I learned something else through this experience of planning and executing a menu for 100 people, something that everyone pretty much grasps on a certain level: the restaurant business is difficult. It's made up of long hours and tons of repetitive labor. You cannot, however, lose sight of the artful dish that you hope will end up on the plate. Kelly English, chef and owner of Restaurant Iris, gave me a speech in the Iris kitchen on Sunday morning that went a little something like this:
"There will come a time when the panic will set in, and you will feel as if there is no way we can get all this stuff done. Just remember, if we work hard, we will get it done. You'll look at the clock and the panic will get worse. At about 9 a.m., the culinary professionals will arrive. When they do, everything will fall into place. Now get over there and make biscuits for 100 people."
I worked hard. I made the biscuits, pimento cheese, pickled carrots, pickled peppers, peeled the lotus, smoked the sun-dried tomatoes, made the spice rub for the shiitake bacon, and roasted peppers for the vegan migas. I thought I was on fire until I looked at Kelly's prep list. That guy is fast and accurate in the kitchen. I was in awe.
It came time for service, and we were ready -- just like I was promised. Once the first customers rolled in, my palms began to sweat. We had 97 people on the books. It had been sold out for over a month, so I felt like there was a lot to live up to that day. Luckily, we had my good friend Michael Hughes behind the bar mixing up some signature cocktails: The Hive, The Peach Julep, and Basil & Bubbles. He was able put everyone in a relaxed mood. I'm always so thankful for Michael.
The first round of orders began to make their way out of the kitchen, and they looked beautiful. I (seriously!) almost cried. It was emotional for me to see my food served in such a fine restaurant prepared by an incredible chef and his crew. The hand pies, squash blossoms, beet salad, and the stuffed peppers all looked so amazing to me.
Service was a blur of smiles and food and laughter. I loved visiting the tables and talking with people about the food they just ate or were about to eat. The kitchen continued to turn out dish after dish of wonderful food. Everyone in the dining room really seemed to have a good time. I'm a sucker for compliments, and there were a few thrown around.
Two weeks later, I'm still very grateful for the incredible opportunity.
If you ever wondered what it takes to be a Food & Wine magazine best new chef like Kelly English, I can tell you. iIn addition to a wealth of talent, it takes waking up early and staying up late. It takes dedication. It takes joy in hard work as well the willingness to work extra-hard to realize one's dreams. This is true inside and outside of the kitchen.