The Unflappable Itinerant Cook: Taking the Cooking Demo Show on the Road!
Posted on 22nd of February, 2012 by Lévana
Most of us watch cooking shows from the comfort of our homes, from the luxury of pristine professional studio kitchens onto our screen: Everything camera-ready, affable and efficient help buzzing around the chef, flowers and dynamic background music everywhere, warm-up guy leading spectators to general applause announcing the star chef’s grand entrance, good looking pleasant people smiling ecstatically at the mere mention of the luscious dish they are about to taste: What a night!
But I am thinking about excitement of quite another sort, the one I am more often exposed to, of the pushing and shoving sort, which takes place during demos hosted at, to put in kindly, non-professional venues, which are a far cry from the ideal venues described above, and where the show still must go on no matter what. To illustrate, I am choosing to share some of the events of the past week, which saw me get on the road in several wildly different venues.
One event last week marked the grand opening of a market in the New York area which will remain nameless, to preserve etiquette decorum. Upon my arrival, I was shown the demo area, and all I could do was stare incredulously. We are doing the demo here? 150 guests were coming up here? Could this be for real? It was a whole flight above the business area, with an army of construction workers going full throttle with their deafening power tools, sending huge clouds of dust everywhere, oblivious of “our” disruption. We were two hours away from the guests’ arrival. I who had worked on the demo file countless hours and who had everything down pat, was reduced to asking dim-witted questions: Will the place be cleaned in time to receive the guests? Oh yes of course they assured me. I looked around me desperately, and saw no sink and no water. What’s your solution, I asked the manager. Oh that’s OK, just make stuff that requires no water, he replied brightly. Oh right, I am such a resourceful cook I can even cook without water: here’s one more feather I could add to my hat! Like saying you don’t need air to breathe (at my urging, we bought a percolator, filled it from a sink located at the far end of the store on a bottom floor, and plugged it, all at lightening speed). More dismal than any other detail, all the small things that traditionally contribute to making an event successful were totally absent. Pretty soon I was left alone with 5 store clerks that spoke no English and were totally bewildered at the task entrusted to them, and the guests bearing down on them, the place looking like a bomb shelter, a light bulb hanging from a string and projecting its harsh light, no flowers, no local publication to write-up about the event and the place’s opening (two dear friends met up with me and took pictures and notes: My idea, not the owners’), no perky cheerleader ushering everyone in. The place got swept and cleaned in the nick of time, the way it would be cleaned by a college student in the nick of time before his parents’ inquisitive dorm visit, and guests starting arriving in droves. This was the moment when I summoned up all my cool, learned from years of mishaps as an off-premise caterer. My tool was going to be, beside good cheer and well prepared food, candor. And I started speaking from the heart, as if I were personally responsible for the abysmal setting, asking the guests to bear with “us”, as “we” were brand new, and this room was a work-in-progress (no kidding!) And it worked! the guests buzzed around me, warmed up to me, bought my books, requested inscriptions, ate my food with gusto, asked questions fast and furious. Success, and a feast: Disaster averted!
The very next day brought its antidote with it: An event I plan every year with a dear friend in Monsey, to raise money for young brides. And there I was a rock star: Beautiful home, beautiful hostess, flowers everywhere, delicious food disappearing as fast as I could cook it, in the company of some fifty wonderful women. Fifty women who, after watching me shred and grind and blend and slice in no time, using a food processor, promised to discard all their outmoded toy-like food processors and buy themselves a top quality one which will be their workhorse.
Then yesterday, Sunday, I arrived at the venue where I was invited to give a demo, for about 40 young girls. It was a day of workshops in honor of the Chabad Kinus Hashluchot (a major annual event which hosts Chabad Rabbis’ wives and children come to New York from all over the world for the occasion), so the plan was: arrive 3 hours in advance, at 8.30 am, prepare lunch for 250 people, then give the demo for 40 girls, then serve the meal for all 250 girls arriving after that demo. We had worked on our file hours and hours, leaving nothing to chance, and we agreed on ten assistants, working with me under the guidance of a competent adult in charge. The theme of that demo is very dear to me: The Instant Dorm Feast (I recommend reading it: You will thank me! Now that should be my next cookbook: Yes: I can make it as large as the one I just produced!). I didn’t even have a minute to do anything about the reality that seemed to set in about an hour after my arrival: My ten assistants and their able supervisor turned out to be… two wonderful teenagers (plus the young lady who hired me, who was beyond frazzled from co-ordinating the different workshops offered throughout the day) whom I worked to the bone, in a kitchen no larger than a small apartment one. But here’s the extraordinary thing: We pulled it off! after discarding plastic spoon after plastic spoon (that’s what I was given to stir a thirty quart soup pot filled to the brim), I finally got 2 of the guests to race to a housewares store and get me 2 stainless steel serving spoons in the nick of time. We made just about everything on that Dorm Feast Menu! We ended up with 250 happy noisy hungry girls and fed them all, delicious food if I may say so myself. I don’t call that dorm feast The Student’s Survival Guide for nothing: this event made my case for me perfectly! It doubled as the Demo Chef’s Survival Guide!I thought I would die of exhaustion, but no: I must have demos running in my blood. Two hours later I was on a train, on my way to meeting my husband at a friend’s wedding!
And the next day? Well, the next day, Monday, I conducted my weekly cooking class at my house, with my usual crowds: A piece of cake!
And the day after that? A demo for about twenty teenagers from Stern college, hosted in a beautiful home. The girls were delightful, and all participated in the preparation. My feast, All-Asian, was eaten heartily. The mood was very high, and Dasha made me rattle off some old French songs. Another piece of cake!