Therere 50 to 60 people expected for dinner tonight, October 11th, 2001, at Le Château dAmondans in the foothills of the French Alps. Its another banquet. Once or twice a week, throughout the year, besides serving their regular clientele in the restaurant, the château staff is hired to cater a banquet. These can be small affairs of ten people, but they are more likely to have 100 to 200 guests. So tonights affair is on the small size. Still, as the guests arrive and start to enjoy their evening, few will consider the work that went into making their dinner tonight both pleasant and good tasting.
By normal standards, tonights meal came together rather fast. Generally banquets are arranged a month or two in advance. The arrangements for tonight started just a week ago. Normally, after getting an idea of the requirements and purpose for the banquet, the chef, Frédéric Médigue, will propose a meal and a price. The customer can review and agree with the proposition. But this being France, some negotiation is required. However, for tonights meal, there wasnt much time for give-and-take between the chef and the client.
The client is a group from a local university thats hosting a group of Japanese visitors. They are all arriving by bus at about seven in the evening. Theyre gathering first for a wine tasting arranged with one of the local Jura wineries in another room of the château; so the normal apéritif of champagne is being bypassed. When they arrive in the dining room, hors duvres consisting of an allumette de comté a thin piece of puff pastry baked with comté cheese on top and a gougère a soft cheese chou-pastry puff will be served. The meal will start with an amuse-bouche that consists of an aerated tomato mousse called an espuma (Espumas are whipped foams made from a combination of fruits, herbs, vegetables, fish, seafood, meat, and dairy products cooked as required, puréed, and strained. Spanish Chef Ferran Adria created the espuma concept in his restaurant El Bulli.) The entrée (first course) is a fricassée of forest mushrooms served with a very thin slice of toast as a garnish. On the menu, this is called champignons des bois en morilles en chips de pain. The main course will be thin slices of duck breast served with fried potatoes arranged in a rosette and a broiled fig with honey aiguillettes de canard aux epices et figue au miel. This will be followed by a selection of local cheeses, which, in this case, will be a slice of comté, morbier, and bleu de gex. Both a white and red wine will accompany the meal. For dessert, the guests will be served poire cuite au vin rouge de Jura en gâteau et en sorbet à la cardamone a pear poached in local red wine, a small cake filled with pears, and a cardamom-scented pear sorbet made with the red wine used to poach the pears. To end the meal, the guests will be offered coffee or tea. There will also be les mignardises a selection of small sweets. No one will go away hungry.
But long before the guests take their first bites of the meal, preparation for the event has begun. A copy of the menu is hung on the bulletin board in the kitchen days before the event, so the cooks can begin their plans. This is a relatively simple menu, so only a couple of days preparation will be required. The restaurant is closed on Wednesday, the day before the banquet, so some preparation is moved to Tuesday. Most of the supplies for the meal are purchased Tuesday afternoon at the Metro branch in Besançon. Metro is a large chain of superstores in France that cater only to professionals in the food industry. In many cases it has replaced traditional local suppliers because it is able to offer quality products for less money, but its cash and carry no credit and no delivery. After an hour of walking up-and-down the aisles with two gargantuan shopping carts and an equally large shopping list, the chef drives away with a truckload of groceries and a receipt for 5700 FRF ($800).
Meanwhile, back in the château kitchen, the cooks have received a delivery from a local butcher of a box containing ten Barbary ducks, each weighing an average of 3.3 kg (7.3 lb). Shortly after receiving the shipment, each duck is cleaned. The breast of each duck is removed on the bone in a single piece by cutting lengthwise through the soft cartilage separating the front and back parts of the rib cage. The hindquarters, not part of the banquet meal, are reserved for making confit de canard. The remaining bones, wings, feet, etc. are browned and turned into stock a process that will take about six hours. The breasts naturally flatten when the ribcage is divided. Each breast portion is browned over high heat on the flat side. They are then force cooled in a special refrigerator. Each is placed in a heavy bag with the cut ends of the ribs covered with a little foil so they dont puncture the bags. The bags are vacuum-sealed and stored in one of the restaurants walk-in refrigerators until they are needed on the night of the banquet.
At the same time the ducks are being prepared, another one of the cooks is preparing the espuma. This is a cold sauce made from sweet red peppers, celery, saffron, and lots of tomatoes. The vegetables are cooked, puréed, and mixed with heavy cream. This new combination is reduced further and then set aside to cool. The espuma will be loaded into a bottle pressurized with carbon dioxide gas and spritzed into individual bowls for serving. It winds up looking like orange-colored whipped cream.
Meanwhile, in the bakery of the château, four loaves of bread are being mixed, formed, allowed to rise, and baked. These loaves will become the chips that will decorate the mushroom entrée.
Two of the items purchased at Metro, chanterelles and trompettes de la mort, cant be left in their crates until Thursday so Wednesday morning, one case of trompettes and two cases of chanterelles are sorted, cleaned, trimmed when appropriate, and spread out on large, flat pans in the walk-in refrigerator. Other than dealing with the mushrooms, no work is performed on Wednesday, since the restaurant is closed.
At about ten in the morning on Thursday, the day of the banquet, the heavy work begins. There are no reservations for lunch so most of the mise en place under way is just for the banquet, but some is also for the evening dinner service.
The espuma is loaded into the pressure bottles and placed in the refrigerator until needed in the evening. A case of champignons de Paris are trimmed and peeled. These mushrooms, along with the mushrooms cleaned the day before, are separately blanched in boiling water for a minute or two. The mushrooms are drained in perforated hotel pans and refrigerated. Since this is not the season for fresh morel mushrooms, dried ones are placed in water to hydrate. They will be cooked later in the day.
The pears for the dessert are peeled and poached in red wine during the morning. The starter for the dough for the fresh bread to be served with the meal is started and set aside to ferment. Herbs for use in decorating the evening dishes, chives and parsley, are gathered in the châteaus garden, cleaned, culled, washed, and spin-dried. These are carefully wrapped in paper towels and refrigerated. Potatoes are peeled and turned into cylinders.
Besides the preparation work going on in the kitchen, the dining room must be set up for the banquet. The service staff starts by getting sufficient plates and glasses out of storage to handle the affair. These are all run though the dishwasher. The fresh tablecloths, already ironed in the laundry room, are ironed by hand in place on the tables so they are absolutely smooth.
Its now a little before noon. The staff sets aside their aprons and sit down for their midday meal. This is followed, since there is no lunch service, by the midday break.
About four-thirty or five, the kitchen comes to life once again. In the morning, the atmosphere in the kitchen was relaxed; now the fur is really flying!
Masaki takes the bread that was baked on Tuesday and slices it into one-millimeter thick slices on the meat slicer. These are placed in concave bread molds and lightly brushed with clarified butter. The bread slices are toasted in this position in the oven so they take on the curved shape of the pans. As they are removed from the oven, each is rubbed with a piece of fresh garlic. The chips are arranged on a baking sheet and set on a shelf that sits above the stove to keep crisp.
The dried morel mushrooms that were hydrated earlier are cooked in a little cream. When ready to eat, they are drained through a strainer and set aside until needed later.
Over in the patisserie, Yasu is preparing the bread for the banquet. The starter that was made earlier is made into dough. This in turn is fashioned into the châteaus signature roll shape and given its final rising.
Also in the patisserie, miniature eclairs have been baked for the mignardises plates. These will be filled with a chocolate cream and coated with chocolate fondant later. The small chocolate macaroons have already been prepared a short while earlier.
Back in the main kitchen, pleurotes are now cut into shreds and blanched like the other mushrooms.
The potatoes that were cut into cylinders are being turned into little galettes. Each is cut with a mandolin into eleven very thin slices. The slices are dusted lightly with cornstarch. A nonstick pan is brushed with a little clarified butter and placed over low heat. The rosette pattern is formed in the pan and the galette is carefully browned on one side. The galette is turned over very carefully so the other side can brown. When cooked, the galette is placed on a rack to drain. Ninety minutes later when Masaki, the lone cook working on the galettes completes 50 or so of these, they will be transferred to a sheet pan and set high over the stove next to the bread chips.
Tonights banquet is still a number of hours away, but this is not the only work that goes on in the kitchen. The menu for a banquet coming up in three days is posted on the bulletin board and the cooks begin to make their plans for that meal. Taïchi, the sous chef, is busy making boudin blanc which will be turned into soup for the regular restaurant menu.
Yosuke, who has been working on the mushrooms on and off, starts their final cooking. The chanterelles, pleurotes, and champignons de Paris are all cooked in cream until tender. They are then drained and set aside in two hotel pans covered with plastic wrap. The pans are set in the warmer. The trompettes de la mort will be cooked later, just before serving.
Taïchi has started the sauce caramel that will be served with the duck. He started it by caramelizing some sugar. Next, red wine vinegar was added and reduced. To this he adds orange juice and fond de veau which are now reducing. When completed, hell strain the sauce and set it aside on the edge of one of the flattop burners until it is needed for service later.
Back in patisserie, the rolls have completed their rise and Yasu has placed them on a board for transferring to the oven. Just before baking, he gives each an incision with a razor blade so they expand in a predictable manner when they bake. At the same time, Shinsuke is filling small, baked pâte sablée cups with lemon curd. He then starts filling miniature Madeleine forms with a batter that was prepared earlier. Also, the eclairs that were baked earlier are now filled and coated with chocolate fondant. Soon, the first batch of rolls is ready to remove from the oven. They are left to cool briefly in front of the oven and then arranged in baskets for serving.
Its now about six thirty and the staff begin to sit for their dinner. Tonights staff dinner is centered on omelets that Yosuke has prepared at the last minute. The wait staff has also been busy before their dinner, completing the set up of the banquet room. When their meal is over, they will have to be ready to serve the restaurant service simultaneous with the banquet. Some staff members sit and relax during the meal while others bolt their food down and return to their duties. I ask Pascale, the chefs wife and commander of the front of the restaurant, if she has heard a final count from the group organizing the banquet and she says a disgusted no.
The allumettes de comté are sliced from frozen sheets and baked in the oven. For the past few years, the restaurant has served each guest an allumette as soon as they are seated. These are prepared in quantity in large sheets and frozen until needed. Tonights allumettes are taken from the large supply in the freezer. When baked, the allumettes are placed under the service warming lamps since these are the first items served to the guests.
The duck breasts, still in their vacuum bags, are placed in the bain maries built into the ends of the stove. These are heated in 65 ºC water until their internal temperature reaches 55 ºC. This is all carefully monitored with a digital thermometer. When they reach the proper temperature, the breasts, still in their plastic bags, will be placed in the warmer.
Shinsuke prepares the dough for the gougères. The dough is chou paste with shredded comté cheese added. He pipes the dough in small mounds on a baking sheet. When baked, the dough expands to make small, light, airy cheese-flavored morsels. In the meantime, Yasu has prepared the base for the pear sorbet and loads it into the sorbetier to freeze. Later it is discovered that he has not burned off the alcohol from the red wine in the base, and the resulting sorbet will firm up but not harden fully. Also, it will have a creamy appearance rather than the usual icy appearance of sorbet. Next, Shinsuke heads back to the pâte sablée cups filled with lemon curd. He sprinkles a little raw sugar on each and caramelizes the sugar with a blowtorch.
At the service line, Taïchi discusses the best way to serve the espuma with David, the headwaiter, and some of the waitstaff. Monique is left to separate and place doilies on each of the plates that will hold a small bowl of the espuma.
Yosuke trims each of the figs that will be served each plate will have two. After removing the stem with a crosswise cut, he makes a crosscut in the top of each fig. Later, during the first course, he will drizzle honey over the figs and roast them in the oven.
Its now ten minutes to eight and there still is not a final count from the customer. Word comes that the group did show up slightly after seven and is in the middle of their wine tasting. They are scheduled to be in the dining room at eight-thirty. The dining room is ready and waiting. The last item of the setup is just being completed, the placing of a printed copy of the nights menu on each table. The kitchen is ready to start final preparation and serving at eight-thirty. Will the guests arrive on time? In the meantime, regular dinner service continues.
Eight-thirty comes and goes without the guests arriving in the dining room, but at least there is now a count. Fifty people are coming for dinner. Nine oclock comes and goes without the guests arriving. By quarter past nine, the last hot order from the kitchen for the regular diners is sent out. This leaves the kitchen crew sitting on their hands until the banquet service starts. Finally at nine-twenty-five, word comes that the banquet guests are seated and its time to serve the allumettes and gougères. The guests are seated at five tables fourteen, eight, ten, eight, and ten. Throughout the service, the tables will be served in this order. The servers Pascale, David, Franck, Monique, Ophélie, and Elodie will serve all the people at each table at the same time.
A short time later, word comes that its time for the amuse-bouche. This means that it is time to plate the espuma. Fifty small bowls are set out on the countertop. Masaki starts squirting the mousse into the bowls. Others help to place the bowls on the serving plates so the servers can take the espuma to the diners. The service bar provides a definitive dividing line between kitchen staff and the wait staff.
While the guests are partaking in the amuse-bouche, Taïchi and Yosuke start the final cooking of the entrée. Yosuke concentrates on heating the trompettes de la mort. He fries the mushrooms in butter and seasons them with chopped parsley, salt, and pepper. Taïchi re-heats the morels and finishes the sauce a cream and white wine sauce finished with a little lemon juice, whipped cream, and vin jaune. The plating starts with setting out the serving plates on the heated ends of the stove. The trompettes de la mort are arranged in a circle around the edge of each plate. The mushrooms that have been sitting over steam in the hotel pans are placed in the center. A few morels are placed on top and the sauce spooned over the center. A bread chip and a few chives are placed on top of the mushrooms. While the plating proceeds, David and Monique wait to start serving the plates as soon as they are set on the service bar. In a few minutes, the servings for the five tables are plated and served.
The remnants of the mushroom preparation are cleared away and the cooks concentrate on the next course. The duck breasts are removed from the warmer, taken from the plastic bags, and stripped of the aluminum foil covering the cut edges of the ribs. The skin is seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder and the breasts are placed skin side-down in a very hot frying pan. When the skin is cooked and browned, the breasts are handed to the chef who begins carving. Each full breast will serve five to six guests. As Taïchi finishes some of his other duties, he joins the chef in carving the breasts.
In the meantime, the plates from the previous course start coming to the plonge the dishwashing area of the kitchen. Natalie and a helper hired for the night have been busy all night keeping up with the dishes, flatware, and glasses coming from the dining room. As each is washed and dried, they are restocked on the shelves so they can be used again.
The word comes that the guests are ready to be served the main course and the plating starts. Three slices of duck are put on each plate. Two figs, one potato galette, and the sauce caramel are added to the plates. As each group of plates is completed, they are transferred to the service bar and sent to the dining room. There, the guests continue their gustatory adventure unaware of the assiduous actions in the kitchen.
Following the main course is the cheese. Usually fromage is served to dinner guests from a wooden board and each guest selects which cheeses he or she wants. For serving a large group, this is impractical so fifty portions of cheeses are cut and placed on serving plates. This has to be done at the last minute so the cheeses dont dry out before being served.
Back in the patisserie, Yasu and Shinsuke have been busy. Theyve peeled and poached the pears. Yasu is now busy cutting each in half. Then he will carefully core each one. Shinsuke is spooning the Madeleine batter with the pear pieces into individual fluted pans. These are baked at the last minute so theyll still be hot for serving.
With the hot service completed, the cooks are now busy cleaning the kitchen and attacking the pots dirtied by the evenings cooking. The dishwasher only handles the dishes, glasses, silver, and other items that go through the dishwasher. All the heavy items are washed by hand by those who make them dirty. In a short while, the pots are clean, the stove and counters are wiped down, and the floor is washed. And this is before dessert has been served.
As the cheese plates start coming back from the dining room, plating of the desserts commences. First the plates of mignardises are sent to each table. Then the dessert serving plates are set out for plating. Each plate receives half a pear, cut into a fan, and a hot gâteau. A small sprinkling of chopped pistachios is added for decoration, and the chef spoons the sorbet onto each plate. Finally, Yasu adds a small leaf to each serving of sorbet for decoration, and the service starts. In a matter of a couple of minutes, all the guests have their desserts.
Before Yasu and Shinsuke can start cleaning the patisserie area, they must prepare the starter for tomorrow mornings bread. Somehow during all the other activities, theyve found time to bake croissants for the breakfast of the guests staying overnight in the hotel.
Out in the dining room, therere still a few speeches and comments being made. Plus theres coffee and tea to be served to those who want it. Finally, a few minutes past midnight, the guests filter back to the bus. The chef stands at the door to say goodbye to the guests as they walk by something he does easily in both French and Japanese.
At long last, the wait staff can clear the tables and remove the linens. Its past midnight and all things that can be left for the following day will be. The kitchen staff has already left for bed and soon the waitstaff will do so also. Most of the waitstaff will sleep at the château so they can start early the next morning again.
Frédéric, the chef, and Pascale, his wife and I head off to the family dining room, sit back and enjoy a glass of wine and a little time to be together. Tomorrow, Friday morning, theyll be at it again.
©2002 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.