Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 35: Casino Night, EhJul 20, 2021
A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher
Sometime in the eighties, lavish balls started to give way to different kinds of fundraising events. They featured either a menu created by a celebrity chef, or restauranteurs and wine makers providing samples to casually circulating guests, who sampled, and sipped, while bidding on a silent auction items. Organizers promoted these events as a great occasion to boost brand recognition and expand customer base.
These events were a great deal of extra work – prepping, transporting and serving. The assigned station would often be a bare banquet table, which might occasionally have a white polyester table cloth, which didn’t suit Donna. She had to plan everything in minute detail, leaving nothing to chance; diagramming the table layout, coordinating the linen and flowers and calculating steps of service and number of staff.
Most often we were approached about brunch events, but brunches were busy for us and we couldn’t consider participating. We were selective about which invitations we accepted, opting to support neighbourhood causes or charities that had aided those close to us. So when Donna got a call from a charitable group loosely associated with a suburban police department inviting her to be the featured chef at a charity dinner for four hundred guests, her immediate answer was no.
The caller was persistent, “You won’t have to do anything; just design the menu. And you don’t have to do desserts – they’re all being donated. We’ll look after everything else.
After thinking for a minute, Donna asked, “What’s it in aid of again?”
“We’re doing a dinner and casino night. The funds are used to help people in the community. Can I bring the Chief down to fill you in?”
Although it sounded a bit vague and possible sketchy to her, she thought, “they’re a police organization, and if I don’t have to do anything, why not?”
They came by at lunch time the following week, the Chief in uniform causing a bit of a stir. Donna had prepared a menu package for them including including the recipes and other instructions. Not knowing who would be preparing it, she had kept the menu simple – butternut squash soup, Caesar salad and roast beef tenderloin with mushroom jus, served with a potato-gruyere flan, roasted seasonal vegetables, and a red onion marmalade.
“Who is going to be doing the cooking again?” asked Donna, curious about the execution of the meal.
“We have lots of food service operators lined up to help. Each one is going to do a course.”
“And if one of them doesn’t come through?” she wondered aloud.
“Oh, I’ll just shoot ’em.” chuckled the Chief, patting his sidearm.
After several weeks had passed, Donna hadn’t heard from them and assumed the event was not going ahead. She called just to be sure.
“Oh yes, it’s absolutely going ahead!” was the enthusiastic response. “We’ve got the fliers and menus printed up with ‘Featuring Celebrity Chef Donna Dooher’ across the top. So we’re definitely on!”
But two days before the event, Donna got a call back, “Do you have a recipe for that soup?
“Yes, of course,” she said, “Didn’t you get it? I can resend it.”
“If we brought you the stuff, do you think you could make it?”
“I don’t have the capacity to make so much here.”
“Okay, I’ll get back to you.”
Donna was beginning to feel uneasy. This group didn’t seem very organized.
She did get a call shortly after.
“Hello, is that you Donna?” said a voice with warm familiarity and a strong north of Ireland accent. “This is Liam. I believe we know each other, but more to the point, I understand you need a tilt kettle to make soup.”
“Well, somebody does,” she forced a laugh.
“Why don’t you come up here tomorrow. We have the kettles to make the soup, the squash, spices en’all,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“Okay, I suppose,” she said, scribbling the address on a piece of paper.
“And you’ll be near enough to have a look at the hall when you’re up here.”
The address took Donna to a food production facility in an area of warehouses northwest of downtown. The place was a hive of activity, bottles being filled with jams and sauces, boxes with spices and cake mixes, but she soon found the crew she was looking for. The two young cooks who greeted her amiably were busy peeling and dicing the squash.
“You’re Donna? How are yuh?” said one with a nod. “I think we’ve got this pretty well sorted, but you can let us know if we don’t.”
There was little for Donna to do, but give a few pointers and soon enough the soup had been set to simmer in a large tilt kettle. As she was getting ready to leave, she said, “You’re Irish too,” and having seen them work, added hopefully “Is there a chance you’ll be working with me on Saturday?”
“Not a chance of a Saturday,” said one, and laughing added, “D’yuh not like the Irish then?”
“No, I love the Irish.” said Donna laughing too. “I was just wondering who I might be working with.”
“Aw, dontcha worry. You’ll be grand, yeah.”
Liam appeared, “Well hello Donna! I see you’ve got the soup underway. We’ll have that in some sixteen litre buckets for you on Saturday, along with the romaine for your salad and your vegetables ready to roast off – carrots, parsnips and the like. I guess somebody’s bringing you the beef, but what about this potato flan?”
“Well,” Donna began, “slice the potatoes very thin, on a mandolin preferably. Layer them into a parchment lined baking pan, spread with grated gruyere, a little garlic, salt and pepper and repeat. After three layers or so, pour a generous amount of royale and repeat. Then bake it?”
“Royale?” asked Liam, a puzzled look on his face.
“Eggs and heavy cream,” said Donna.
“Could you not do that at your kitchen then? It’s a bit out there for us.”
“I guess I could but…” she hesitated.
“Grand then. I’ll have the lads put the spuds in your car and before you go back downtown, we’ll go take a look at the hall.”
The banquet hall was really just a large warehouse, with a brightly painted plywood cutout of an Indian arcade running along the front. Stepping inside, Donna found herself in a huge open space with nothing to suggest it was an entertainment venue. A solitary figure in a rumpled shirt was slowly mopping his way down the length of the room.
“Here, let me show you the kitchen now,” said Liam, leading her across the room. As he walked he gave her a run-down of the probable set-up of the room with sweeping gestures.
“The black jack tables will likely be over there, all this will be dining. I’m not sure where they’ll put the bar.”
Donna was hardly listening. She could see the kitchen space through the doorway and it was not what she expected. There were no Garland stoves and no walk-in refrigeration, instead there was a random collection of low propane burners, each with an enormous pot and to one side, a couple of work tables and six tandoor ovens. She was relieved to see a double deck convection oven in a corner but other than that and a couple of low fridges, there was no other equipment in the largely empty space.
“Are there any smaller pots, Liam?”
“Loads of them over there and dishes too,” he said, pointing to a bank of industrial shelving, behind stacks of folding tables and covered with plastic sheeting. Under the plastic was a random collection of slightly battered pots and pans, and hundreds of plates and bowls in mismatched patterns.
“Will you be here on Saturday?’ asked Donna.
Liam smiled and shook his head, grimacing “Not really my scene, but don’t worry, it’ll be grand.”
Worried that she might have to put this dinner out alone, Donna convinced Heather, one of our young chefs to go with her to the event.
“At least I’ll have another pair of capable hands,” she told me. Heather, she knew, was more than a pair of capable hands; she could think on her feet and if anything was more fastidious about presentation than Donna herself.
Donna was anxious and made a point of arriving early at the banquet hall on Saturday, bringing the potato flan, mushroom jus and the red onion marmalade with her. She found that the hall had been divided in two. In one half an Indian wedding was in progress, music and laughter pulsing through the wall into the dark, empty space that was supposed to host the casino night.
The kitchen was bustling. Steaming curries, rice and daal were being scooped from massive pots into hotel pans and carried to the buffet table along with chicken and lamb biryanis. From the ovens were coming samosas and lamb; chicken and paneer skewered with peppers and onions were being grilled on cast iron pans laid over the propane flames. Three cooks worked the tandoor ovens, turning out stacks of fragrant naan.
The fridges were filled with kheers and puddings, so there was no place to store the flan until service. Heather managed to find a banquet table which they set up away from the bustle, so they at least had a spot to put their pans down. There was no sign of the beef or the soup and vegetables from Liam.
“Do you think this event is going to happen?” asked Heather with a nervous laugh, as they stood observing the furious activity of the kitchen.
“I don’t know.” said Donna, “I’m beginning to wonder.” Hearing herself, Donna realized she’d been wondering for weeks.