How can I say anything but yes! to a nonprofit that provides vital services for families living in the rural San Mateo South Coast communities of Pescadero, La Honda, Loma Mar, and San Gregorio?
Puente provides a single point of entry for men, women, and children to have access to safety net services, health and wellness services, youth employment, leadership development, and community engagement and action. This includes migrant farm workers that work to bring food to everyone's tables.
Challenge: how to orchestrate a feast for 200 people (maybe 600 depending on the RSVP's – yikes!) in a rural setting utilizing produce and products from as many surrounding farms and community vendors as possible?
And how to set up an outdoor kitchen, bring in a team of chefs, and all the necessary party supplies (tables, chairs, tableclothes, toilettes, chaffing dishes, bowls, plates, etc)?
I love this kind of stuff.
First I enlist the best possible staff. I hire one of my chef's from Citizen Cake who opened the restaurant with me, and one from Circa who re-opened that restaurant with me, and one who comes highly recommened from Pescadero, and two more catering pros from San Francisco – and I bribe their 11 year old son with the promise of a new ipod mini. Yes, I bribed.
It's for a good cause! You must come! You can stay on the farm and I'll ply you with champagne and wine and fresh apple cider!
Who can resist a Martha Stewart-esque weekend like that?
Little did any of them know that sleeping on a farm can be difficult for the first timer. It's quiet for one. Mysteriously so. Until the roosters start up at 4:30A.M and the farmer's start milking goats and turning on lights and clomping around. (Mild exaggeration, bien sûr!)
Why farmers seem so happy so early in the morning is beyond me. Perhaps its the pleasure of waking city folk up? Even with the glorious smell of fresh coffee? This has got to be an inside joke. And funny enough, I'm beginning to get it.
Kelvin, my chef from Citizen Cake has a habit nobody but me seems to understand. He locks all the doors in our cabin at night. And I don't blame him because I get scared out here too. It's silly, yes, but maybe we've both seen one too many horror movie. I prefer to lie awake all night in fear, while he just gets down to business and battens down the hatch.
This, of course, is hilarious to the Echo Valley Farm team that use our cabin to store goat milk in the morning. I was hazed for locking my doors on my first overnighter and now him. And as part of the initiation rite of passage Kelvin is asked to milk the goats. He takes this with stride.
But it is Kelvin, who get the last laugh here, because he is a natural and the goats give no sign of annoyance. And I think the animals have decided he's farm material because he listens to their concerns and doles out fatherly wisdom. Young Gretel is taking this lecture with all due seriousness.
Enough "kidding" around, there's work to be done. Kelvin and I prep all the marinades and vinaigrettes for our luncheon a day before the other chefs arrive, and start setting up our make-shift outdoor kitchen.
I give the menu a latin spin because we are using Cleodtildé's famous tamales (Pescadro local vendor) and somehow serving a pasta dish or a béarnaise sauce next to a tamale just doesn't seem appetizing. But all the same, I don't want the meal to be readily available items. I want it to be special and just a little different. Buh, oui, hein?
So I ixnay on the tacos and enchilades and go for Markegard family grass-fed beef smothered in adobada sauce. This is a kickass Mexican BBQ sauce of sorts that gets its sweet-smokiness from toasted and rehydrated pasilla and guajillo chilis with a nice puckery punch from straight up hard core white distilled vinegar. Vita-prep white onions, garlic, mexican oregano, and toasted cumin with the chilis, slather it on steak, throw it over a mesquite grill, slice up, and watch it dissappear: magic.
Because I feel guilty serving only buffet style food, I add appetizers to stave off starvation with Fly Girl Farm dry farmed tomatoes. I turn these intensely flavorful fruits into gazpacho shots blended with sherry vinegar, almonds for creaminess, garlic, and top with hard cooked farm eggs & crispy bacon. These go down easy.
One appetizer is child's play and the bounty of produce I have to choose from is making me A.D.D., I add spiced kuri squash & kale frittata bites to remind our guests that winter is on it's way with the earthier vegetables I always crave in the cold. Dee (the legend) of Harley Farm fame donates goat cheese spreads to top crostini. A drizzle of local honey and a crispy fried sage leaf tops the pumpkin smear and cherry tomatoes with basil top the herb spread.
But wait, there's these cute little padron peppers from Del Sur Farm and a tree full of ripe asian pears at Echo Valley Farm! It's only natural to add another hot entrée of spicy sausage-padron pepper-asian pear skewers brushed with chorizo vinaigrette.
And I've got to provide some salads and use the end of season vegetables. Hence the hickory smoked baby potato salad with freshly dug little jewels from Echo Valley Farm in all different colors: purple, red, and yellow that are smoked over the grill and tossed with a redwine-mustard combination and parsley. Smoked potatoes are really tasty.
The late season white corn on the farm is sweeter than sugar cane. I'm tempted just to throw it on the BBQ the day of, but I don't want people worrying about corn-in-teeth at a party. Grilled corn & zucchini salad with farm cheese and lime it is. I add fresh oregano with black pepper and a butter-olive oil mixture for richness. Butter and corn are a no-brainer. Thankfully the zucchini season is finally slowing down on the farm, for awhile I thought it was going to simply take over the universe and suffocate all of us in our dreams. Then we'd really have squash coming out of our ears. With two crates of every shape and size of summer squash and eighty ears of fresh picked corn, this should be plenty for two hundred people.
Addwater Farm has really nice lettuce in all different shapes, sizes, and varieties. And farmer Brian will harvest this the day of for us so it is still alive and bouncy. To keep it simple (I mean come on, this is a farm luncheon, not a three hour tasting menu, right?) I add torn herbs with shaved Nantes carrot and whip up a poblano-orange-rice wine vinaigrette. It's unusual and pleasant on hot afternoons.
Lastly, for something spicy-sweet: watermelon-cucumber salad with lime-chili vinaigrette. Okay, I bought the watermelons outside of Pescadero, but the cucumber was all Echo Valley Farm.
That's enough. With the tamales and cupcakes for dessert and the fresh pressed apple cider? That should definitly do it.
I have cooked a lot of French food over the last 9 years. I want to kick it up a notch! Forget subtly of flavor –let's just do this! I want some in yo face flavor happenin! Pow! Shazam! You get the idea...
I just want to have fun. No restraint. No coyness. Throw modesty to the wind. Forget frilly feminine and go fierce.
Keith, my chef from Circa, arrives and literally lifts me off the ground with the biggest bear hug ever. Then he pretends to strangle me for our photo opp. It's a love-hate kind of thing clearly. "It's good to see you Chef", he says. And like a great team coming back together, I feel pumped that my action plan is on track. This just might work.
Okay this just might not work.
The party rental people arrive and apparently my order is mostly right. Mostly. This is partly my fault. I didn't look at the dimensions on my invoice sheet close enough. I ordered "conference" tables to set the food on and I was reassured they would be wide enough to fit two rows of chaffing dishes down each side. But these tables are about 12-inches wide. So only one row will fit. Which means I can't set out double rows of food, which means that I will have to refill dishes faster, and the food line will move slower.
I'll make it work. I have to.
On the flip side, the bandana table clothes I ordered are totally cute. So totally cute that Farmer/Owner Kate strategizes on how we might be able to keep them and not give them back to the rental company. The farmers think they're worth jumping up and down about.
And Kate also cleverly decides to match her outfit to the food tables covered with checkered oil cloth. Who said farmers aren't fashionable? Martha eat your heart out!
The rented 5-foot charcoal grill is pretty badass and I like that. My carne adobada is going to be serious.
Jose, a young cook from Pescadero arrives, and I'm slightly skeptical because I've never worked with him like this. He's the Pescadero farmer's market manager and he does a great job at it, but cooking with some one for the first time in a setting where things need to get done fast and correctly is risky.
Jose has offered to make the tomatillo salsa to accompany the carne adobada. I've already cleaned a bushel of tomatillos and I hand over the basket and tell him to go for it. "I hear your salsa is bomb. Just do it the way you like but a little less spicy." We discuss the process and agree upon the procedure. Jose busts out the best tomatillo salsa I've ever had in my life.
He blazes through endless prep with a smile, a positive attitude, and a wicked work ethic. I like Jose immediately. We all do. And we are all eager to mentor him.
Last to arrive are my fabulous foodie friends who are catering savvy. Robert is a Southerner and I know he works the grill like an octopus on steroids because I've seen it in action. And I've tasted his dishes in the past which have yet to disappoint.
Robert tests the grill and charcoal with the juiciest family meal: mesquite grilled hamburgers. Yum.
Kat is comfortable organizing huge conferences in Vegas and pulling together front and back of house flawlessly. So I know she can do both on the fly. And she has the eye when it comes to fashion, food, and art. I'm still working on the fashion, art, and understanding front of house drama. I'm happy to pass this off.
And she's also just a beautiful woman inside and out which balances the testosterone fest and keeps all the guys on best behaviour. Trust me, this is a good thing, the guys appreciate it.
Jax, Robert's son, is good at playing video games and playing baseball. Hmmm. Good thing there's an old relic Pac-Man arcade machine in our cabin that works without quarters, but he is going to have sweat for that ipod mini. He does. No complaints.
And he works his way into my hard heart with his constant "Yes, Master Chef, what's next?" routine which is hilarious to the whole team but secretly endearing to me. Flattery will get you everywhere.
There are still hurdles to jump. Prepping food for 200 people requires storage space. And that is something we have, but it is all over the farm: in the main house, in the guest cabin, in the pantry, and in a huge ice cooler. There's also the issue of using stoves, ovens, and grills. We have multiple of each, but again they are all over the farm which means that I can't watch everything and the cooks are running between our outdoor prep area, three kitchens, and four different storage areas. Confusing.
Our first day of prep reminds me of chicken processing. That part where the neck gets slashed and the body jerks around for awhile. Not pretty. Recipes are only half completed by the time the sun sets and I can feel my jaw muscles tensing as I hurry to finish my prep. Jax replaces the daylight with the bright glare of his cell phone held over my knife and cutting board. Note to self: kids should have cell phones if for no other reason than to provide light when working at night.
We call it after the mosquitos replace the yellow jackets that have been plagueing us all afternoon. The race is on and I am not exactly happy with our progress. I don't like to be in the weeds. And I very much want to showcase all the locally grown produce properly because all the farmers will be coming to eat along with the Puente guests.
I wake up the morning of the party at 5:00A.M and there is no point in going back to bed. Farmer Kate makes coffee and we chat about the procedure for the day. I have created a written master plan that I'm hoping will help everyone. She is already showered and ready to face the day. I am puffy eyed, sleep deprived, and wondering if perhaps I should have offered myself to the axe murderer who Kelvin and I know lurks out here somewhere instead of playing it safe on the sofa.
The sun is not up yet. And setting up the outdoor kitchen is useless. Instead I pull on my running gear and head out to the road that winds around the base of the La Honda mountains in the redwood trees. I can barely see one foot in front of the other, but the fresh air clears my mind, my shoulders drop, the sweat releases toxins from all the adrenaline build up, and the deep blue of the almost-morning sky is speckled with stars that guide my path. It's beautiful. Peaceful. And I realize between cold gasps for air and steamy exhales that I am happy. I love being here. This farm is like a second home to me.
What could possibly go wrong?
Ah yes, runner's high is just that. I arrive back at the farm with the daylight breaking. Kelvin is up and slightly annoyed with me that I didn't wake him for the run. He likes to work out. Jose returns to the farm with his warm way about him, Jackson and family are still sleeping and I decide to let them lie in for a little bit. Naaaah, I'll wake them up.
The menu sheets that I have made with everyone's name tagged to specific items flies out the window.
But no matter, we all know now what needs to get done. I make it clear that everyone just has to finish fully whatever it is they are working on and own it completely. Day two of prep is so much easier than expected. We are ready to roll a good hour before the guests arrive. Basically we totally rock.
Robert naturally slides to the grill and takes over the charcoal lighting ceremony. Kat and I prep hundreds of gazpacho shots and trays of crostini and frittata, Jax is running around helping everyone, Kelvin and Jose are skewering skewers. Cleotildé arrives with 300 hundred tamales in two vegetarian flavors.
Carren, the local cupcake goddess and owner of Buttercup Cakes and Farmhouse Frosting rolls in with her little refrigerator truck and hundreds of tasty cupcakes, cheesecakes, and applecakes.
I give a quick lesson on serving to our Puente youth volunteers and they hurry back with empty platters excited that "People want more! They like it!"
Speeches are made, guests are fed, apple cider is gulped, kids are swinging under the walnut trees, dogs are scarfing down treats, cooks are sweating over the grill, Fiddler's are fiddling, farmer's are tasting the fruits of their hard earned labor, and life is good.
Just another day at Echo Valley Farm, and what a fabulous party. What an honor to cook for this community. What a great team. What extraordinary farmers that bring food to our tables and nourish our lives.
Blessed to be here!
Farm workers and their families need your support! Can you help?
(Thank you Lars Howlett for capturing our day. And stay tuned for Part II: Puente Lunch Purveyors)