Whew! The big day has come and gone: cooking for a group of up to 80 for a community event called the River Space Dinner Party and Talk. Reservations for the event were coming in faster and earlier than ever before in their several-month history and the day before, Yvan, one of the organizers, suggested I prepare for as many as 90 diners. Thanks to a little rain, we ended up with about 70 people, still more than any previous dinner.
Much like I imagine one feels after running a marathon, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to tackle this challenge. Now I know I can do it. But it was exhausting and took a lot of hard work, not to mention the support of several friends who pitched in, so I’m probably not going to volunteer to cook for such a large group again anytime in the near future!
The preparation was spread over three days leading up to Tuesday’s dinner. Most of the prep work involved careful planning – extrapolating my recipes into larger batches, creating shopping lists, and checking prices to ensure I would stay within my budget of 80 baht (US$ 2.63) per head. When it came time to do most of the shopping on Tuesday morning, I had to go to three stores, managing to clean out two stores of their supplies of cilantro, radishes, and cherry tomatoes.
Tuesday morning I also baked more than 80 buttermilk shortcakes, which would be part of the dessert.
The grains for the mixed grain salad were cooked in batches and then sealed in bags. Note the carefully-written labels. Four parts (each serving about 20-24 people) with bags A, B, and C providing the different mixtures of grains. Bag A contains brown rice, GABA rice, and Job’s tears. Bag B contains brown rice, black beans, and small red beans. Bag C contains pearl barley and corn.
I used large plastic storage containers to divide the ingredients by dish. Some dishes took several containers, which completely filled our car.
The River Space is located on the second floor of a building in a local market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, next to the Millennium Hilton hotel. Since the street is some distance away from the building entrance, we temporarily parked (during rush hour!) and Tawn hired a porter from the market to help us move everything into the space. That cost 200 baht (less than $7) and was the best 200 baht I’ve ever spent.
While I thought I had prepared a pretty simple recipe, one that required only one dish to actually be cooked on-site, there was still a lot of peeling, slicing, chopping, and dicing that needed to be done. Thankfully, a half-dozen friends came early and rolled up their sleeves. Little did they realize they would spend the next four hours in the kitchen! From left to right, Bee, Ken, me, Sophie, and Linda.
At moments like this, I imagine that a Cuisinart food processor might be a worthwhile investment! Except they would have decimated the tomatoes.
Very organized, I had instructions for pulling together each dish, including plating diagrams, prepared and taped to the kitchen walls. These aren’t exactly a recipe, but helped everyone keep track of what steps we needed to complete and what the finished items were to look like. This is for the dessert, a buttermilk shortcake topped with macerated mango and ginger whipped cream.
We had two burners to work with, although a second-hand stove was recently acquired that has three burners, significantly expanding the capacity. Here, I start frying batches of the green curry marinated chicken while organizer Yvan prepares his signature garlic bread recipe.
Done with the mixed grain salad, my volunteers (now joined by Tammy and Tawn) slice mangoes for dessert while Doug, the friend who roped me into this event, supervises.
Doug also wandered around with my camera, documenting the action.
By 8:30 the crowd was ravenous, the best way to have them! People started pouring into the kitchen and my friends expertly plated the meal, controlling portion size and garnishing with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds. Unfortunately, in the chaos, nobody snapped a picture of the finished product!
After everyone ate, the guest speaker took the microphone for about 20 minutes. Since this is an art space, they try to have someone at each dinner who can talk about a project they have worked on, usually with some relevance to Thailand or the local scene.
In this case, it was Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and German writer Tom Vater, the photographer and author, respectively, of Sacred Skin, a book about the history and contemporary practice of Sak Yant, Thailand’s spirit tattoos.
These tattoos, written in ancient Khmer, are said to provide powers of protection from accidents, misfortune, and crime. You see these tattoos peeking out from under monks’ robes, the shirt collars of young men, and even on Angelina Jolie.
The crowd seemed very interested in what Tom and Aroon had to say and enlargements of Aroon’s photos had been placed on the wall, startling images that sparked many discussions throughout the night.
As the talk concluded, we served our dessert, complete with a mint garnish. Again, in the rush we managed to not get a picture of the finished product! Next time, I need to bring my own media people, right?
We received a lot of compliments and had no troubles convincing people to take zip-loc bags of the extra mixed grains salad home, which is perhaps the best compliment of all. We ended up with about 70 people and a final cost of 7,400 baht. Based on the 90 people we prepared for, this was just ever-so-slightly over budget, coming in at 82.2 baht per person, or US$2.70.
To say I was exhausted when we returned home at about 11:00 is an understatement. I’ve rarely been so tired, ever. Working in a space that is not well-equiped for group cooking, I gained a new appreciation for the work of caterers and restaurateurs. Thanks again to all my friends (and my husband) for helping me pull it off!