Tag Archives: Behind the Scenes

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

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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