was delicious as expected and entirely consumed that evening. While that’s being served I work up the Nutty De’Angelo. Bare plate covered with a crossing pattern of chocolate syrup, place the ice cream ball in the center, then back into the freezer. Stainless pan, medium flame, butter, pecans, brown sugar, cook it down, brandy, fire, kill the heat, pour over the ice cream, and do this all while smiling and continuing the previous conversation complete with what is now a variety of facial expressions as I actually singed some hair with this dish. Voila. Follow with fresh cappuccino courtesy of my new Wolf coffee maker and we are officially through stage 4.
Pour a cocktail and have a seat brave warrior, your mission is complete. Maybe go have a real conversation.
Overall the night was a roaring success. We raised $7,800 for the PAC, everyone had a great time, the drinks flowed, and the plates flew out full and came back empty. Out of the kitchen the big success of the night were the martinis, the roast which was cooked to perfection, the stuffing, and both desserts. The failings were few but noted: slight adjustments needed on the handling of the dough balls over the 48 hour rising period, don’t leave the heat on under the stuffing (obviously), bite the bullet and buy more cucumbers next time, don’t forget the damn potatoes, buy more forks so you don’t have to keep washing them, start the coffee sooner, and I wasn’t crazy about the Caesar salad. The one item I didn’t thoroughly vet before sending it forth from the island, but when I took one bite it wasn’t what I was hoping for. That could have been an errant bite, or an exceptionally bitter piece of romaine, but either way I was a bit paranoid as the greens left for the table. I’ll take more care with that next time.
And that, my friends, is what it is to host. Don’t ask me why, but I love it. I’ll probably keep doing this, and honing it, as long as I can. If you haven’t already perhaps one day you’ll attend an event at my home. My solemn promise to you: should that day ever come to pass I assure you it will be memorable. Cheers!