Don’t Try This At Home: Behind the Scenes at the Dad Vail Regatta

In general, I try to keep these posts focused on home entertaining. But, my “day job” revolves around Frog Commissary Catering and, on occasion, I think you may find interest in looking behind the scenes at catered events.

Last Friday and Saturday, Frog Commissary Catering had the opportunity and responsibility to cater key aspects of the Dad Vail Regatta. Held on the Schuykill River, the Dad Vail is the oldest and largest collegiate rowing regatta in the United States. It was established in 1934 and is one of Philadelphia’s premiere springtime traditions.

There was the threat that Dad Vail might move away from Philadelphia this year — a result of the city’s budgetary struggles and the ability of the Philadelphia community to provide adequate financial support. A local businessman, Herb Lotman, stepped up and lead a successful effort to energize community support for the event. That’s where Frog Commissary came in.  As part of the effort to increase corporate support, Herb developed the concept of corporate sponsorships that included a significant hospitality component. This included lead sponsor — Aberdeen Asset Management.

So, last Friday and Saturday Frog Commissary catered a series of V.I.P. tents and sky boxes set-up at the river’s edge. In addition, we catered a Friday evening reception and provided the “pasta feed” for the 3000 athletes each day. Catering this sort of “riverside” event in field kitchens is about as far from catering The Franklin Institute Awards as you can get. It is complex in different ways. And unlike The Franklin Institute Awards, an event that we grew into over many years, here we were in a whole different ballpark for the first time — with the same expectation that we hit  the ball out of the park the first time up.

Here are some behind the scenes looks:

Our plan was to begin cooking 800 pounds of pasta before noon on Thursday. Sounds pretty simple? You cook a pound of pasta at home all the time. Children can cook pasta! What could be complicated about this?

OK. Our plan was to set-up five stations. Eighty quart pots on powerful “candy burners.” Step 1: Boil salted water. Step 2: Cook about 15 pounds of pasta per batch in large colanders that fit snuggly into the pots. Step 3: Pull out colanders, drain water back into pot, place “perfectly cooked” pasta into chilling baths of water and ice. Step 4: Drain well and transfer into milk crates lined with trash bags. (Each milk crate can hold 30 quarts and we needed 1800 quarts.) Move to remote refrigerated trailer.

Repeat 53 times. Except, add water back to the pots each time to compensate for the water absorbed by the pasta and re-boil. And every third or fourth batch, change the water fully as the repeated pasta cooking turns the water starchy. And discard all the water that has been “used up.” But where?  There is no sanitary drain on the banks of the Schuykill. And we weren’t about to empty our pots into the Schuykill. So we rented two 250 gallon holding tanks and to get the discarded water int the holding tanks we needed to transfer the water to large open containers and then, with a sump pump, pump the water into the holding tanks.

We started with forty cases and here we are down to 13 cases. As with nearly everything in life, it took us longer than we expected. At 7 PM the city cut our power which meant no sump pump and with the setting sun, working in near darkness. By 10:30 PM all the pasta was cooked and all 60 milk crates were transferred to the Athlete’s Feed area about a half mile down river along with candy burners, pots colanders and everything else needed for Friday’s first “feed.”

This is Sarah — the Frog Commissary account manager with primary responsibility for planning and executing our Dad Vail efforts. In the foreground are nearly 1000 rolls of various shapes and sizes that have been sliced by our crew and about to be made into varieties of sandwiches.

Kitchen staff arrived on site at 6 AM to be ready for the 8 AM breakfasts. Once breakfasts are out, everyone’s focus shifts to lunch with support from the additional 9 AM dining room crew — all excellent sandwich makers.

As many people as you have, you always wish there were more!

Everything makes its way to baker’s racks labeled by location — carefully monitored by our amazing Lydia, Frog Commissary’s Executive Sous Chef.

Including lunch for lead sponsor — Aberdeen Asset Management.

Including cookie trays featuring butter cookies on to which we added an edible Dad Vail Aberdeen Asset Management logo. The logo was the “brain-child” of our Director of Operations — and my brother-in-law Larry who worked with Diem, our longtime head baker to figure out how to get the rice paper imprint off the sheet upon which it was printed and on to the cookie. It tuns out that we made the transfer on a humid day and the imprint would not come off the sheet. After a call from Larry to the California label manufacturer and some trial and error, more than one minute but less than two minutes in a 180 degree oven — fan off — did the trick! The cookies were unexpected — and a big hit.

VIPs slowly gather for breakfast. The requirement that breakfast be out at 8 AM meant that we rapidly gathered at 6 AM. Friday, the first day, is the hardest — even though we had fewer guests on Friday. That’s because the first time you do anything is the hardest and on Friday we were still battling an array of logistical challenges…and awaiting the arrival of the health department for inspection…with our rental pot sink still not working!!!

Once breakfast is out, our focus shifts to lunch. Friday we had lunch in about six different — not counting the Athlete’s Feed a half mile down the road. One of our lunch offerings was All-American Grill. Here is one of our grills being started.

Another lunch menu included a Cucumber, Tomato and Feat Salad…lots of it.

While the athlete’s begin to gather for the “Athlete’s Feed.”

Thirsty athletes.


Hungry athlete’s awaiting donated TASTYKAKES.

A choice of bananas, apples or oranges.  We had planned two bananas for every orange and apple. At the end of the first day we thought we were out of bananas so we called our supplier for the additional twenty-two cases we had on hold to get us through Friday…only to find out that the volunteer who told us we out of bananas had not seen all of the cases of bananas behind all of the cases of soda. Banana bread anyone? (Actually, our produce supplier took back the unopened cases of bananas on Monday. We also were able to return the extra 100 pounds of pasta and unused cases of Marinara Sauce — all of which we had just in case the athletes were hungrier than we thought.)

And of course pasta. Cooked pasta is set in strainers and “dunked” in boiling water to reheat.

As we had no source of water, all water had to be hauled down in five gallon bottles from our main kitchen a half mile away on a “gator” — several steps up from a standard gold cart — and then “used” water had to be brought back for proper disposal. But re-heating pasta requires only a fraction of the water required for cooking.

Hot pasta is then transferred to “hotel pans” — these are eight quart pans that fit into chafing dishes. Hot Marinara Sauce gets mixed in .

The true VIPs enjoy a bucolic pre or post race lunch.

Meanwhile, back at the main kitchen tent and VIP area, with lunch under control our focus shifts to the cocktail and barbecue dinner reception in the large VIP tent. Here slabs of barbecue rubbed ribs get cut.

And roast pork shaved and mixed with our barbecue sauce.

Zach — our chef of Moroccan heritage — made baked beans any cowboy would love — loaded with bacon and just the right balance of sweet molasses and sour vinegar.

With some crab cakes thrown in as one of the butlered hors d’oeuvres.

And, of course, our signature carrot cake included on the dessert buffet.

We had planned for a 6:00 to 8:00 PM reception and buffet dinner for about 150 volunteers and officials. Things wrapped up around 10 PM after we served more than 200 guests. Fortunately we planned for lots of extra ribs!

By Saturday morning our grill was under the tent that the health inspector requested. With many more All-American grills and nearly twice the number of venues and guests, Saturday had its challenges — but by Saturday many of the logistics issues had been worked out and we had a full days worth of practice!

Added to our Saturday event schedule was “The Corporate Challenge”  — a post-race reception for corporate teams of rowers. We were told to be ready for 300 at noon — hamburgers and hot dogs.

Here is a typical buffet.

From the time of the first ten-day forecast we were worried about predictions of rain. Serious rain would have been a serious problem for us. While we had a kitchen tent, it turned out to be way too small for our needs and we spilled out well beyond it. And all the guests had tents. But the issue would have been all the space in between and getting food to all of the areas. We followed the forecast every day as our rain odds ebbed and flowed. By Saturday there was a 40% chance of morning showers…followed by near gale-force winds. In all of our planning, wind was not on “our radar.” And while I would trade wind for rain, the wind played havoc with the race schedule. On Monday morning we received a complaint call from a corporate customer regarding “dusty food.” In my nearly forty years of doing this, that’s the first time dusty food was a customer service issue. Brief showers passed in the morning and for balance of the day the sun shown…and the wind blew.

By late afternoon we started loading our trucks…

…to the brim. It’s always remarkable that for all the food that is consumed, we still seem to have to return home with loaded trucks.

Here is our pot sink ready to be picked up by Party Rental — actually our second pot sink as we could never get the first one to give us the promised hot water — at the end of the event…

…along with two 250-gallon waste water tanks, ready to be pumped out and taken away. It ain’t pretty, but it worked.

With Noel and John — two recruits by my son, Noah — ready with the last bits of equipment — about to drive the “gator” down Kelly Drive and down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to our Franklin Institute home for pick-up.

While the last of the trash waits by the side of the road for pick-up.

Over two days Frog Commissary was responsible for feeding well nearly 8000 meals from field kitchens along the Schuykill. We applied all of the principles of At Home — investment in planning and spreading tasks over time and resources. Added to that were the tireless efforts — no, actually tired and exhausted efforts — of my amazing Frog Commissary team. While on the Schuykill River, the athletes  of Dad Vail displayed grit and endurance and strength and teamwork, on the shores the Frog Commissary team did the same. Except no one fed us and we did not get one relaxed hour before guests arrived!

Next Saturday is Staten Island Day at Historic Port Richmond and I’ll Be There
This coming Saturday, May 22nd, I will be appearing at Uncorked — NYC’s Wine, Food & Fun Fest as part of Staten Island Day. Uncorked is held at Historic Richmond Town. My plan is to talk about how to make home entertaining better and easier so you will do it more — what else! I will also show you how to make and cook stuffed burgers and summer slaw. Of course, I’ll have books to sell and sign. If you have friends and family in the area, please let them know that this a wonderful way to celebrate spring and food and Staten Island — all worth celebrating.

Frog Burger and Cleo’s Portico
Within the next several weeks Frog Commissary will open two seasonal “restaurants” at The Franklin Institute. The first will be Frog Burger. At Frog Burger we plan to offer flame-grilled backyard flavor on the front lawn of The Franklin Institute. Our “stand” we be a small tent with seating at picnic tables. Parking is available in The Franklin Institute’s convenient garage. In addition to burgers and fries, our menu will include chilled , fried green tomatoes (when we can get them) and fresh grilled corn on the cob (when it’s really sweet), a fresh corn and pepper salad, slaw, hot dogs, crab rolls, Bassett’s ice cream shakes and, for the return of Commissary Carrot Cake plus Chocolate Fudge Killer Cake Bars. Wine, beer and sangria will be available. We are still working out the hours of beer and wine service. Frog Burger will be open daily from 11:30 to 8:00 PM throughout the summer.

You can also participate in our Chose the Frog Burger Logo Contest at Unbreaded.

Cleo’s Portico will open shortly after — on June 5th — in conjunction with The Franklin Institute’s fabulous new Cleopatra exhibit. During the Tut exhibit we ran “Tut’s Oasis” — a “tented” restaurant located right in the center of the Institute. Cleo’s Portico will have a similarly dramatic setting, on the second floor portico overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Its room temperature menu will feature appropriately Mediterranean Meze — like tapas. Cleopatra appropriate cocktails will be available. We are still working out when. Cleo’s Portico will be open for lunch and early dinner Wednesday through Sunday.

Look for more details on each in upcoming posts.

Thank you for visiting.

Your Home Entertaining Coach

1 Comment

Filed under Events

One response to “Don’t Try This At Home: Behind the Scenes at the Dad Vail Regatta

  1. Hey Steve.
    Really enjoyed reading your field catering event. Brought back memories to when I was an Apprentice Chef & worked at the National Convention Centre here in Oz, our normal exhibition centre seated 1,000 but we needed to stretch our venue to seat 5,000 so some bright spark suggested a huge Marquee and somehow, over a period of 3 days where a full team of 20 Chefs hardly slept, we pulled it off.
    You guys pulled this off without the benefit of a fully set up kitchen, so hats off to you my friend.
    Well Done!
    Cheers Anna
    PS: Come on over to Facebook, lets catch up some more, would like to stay in touch.

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