Don’t Try This At Home: Behind the Scenes at The Franklin Institute Awards Dinner

Frog Commissary has been exclusive caterer at the venerable Franklin Institute since the 1980’s. It is the most enduring relationship between a food service provider and institution in Philadelphia and likely ranks in the top ten nationwide. Recently Frog Commissary “moved into” The Franklin Institute, leaving our Northern Liberties facility. In addition to catering, we are now operating the restaurants there with big plans in store. But that’s the subject for a future blog. From The Franklin Institute we continue to offer our outside catering services.

Each year The Franklin Institute celebrates leaders in fields of science with The Franklin Institute Awards. There is always a gala dinner. It is the most important evening in the life of our most important client. This year’s awards dinner took place last Thursday, April 27th. Included among the honorees was Bill Gates — recipient of the Bower Award for Business Leadership.

The Catering Challenge
The black tie Awards Dinner is always well attended — one of the largest annual galas in Philadelphia. This year tables were set for 800 guests. The evening begins with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the Atrium — the “town square” of the Institute. This is followed by the awards ceremony in Franklin Hall. From there, guests move to dining rooms around the Institute — as many as four different areas though this year was comparatively simple with just two areas — Upper Mandell for 600 guests and the Planetarium for 200 guests. Following dinner, guests return to a transformed Atrium for dessert buffets.

Here’s where the challenge comes in: We have created very high expectations for a delicious and flawless evening. But this evening is complex in execution and executed in spaces that were not designed for dinner for 800. This is a world-class museum — not a world-class banquet facility. But we have to deliver a world-class dinner.

Our kitchen is on the southeast corner of the Institute’s ground level, nearly a city block and one floor from cocktails and desserts and two floors from 600 guests seated in Upper Mandell. At some time during the awards ceremony — we have to make the call as to exactly when to “fire the filets”  — ie. get 800 filets in the oven, so that the entree is hot, perfectly cooked and ready to serve immediately after the first course is cleared. It’s a little like bringing an very large ship to a stop. You have to make the decision to apply the brakes well in advance of when and where you want to stop.

The Same Principles Apply
At Home’s principles are based upon 15,000 plus events over nearly 40 years of catering.

Leadership & Planning
Successful catering — like home entertaining — is much more a triumph of planning than a culinary feat. Planning for this dinner, lead by Frog Commissary Account Manager Suzanne Driscoll began immediately following last year’s dinner. Suzanne has been working with The Franklin Institute on this dinner for almost ten years. Her goal every year is to make it better than the prior year. Suzanne is the field general. She works with field officers who in turn direct combat teams in the trenches.

This year, as I addressed our assembled service staff, I made reference to the current HBO Series, The Pacific as a metaphor to what we are all about to go through in “storming the beaches” and “raising the flag on Iwo Jima.” Perhaps a little corny and here, no one dies, but I do think the metaphor is apt. Catering at this level requires a careful “war plan,” but once it starts, it’s up to the commitment and zeal of the guys and gals in the trenches to make it happen.

It’s a Team Sport
We employed nearly 120 people to deliver our deliciously flawless evening.

Do Ahead and Spreading Tasks Over Time
We began food preparation on Monday with the most intense effort taking place Tuesday and Wednesday. As I say in At Home, “if you leave everything to the last minute we would had only a minute to do everything.”

One Relaxed Hour — NOT!

Here’s a behind the scenes look with a little commentary.

The calm before the storm. Busing areas ready throughout the back halls of The Franklin Institute.

Dining rooms were completely set-up the night before.

Senior Captain Doug Howard with a last minute review of plans.

While some staff enjoy “one relaxed 15 minutes” of pizza.

Last minute prep in the ground level kitchen.

Crudite loaded and placed on racks for distribution. Lydia Byard, Executive Sous Chef lead the Atrium effort of hors d’oeuves and dessert assembly. She has a remarkable eye for style.

Pyramids of goats cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto.

Carefully assembling thousands of hor d’eouvres. A beer cartoon provides for a little improvised tray elevation for Ron — normally leading the team in Ben’s Bistro — and a happier back. Nancy, from accounting, labors in the background. It was all-hands-on-deck!

Guests arrive to The Franklin Institute’s Atruim.

Gorgonzola mousse on Asian pear crisp.

Lobster salad on Belgian endive leaf. Note the way the leaves are trimmed to provide better scale and structural integrity — ie. the leaf can better hold the salad when the guest picks up the hors d’oeuvres.

Seared tuna on won ton crisp with wasabi whipped cream and tobiko…lovingly assembled one at a time!

Spiced duck “cigars” in phyllo had been made several days before and baked off just before going onto platters. They sit in little bamboo cradles. Carver was in our small upstairs kitchen firing a steady stream of hors d’oeuvres.

Salad assembly overseen by Zack and Jon. Earlier in the day, 812  wedge sof a creamy blue cheese were carefully cut by my brother-in-law and our Director of Operations, Larry Sterner. I all likelihood, Andre, our candied walnut specialist, made the 2400 whole candied walnuts needed. A few large leaves of red oak leaf lettuce…

… followed by a carefully placed mound on torn lettuce leaves. Salads ready to go to tables except for a last minute squirt of dressing from squeeze bottles. The salads were pre-set when guests arrive, but we still want to wait until the last moment to squirt the dressing so the salad looks fresh when guests site.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Andre — of candied walnut fame — finishes the Vegetable “Wellingtons,” the evening vegetarian entree option.

Here, the filets that had been seared earlier in the evening await the call.

My primary task during the evening is to make the call as to when to “fire the filets.” The Awards program is carefully planned to the minute but the vagaries of guest movement from cocktails to Franklin Hall and then from Franklin Hall to the dining areas adds a element of high uncertainty. (This is more art than science!) We need to serve 812 perfectly cooked filets immediately after the first course is cleared.  You need to make the call one hour and fifteen minutes before that moment without actually knowing when that moment is. Being off by ten minutes could mean guests sit waiting — though we have been know to slow clearing of the first course if we are get we make the call wrong and run late — or serve over-cooked filets if we time our arrival too long before entree service — the worst of all outcomes!

It’s the big decision of the night. I always consult with Suzanne, and James Dobbins, our Executive Chef, and Larry Dubinski, the Institute’s Development head regarding the program length. (James and I have been doing this together for many years.) We also keep actual time lines from past years that among other things tells us the program runs 10 minutes longer than planned — though we are always told this year it will run on time.

Even though I consult, the final decision when to “fire the filets” is mine. If there is a problem with timing, I want the final responsibility to fall on me.

At 8:00 PM the filets all went into 350 degree ovens for their 15-20 minutes. Then they rested at room temperature. After the risotto cakes and asparagus bundles were heated and placed in their designated warmers, the filets went back into the ovens for a final “flash” of about 2 minutes at 500 degrees. Then into warmers and everything heads down hallways, on to elevators and into narrow corridors adjacent to dining areas for turn-out in lines. We do not pre-plate and hold fully assembled plates in warmers as many caterers do. We think plating at the last moment gives our clients and their  guests the very best product.

Here are our lines. We had a total of eight lines — six in the corridor adjacent to the Upper Mandell dining room where 600 guests were seated and 200 in the receiving area adjacent to the Planetarium where another 200 guests were seated. A “line” is a sequential ordering of the entree components. It always begins with plates that we warm in warming cabinets. Next, this evening, came the sauce — a small pool. I was a “sauce person” and it was no easy task to pour a perfectly sized pool of dark sauce on a black plate when just before dinner it was discovered that most of our corridor lighting was on the same circuit as Upper Mandell lighting that had to be killed for the dinner.

Next came the filet, in the foreground — carefully placed over the sauce. Then the risotto cake, followed by the asparagus bundles. The final element were two slow-roasted plum tomato halves. (Earlier in the day I went to DiBruno’s to buy some very expensive olive oil — a last moment thought to embellish the flavor of the plum tomatoes. Would anyone really notice this or miss it if it weren’t there? We didn’t get where we are by assuming we should not work to make it as good as possible.) Each plate is inspected and wiped as needed before heading on its way. We don;t think of this as serving 800 guests…rather we think of it as serving one guest at a time — 800 times. Each and every guest plate counts.

Plates keep moving down the line. At the end of the line are waiters who hand carry plates to guests. We do not use “football” trays and tray stands as we just do not think that looks good. (All this goes back to my first lessons about fine dining from Peter von Starck as a busboy at La Penetiere in 1972. We have always approached catering with that fine dining standard — and not that of your “normal” banquet caterer.)

Here is my wife Christina, Frog Commissary CEO, and her brother Larry, working the dinner line.

All this happens very quickly.

When the last guest is served I always break open a remaining filet — we never subtract enough filets to account for the vegetarians so there are always some leftover. It was still warm and perfectly cooked. A testament to a terrific team. We served hot and beautiful entrees to 800+ guests in just over twenty minutes!

While Lydia and Sultan’s crews reset the Atrium for the guests’ return for dessert, coffee and champagne. Here are “Whoppie” pie miniature with a creamy mint filling, pineapple “flowers, chocolate-dipped strawberries and pistachio cannoli. Our bakery proudly makes all of our desserts…

…including Cheesecake Lollipops sitting on a bed of wheat grass.

At evening’s end, my ever-jovial son, Noah, gives a thumbs up on the evening.

Most importantly, The Franklin Institute gave us an end of event “thumbs up” and a “best wards dinner ever.” That’s all wonderful to hear…but sets the bar still higher for next year!

The Dad Vail Regatta
This Friday and Saturday we will cater key aspects of the Dad Vail Regatta including the Athlete’s Feed each day for nearly 3000 each day and the new and impressive VIP area. The Athlete’s Feed is at the other end of the catering spectrum from The Franklin Institute Awards dinner and while the VIP area needs to be great, it is a very different great than a black-tie gala. But we approach all of this with a fanatical commitment to planning and the execution of the event with an incredible staff. I will post another Don’t Try This At Home: Behind the Scenes blog next week. Let’s hope it does not rain on Saturday.

Special Mother’s Day Blog
On Sunday I will post a special Mother’s Day blog.

Thank you for visiting.

Your Home Entertaining Coach


Filed under Events, Family and Friends, My Life

6 responses to “Don’t Try This At Home: Behind the Scenes at The Franklin Institute Awards Dinner

  1. Janis

    I have always wanted to be a fly on the wall in a restaurant or at a caterer.. now I have had this remarkable experience through the eyes of the best!

    • athomebysteveposes

      We started set-up for Dad Vail today including cooking 800 pounds of pasta — 1800 quarts — in a field kitchen tent. I will report from behind the scenes of it next week.

  2. I am doing a proposal for 750 guests 3 course. How many back of the house chefs did you need to plate the meal?


    • athomebysteveposes

      Can you please give me some more information about the event. What are the courses, what kind of space do you have, what is the event for in a general way — that would help me understand the expectations of the guests? Are any of the course pre-plated — for instance, a pre-plated salad and dessert with a hot entree? In general, my approach would be to think of this not as an event for 750 guests, but three events for 250 guests — that’s just easier to think through — and then extrapolate from there — three times 250 in needs minus some for the scale you get for 750.

  3. I have an event (sit-down) and need to know how many back of house staff you needed to get all the meals out. Thanks Julie

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