Tag Archives: The Franklin Institute

On the Road: The Drive from Rome to Naples

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 11.57.57 AMNote: In March Christina and I spent about two weeks in Rome and Naples. A principal reason for our trip was the impending opening of the One Day in Pompeii exhibit at The Franklin Institute where we provide food services. Ours was a journey to understand the culinary context of Pompeii today and be able to present that at The Franklin Institute during the run of the exhibit. Pompeii is located in Italy’s Campania region. It sits at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, across the bay from Naples. One Day in Pompeii opens today, November 9th and will run through April 27th. I began this series of posts in Rome and there is more to come of that part of our trip. But I wanted to skip ahead to catch up with the exhibit opening. At the bottom of this post you can see the result of our trip — the menu for the VIP opening of the exhibit.

As Christina and I bid adieu to our feathered neighbor across the narrow alley from the window of our lovely Roman Hotel Raphael, we hit the road south to Naples in March with a plan to return to Rome six days hence.


First, a word about driving in Italy. If you were a traveler simply visiting Philadelphia, there would be no reason to rent a car. Likewise Rome. And if your plans included travel from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. you could easily take the train. But if you were in no rush and wanted to catch the beauty and spirit of the Chesapeake, maybe with a stop for lunch along the way, then renting a car would be the way to go. Our travel plan was to punctuate our extended visit to Rome with a trip to Naples and Pompeii. Naples sits across the Bay of Naples, nearly in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that rained destruction and death on Pompeii that fateful day in  79 AD. In addition, Christina had long wanted to visit Nusco, the ancestral home of her grandmother, in the mountains about two hours east of Naples.

Prior to leaving for Italy, many a person had counseled me to avoid driving in Italy. Despite being a confident driver, I had modest concern about our road trip. Maybe the counsel I received was the result of their Italian driving experiences prior to the ubiquitous GPS. I found that with a GPS, driving, even within the challenging environs of Rome and Naples, was eminently manageable.

Now for the trip to Naples.

It is said that all roads lead to Rome. Conversely, lots of roads lead out of Rome, Italy’s largest city, to Naples, its third largest. There is the A1 autostrada that takes about 2 1/2 hours, depending on traffic out of Rome and into Naples. We took the decidedly slower — about four plus hours driving time — but more interesting route the runs mostly along the Mediterranean coast. Despite efforts to arrange to have our car rental delivered to our hotel, the pick-up of our Audi turned out to be at the airport. (There are less costly — fifty bucks to the airport, and more convenient pick-ups but that’s a long story.) We set our GPS for Naples and were off.

Rome itself is situated about twenty miles west and up river from its harbor city of Ostia. Ostia is Latin for “mouth” and it is the mouth of the Tiber River that links Rome to the sea. Ancient Rome’s location on hills well-inland from the sea was a strategic response to insulate itself from sea-prowling marauders.


The first hour or so of our journey was interesting in a non-scenic way as it took us through the extended suburbs and exurbs of modern metropolitan Rome. It was not until Terracine that we got our first full bore view of the Tyrrhenian Sea.


I had forgotten how mountainous Italy is. Perched high about Terracina is the ancient Roman Temple of Jupiter Anxur, built in the 1st century BCE. At the time of the building of the temple, Rome had already dominated the region for four hundred years. Towns like Terracina that dotted the coast moving out from Rome were integral to Rome’s “necklace” of strategic protection from hostile invaders.

Italy is divided into twenty administrative regions — somewhat akin to our states. Lazio, where our journey began, is bordered on the north by Tuscany, Umbria and Marche and to the east by Abruzzo and Molise. To the south is Campania. Rome is the capital of Lazio and Naples the capital of Campania.


The Tyrrhenian Sea is the body of water that separates long portions of coastal Italy from the Mediterranean. It is nestled between the west coast of Italy, and the islands of Corsica on the north, Sardina in the center and Sicily. The eastern sides of these islands sit on the Mediterranean.


By mid-afternoon we arrived, hungry, to Gaeta, a small city that sits at the southern end of Lazio, 75 miles from Rome and 50 miles from Naples. Gaeta sits on a promontory surrounded by water on three sides and mountains on its fourth. Like Terracina, Gaeta played an important military role for ancient Rome. Gaeta’s culinary distinction is that it has given its name to the small, distinctive dark, oval olives — Italy’s black pearls — cultivated in olive groves stretching out from the port city. Gaeta olives are brine-cured and have a pleasantly bitter taste.


Gaeta thrives as a summer destination for Italians. In mid-March it felt nearly deserted. Absent any forethought as to where to eat, we wandered into an empty and unpretentious restaurant located along the boulevard that separates the harbor from the city. We were greeted by the proprietor who brought us a generous bowl of the eponymous olives and menus. In the distance was a lone elderly gentleman watching TV.


Before long we were joined by a young Italian with skateboard in hand. He sat at the far end of  long table across from a middle-aged women engaged in some sort of bookkeeping. Out of the kitchen came an older, apron-clad woman who spoke to him, naturally, in Italian. As time passed we came to understand that grandpa was watching TV, grandma was cooking, mother was doing the books, dad was our waiter and the young skateboarder, their son.


Our simple lunch included a shallow bowl of steamed seafood — mussels, clams, shrimp and squid — in a tasty broth.


A lightly dressed salad of tender lettuce and radicchio, tomatoes, roasted peppers and, of course, Gaeta olives.


Grilled vegetables sparely presented.


And crisp-fired calamari with a squeeze of lemon. Nothing remarkable. But totally enjoyable…especially given that we were hungry!


Leaving Gaeta, the sky resembled one you might find in 14th Century Italian painting of the apocalypse.

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Campania is the ancestral home of buffalo mozzarella — produced from the milk of domesticated water buffalo. Compared to cow’s milk mozzarella, its flavor is not as sweet, more tangy — slightly sour — and stronger — still creamy and delicious.


About twenty-five miles north of Naples, Madrogone is smack in the heart of buffalo mozzarella country and its streets are lined with shops proudly advertising their local culinary triumph.

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With the aid of our GPS, we arrived in Naples late in the day to a traffic jam typical of rush hour in many cities throughout the world and worked our way to our harbor-front hotel, Hotel Romeo.


No Roman Legionnaires here. Instead, we were greeted at the hotel entrance by samurai warriors! Hotel Romeo was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese modernist architect,  Kenzo Tange and developed by his son Paul. Counted among Tange’s works of distinction is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hotel Romeo will likely not be counted among Tange’s works of distinction.

The days ahead in gritty, crowded, graffiti-covered, littered and wonderful Naples would add to the dystopian feel of our sleekly modern hotel more comfortably nested in Tokyo than Naples. More about Hotel Romeo in a future post.


After our day-long trip, it was thrilling to arrive to our room overlooking the bustling Naples harbor and the darkness beyond.


Past ready for dinner, the hotel recommended a bustling restaurant a few blocks away — Ristorante Europeo di. A. Mattozzi. While Naples gets its share of tourists, it is nothing like Rome and this restaurant would not likely find its way on to many a tourists “must-dine” locations. But it was fine in the way that it’s hard to get a bad meal in Naples.


A central joy of travel is discovery, of art and architecture, history and culture…and, of course, wine and food. The universe of Italian wine is confusing with a cacophony of grapes and place names.  Rome has its native wines, but nothing distinctively special. Campania has a richer cellar. We settled in to dinner with a locally produced falanghina, named for its grape. Falanghina is an ancient grape that today produces a crisp and aromatic wine with excellent acidity and ideal accompaniment to the sea’s bounty that figures prominently in Neapolitan foods.


We began with a generous antipasti of assorted salamis, meatballs, sun-dried tomatoes & a ricotta torta and a classic Insalata Caprese made with little balls of creamy, fresh local mozzarella, tomatoes and sweet lamb’s lettuce. Pasta e Ceci, pictured above, included assorted shapes of dried pasta and smashed and whole chickpeas in a simple sauce made with olive oil and the cooking liquid of the chickpeas.


I enjoyed a hearty Polipetti affogati in cassuola — octopus stewed with tomatoes.


Christina took a lighter route with a simple grilled local sea bass served with thin-sliced potatoes.


A short walk back to our hotel and a last look at Naples harbor by night before drawing the curtains and settling into a well-earned sleep. Naples awaits.

The following is the menu we served Thursday evening at the VIP opening of One Day in Pompeii.

A Neapolitan Feast in Celebration of the Opening of One Day in Pompeii

Il Positano – Prosecco with a touch of rum, honey & lime
Wines from Campania • Greco & Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
• Italian beers, sodas & San Pelligrino
Roasted Olives  • Toasted Hazelnuts with Sea Salt

Butlered Hors d’oeuvres
Arancini with roasted sweet pepper mayonnaise
Wild mushroom polenta “croquettes” with gorgonzola
Salsify with prosciutto & Reggiano Parmesan
Bruschetta with grilled radicchio, house-made ricotta,
spiced walnuts & fried rosemary
Neapolitan meatballs

Butlered “Small Plate”
Salted cod, whipped potatoes, roasted garlic & olive oil
Black olive tapenade  • Served in egg shell

Small Plate Stations

Margherita Pizza
Thin-crusted pizza with San Marzano tomatoes,
fresh Buffalo mozzarella & basil
Tri-color chopped salad with anchovy aioli

Braciole di Pollo
Pancetta-crusted chicken, chard, sun-dried tomato
& pecorino with polenta

Melanzane a Beccafico
Grilled eggplant stuffed with sweet peppers,
grated lemon peel, pickled eggplant, raisins & rice
Topped with almonds, breadcrumbs, lemon, parsley

Fruiti di Mare
Gemilli with mixed seafood, artichokes,fennel,
green onions, olives, chilies & capers

Sweet & Coffee
Butterscotch budino with caramel & sea salt
Biscotti with dried figs • Pinenut cookies
Pumpkin-date tarts  • Lemon bites with fennel pollen
Ricotta cheesecakes with candied orange peel

Chocolate “volcano” torta stuffed with
hazelnut mousse, hazelnut praline & black currant sauce

Dessert Station
Sfinci — Sweet fritters with citrus syrup
Italian roast coffee – regular & decaf

Next: The Amazing Streets and Back Alleys of Naples (We’re not in Rome anymore.) Plus Pizza!

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At Home…Again and Backyard Burgers at The Franklin Institute

It has been four weeks since I last posted. The reason is no lack of enthusiasm for encouraging you to entertain at home more. It is that I still have a day job. My day job involves assisting in the management of Frog Commissary — especially our efforts at The Franklin Institute. The past six weeks have been especially busy with the opening of the Cleopatra exhibit and two new seasonal restaurants that we are operating there. These restaurants are Frog Burger and Cleo’s Portico. Starting this week I will get back to more regular posts. See the end of this blog for exciting plans for summer blogging.

Frog Burger is a no-frills hamburger and shake stand open during the summer months into fall on the front lawn of The Franklin Institute. It is near the familiar stainless steel airplane, overlooking the Parkway and Logan Square. In addition to hamburgers and turkey burgers, our menu includes Chesapeake Crab Rolls, Grilled Hot Dogs, Fries — including Garlic Fries and Jalapeno Fires — Fried Green Tomatoes, Gazpacho, Corn & Sweet Pepper Salad, Cole Slaw, the original Commissary Carrot Cake and Killer Cake Bars, thick Bassett’s ice cream milkshakes including shakes that include blended in carrot cake or killer cake plus Fresh Lemonade, Iced Tea and Hibiscus Agua Fresca. (Not bad for a little tent.)

People who remember the logo of our Frog Restaurant may remember the two dots over the “O.” It was never clear to people that those two dots represented the frog’s eyes — a very zen-looking frog. Two dots are reprising with the Frog Burger logo though we have tried to make the “eye-ness” more obvious and playful.

Part of the process of planning Frog Burger was to select a burger blend. Over a period of three weeks, at four different blind tasting sessions, our panel tasted — and often re-tasted 18 burger blends. A blind tasting means that panelists were unaware of what they were tasting. Blends ranged from supermarket-sourced to blends from New York’s premium meat supplier for restaurants. From the outset I established that we wanted a “backyard” burger that balanced “bib-worthy” juiciness, texture and taste. We also wanted “back-yard” friendly pricing.

Fundamental to a great burger is adequate fat content. An 80-20 blend — 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat — is the essential component of juiciness. So, all of our blends shared that component. Other components that affect taste and texture include the cuts used to make the blend and the manner of grinding the meat. Our more “exotic” blends included various combinations of skirt steak, brisket and oxtail, and, of course, chuck. Chuck is the humble foundation of most “supermarket” blends.

The panel consisted of myself, James and Lydia, our Executive Chef and Sous Chef, Larry, our Director of Operations, and my son Noah, with whom I am working on Frog Burger and Cleo’s Portico. We had an occasional “guest panelist.”  Our panel’s tasting sheets included columns for our three criteria — juiciness, texture and taste — and panelists were asked to rank each component of each blend from 1 to 5. At the conclusion of each session, we discussed our reactions to each blend. It was often easy to agree on what to eliminate. The poor buger usually stood out.  Usually a session ended with agreement to include two or three blends in a second round. As the process continued I came to believe that the hype about special burger blends was a bit of the kings new clothes. Here was a group of pretty serious burger tasters and it was rare to find any enthusiasm for the more expensive blends. (At the end of each tasting the blends were revealed.) Occasionally a panelist would speak in behalf of some more exotic taste that we assumed to be from the more exotic side of the ledger, but it was rare to find many allies for that burger to make it into the next round. Only one of the “better blends” hunf around through the final tasting though was on no one’s top choice.

At the conclusion of the process, a simple “house blend” from Esposito’s — located in the Italian Market was the winner.  It was actually the second least expensive of the blends that we considered and only 60% of the cost of the fanciest blends.

In the end, a great backyard burger has most to do with the fat content — an 80-20 blend, how you make the patty — the less you handle the meat the better the texture — a very hot fire to create a nice char on the burger — and the care taken to cook your burger to the correct doneness. At Frog Burger we cook burgers to medium unless specified. With anything beyond medium you can say good-bye to juicy. With regard to the fat content, remember that a fair amount of that fat cooks away. It is also worth the effort to toast the roll — a step many a backyard cook skips. The roll does not need to be warm so just lightly pre-toast the rolls to form a crust. The crust keeps the roll from absorbing too much juice and getting soggy. We use Martin’s Potato Rolls  — often available at supermarkets. Our burgers are served with lettuce, tomato and red onion on the side.

Among the burger condiments available are flame grill jalapenos and pickled red onions. The recipe for pickled red onions are featured in At Home. The recipe is from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and printed with permission of the publisher. The Zuni Cafe is Judy Rodgers great San Francisco restaurant. Her cookbook also has her quintessential burger recipe that involves pre-salting the burger meat. Rogers’ section on The Practice of Salting Early is among the most useful cookbook advice I have ever encountered.  Because I don’t have permission from the publisher beyond At Home, I can’t post the recipe here. I strongly recommend Zuni Cafe’s Pickled Red Onions from At Home for your next backyard barbecue…or visit Frog Burger the next time you are around 20th & The Parkway. Frog Burger is open daily from 11:30 AM to dusk.

One last note about Frog Burger.  Our “signature burger” is the LOVE Burger, a “don’t eat this too often” cholesterol-laden affair that includes a juicy burger nestled between two grilled-and-pressed cheese sandwiches — the bread and cheese fuses — and adorned with lettuce, tomato and our “special sauce” — a sort of Russian-dressing with chopped bacon — just in case you feel cholesterol deprived. Eating a Frog Burger is an amazing experience — even if you do it only once.

Here’s a favorable review from today’s  THE PHILADINING BLOG.

Look for news about Cleo’s Portico in my next blog.

Featured Chef on Cookstr.com this Saturday, June 26th
On Saturday, June 26th I will be Cookstr.com‘s featured Chef of the Day. Cookstr.com is a web-based recipe source — “home of the best recipes from great cookbooks by acclaimed chefs and authors.” This is an honor and an exciting step in my efforts to spread the word about At Home. A series of At Home recipes will be featured on Cookstr.com. Check me out on Saturday.

Manou At BAC
Christina and I are on our way to New York this afternoon to attend the NY Premiere of Emmanuele Phuon’s work, Khmeropedies I + II at the Baryshnikov Art Center. Emmanuele is Manou, dear friend and wife of At Home illustrator, Pascal Lemaitre. Read At Home’s Postscript on Page 498 to learn more about the origins of this remarkable dance performance and dance troupe. The performance will be repeated Friday and Saturday. For more information.

Here’s Manou’s recipe from At Home for her Boiled Chicken with Ginger Relish & Sticky Rice. It is surprisingly refreshing on a hot summer’s eve.

Manou’s Boiled Chicken with Ginger-Garlic Relish & Sticky Rice

This is about as far from your mother’s boiled chicken as Philadelphia is from Bangkok. Manou, a friend and also the wife of this book’s illustrator, Pascal, served this to us on a visit to Brussels. The chicken is removed from the bone and served with a potent swirl of chopped ginger and garlic. Simple, humble and delicious!

do ahead Chicken is best if made shortly before serving but it can be made up to two days ahead, refrigerated and refreshed in stock. Relish can be made up to four days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Rice should be made just before serving.
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 cup small-cubed ginger
5 garlic cloves, crushed,
1 cup small-cubed garlic
1 cup fresh cilantro, rinsed and divided
2 bird’s-eye chiles or 1⁄2 jalapeño, thinly sliced
1⁄2 cup chopped scallion
4-5 pound chicken
1⁄4 cup plus 3 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
1 tablespoons vegetable oil
11⁄2 teaspoons salt, sea salt preferred
3 cups jasmine rice or other long-grain rice
1 To cook chicken: Rinse chicken, place in a large pot and cover with at least 2 quarts water. Add sliced ginger, crushed garlic, 1⁄2 cup cilantro, chiles and 1⁄4 cup fish sauce. Bring to a slow boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Add back water as needed. Cook until meat falls off the bone, about 90 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and allow it to rest until it’s cool enough to handle. Remove skin and pull meat from bones, discarding bones. Skim fat from stock and set aside. You will use stock to make the relish and rice and to refresh chicken, so save at least 7 cups.
2 To make relish: In a small sauté pan, heat oil over moderate heat. Add cubed ginger and garlic and gently sauté to soften without browning, about 3 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons fish sauce and 1⁄2 cup reserved stock. Cook over moderate heat until liquid is reduced to a glaze, about 5 minutes. Set relish aside to cool.
3 To make rice: Rinse rice well in strainer until water runs clear. In a pot, combine rice with 41⁄2 cups reserved stock. Bring to a slow boil, cover, and reduce heat to very low until all water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
4 To serve: If chicken and stock are still warm, place chicken on platter and pour a little stock over it to moisten. If you cooked chicken well in advance and it is now cold, refresh chicken in a pot with stock over moderate heat until just warm. Add salt. Garnish with scallion and remaining cilantro leaves.
Serve with relish and rice on the side.
serves 6

Summer Blogging Plans
Many of this summer’s blogs will focus on weekly visits to area farm stands and farmer’s markets. Though not a locavore zealot, I am a strong believer in using locally grown produce. Summer though early fall is the time to incorporate trips to your local farm stand or farmer’s market into your At Home plans. So, each week — more or less — I’ll visit another place and create a new recipe for the At Home blog. My posting will begin next week at Maple Acres Farm located in Plymouth Meeting. Followers of At Home will be familiar with Maple Acres. I particularly love the variety of eggplant available at Maple Acres and will provide you with an easy recipe for grilled eggplant.

Please help me identify farmer’s markets and farm stands to visit. I am looking for suggestions with 50 miles of Center City Philadelphia. Post your suggestions in Leave a Comment at the end of this At Home blog.

Thank you for visiting.

Your Home Entertaining Coach


Filed under At Home News, Entertaining at Home, Events, My Life, Recipes, Tips

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