When I have guests for dinner, the usual repas consists of four courses: entrée, plat, fromage et salade, and dessert, or appetizer, main course, cheese and salad, and dessert—a simple, relaxed four-course meal. I call it simple because most of the meal is prepared ahead of time. Long before the guests arrive, all the raw ingredients are prepped and some of the dishes are partially or completely prepared. But before I peel the first carrot or crack the first egg, I make a plan—a map of the journey that the meal will take from raw ingredients to dirty dishes.
My guests often accuse me of having worked too hard to prepare their meal, and I have a hard time convincing them that the whole process was very relaxing and not particularly difficult. Although they may want to think it, I really didn’t stress over their meal. I learned many years ago how to plan a meal from start to finish and then stick to the plan.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to shop the morning of a meal and then prepare all the dishes just before the guests arrived. As the time of their arrival grew nearer and nearer, I became more and more stressed out. And because I was stressed out, I made more mistakes. But all this started to change when I started working in restaurants in France.
When I worked at Le Château d’Amondans, a Michelin one-star restaurant in Eastern France, it was not uncommon to have a couple of banquets for one to two hundred guests during the same week. At the same time as these banquets, the main dining room of the restaurant was usually open for business. These meals were prepared by a staff of about eight cooks, a number of whom were students doing internships. Generally, everything went off like clockwork because there was always a plan.
The plan was never written in much detail. Usually, the only written notes I saw were a shopping list and a menu. Most of the plan resided in the minds of the chef and his sous-chef. They worked together for so long that each knew what needed to be prepared and when it needed to be done. The guests’ plates were always delivered to their table precisely on schedule. If there was a problem, it was often that guests arrived late, not that the food was not ready or not of the best quality.
The 200-guest banquet scenario is actually quite similar to the scenario that each of us encounters preparing a meal for only four guests. Our first task is to prepare a menu. In France, when a customer arranges a banquet, he or she requests that the chef propose a menu. The chef, after some discussion with the customer, will write up a menu including beverages and extras. The customer will either accept the menu as proposed or suggest some modifications. If the menu negotiations are performed long in advance of the meal, the chef can be quite flexible. If they are being made at the last minute, less flexibility will be possible. In planning the menu, the chef will take into account the season and its effect on the availability of some ingredients. The chef will propose a number of dishes that can be totally or mostly prepared in advance. Some parts of the meal will be prepared one or two days before the guests cross the threshold into the restaurant.
The entrée, or first course, will often be an item like a cold terrine or warm soup that can be made well ahead of time. In Amondans, terrines were prepared in ceramic pans large enough to produce 50 servings each. A few hours before service, the terrines were sliced and plated, usually with a sauce and garnish. Mobile carts that could each hold 100 plates were used to move the plates first to the walk-in refrigerator for holding and then to the service area for passing to the waiters. A fresh sprig of parsley, a sprinkling of chives, or a pinch of spices could be added to the plates as they were passed. Similarly, soups could be heated in a large pot and then plated and decorated as it was being passed to the servers.
The main course was often roast leg of lamb or duck breast. The lambs and ducks used were usually purchased whole and then butchered at the restaurant a couple of days before they were needed. The scraps and bones were immediately browned in heavy stock pots or large roasting pans and combined with some vegetables to start the preparation of the demi-glace that would be used in making the sauce to accompany the meat. The meat was roasted whole in the afternoon and held in a warming cabinet for many hours. Amazingly, the meat was always perfectly warm and delightfully pink when it was carved and served. The vegetable garnish was usually some form of gratin that could be assembled long in advance and baked at the last minute. In the case of the traditional vegetable gratin called a tian that I helped prepare and saw served many times, these were fully cooked a day in advance and reheated just before they were served. (They are better this way then when they are cooked fresh!)
Like the entrée, the cheese for the cheese course was pre-sliced, plated, and placed in the walk-in refrigerator earlier on the day of the banquet. The bread that accompanied the cheese, as well as all the preceding courses, was baked in the afternoon so it was very fresh and often still a little warm.
Cakes, mousses, and ice cream served for dessert were also prepared well in advance of when they would be needed, as too were the mignardises, small sweets such as cookies, miniature tarts, and chocolates. While the rest of the meal was being served, the pastry chef and his assistants would assemble plates of the mignardises so they were ready to serve at the appropriate time. These could only be plated after the guests were seated since each plate contained just enough so each guest could have one of each item on the plate. To arrange the plates this way, the pastry chef needed to know how many people were sitting at each table.
But what does all this have to do with preparing a meal for four at home? Home chefs can learn a lot from the way restaurants plan and prepare meals. Recently, I prepared a little meal for my new neighbors. It was almost a spontaneous meal—something I rarely do. I invited them for dinner just the afternoon before. Since this was the first time I was preparing dinner for this couple, when I asked them for dinner, I also asked if there were any foods that they could or wouldn’t eat. In this case, the wife was gluten intolerant and the husband was lactose intolerant. That meant no wheat flour and no milk products could be included in the meal.
Since I happened to be on my way to the market when I ran into my neighbors and invited them for dinner, I immediately determined the menu in my head. The meal would consist of four courses: tartare de tilapia et haricots verts au sésame (hand-minced, raw tilapia seasoned with lime and ginger and served with blanched baby green beans topped with a vinaigrette made of ground, freshly roasted sesame seeds, roasted sesame oil, and lime juice), caille croustillante aux amandes et pistaches (a boneless breast of quail breaded with ground almonds, pistachios, dried orange peel, and thyme; pan-fried quail legs; and a Madeira sauce garnished with carrots and shallots) and épinards ailles (garlic-flavored, pan-fried spinach), salade de mesclun (a plain salad of mixed greens with walnut oil and honey vinegar), and soupe de fraises aux gingembre (a cold strawberry-ginger compote).
Although the meal was almost last minute, its preparation actually, in one sense, started a couple of months earlier. The quail used for the main course was purchased a number of months prior. I buy whole, boneless quail from a local commercial distributor. They are sold fresh in packages of six. I usually buy two packages and vacuum seal four quail in each bag. The sealed bags are stored in a freezer until needed. Also in the freezer was a 200-gram portion of demi-glace that I made about a month or so earlier. Both of these items were moved from the freezer to the refrigerator as soon as I returned from my shopping so they could slowly defrost in time. I also had a small portion of finely diced orange peel sitting in my cupboard that I had previously dried. In my mind, fresh herbs are a staple so these are always on hand and I would only have to purchase the main fresh ingredients.
Since I created the menu in my head on the way to the market, and since I had a pretty good idea of what items I had on hand, I was able to modify my shopping list and add the items I would need for this meal. When I returned home and checked the recipes, I found that I was only missing one small item that I could purchase quickly in the morning at a store a couple of blocks from my home.
The next morning, I prepared the tartar, blanched the green beans, prepared the strawberry soup, cleaned the greens, disjointed the quail and breaded the breasts, minced the carrots and shallots for the sauce, cleaned the spinach, and sliced the garlic. This all took a couple of hours working at a relaxed pace. Also, the plates for the cold dishes were placed in the refrigerator and my wife set the dining-room table. I then left the kitchen until a few minutes before the guests were due to arrive. In the afternoon, now that the meal was fully set, I printed a menu for the table.
About fifteen minutes before the guests’ arrival, I roasted and ground the sesame seeds and prepared the dressing for the green beans. When the guests arrived, we gathered in the kitchen for a toast. I usually welcome my guests into the kitchen immediately upon their arrival so they can observe the start of their meal being plated. In this manner, I’m not separated from them and they are better able to relax. As each course is over and done with, the guests return to the kitchen with me to finish and plate the next course.
For this menu, the entrée is just assembled on the plate. Both items of the main course require cooking before they can be served. A total of four frying pans on four burners are required. Although I can easily handle this by myself, if one of the guests offers to help, I’ll usually put them to work on one of the simpler tasks. The salad only required dressing with the oil and vinegar. The dessert, being completely prepared in the morning, simply had to be ladled into the chilled serving bowls.
In the end, we had a very relaxing, four-hour long meal with good food, good wine, and good conversation. One of the reasons that it went so well was that it was well planned, even if it was organized on the spur of the moment. There wasn’t a formal, written plan. In fact, the only written notes were the menu, which I printed out and hung in the kitchen as I always do, and my recipes, which I maintain in a series of binders in the kitchen. (I used to occasionally forget to prep or cook a dish so now I always attach the menu to the refrigerator door so I can double-check as I work on the meal.) But because there was not much written doesn’t mean I didn’t plan the meal.
If I was to write out a sample plan for a meal at my home, it would look something like the following.
All of this may seem way too complicated for a simple meal, and in a sense it is. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write out a formal plan like the one above, but I do complete a mental version quickly for each meal I prepare. And I’ve done it so many times that it only takes a few moment—it has become somewhat automatic for me.