For Edward Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.), being able to think quickly on his feet during a banquet event might have saved his culinary career.
One thing I love about being a chef is the opportunity to plan events, do awesome parties and, on occasion, cook with colleagues and friends at other properties.
A few years ago, a chef friend of mine was hosting a big event at the job and he needed some help. Prior to his new job, he had worked for a high-level corporate catering company, but now he was at a public golf course and was in charge of doing their special catered events.
The event he invited me to help with was his first golf outing. He really wanted to impress everyone. It was fall, so we planned the menu around seasonal ingredients and flavors. I met with him to help him plan and get the ball rolling. We looked at all types of menu options and how to decorate the area, garnish the food, and create that ‘wow’ factor.
We discussed how quiche was becoming quite trendy. So we decided to be trendsetters and do a quiche bar featuring a variety of house-made quiches.
He jumped on this idea and thought that doing something new and exciting would show his customers and clients that they had a chef who knew his stuff. I told him I would be there the night before and work the day of the event with him and his team.
When I arrived, the place looked great. We worked around the clock and cooked some great foods for the lunch menu, which included:
- Winter pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds
- Seasonal selection of salads with apples, pears, and pomegranate seeds
- Variety of house-made quiches with a frisée and endive salad pomegranate dressing
- Grilled Croque Monsieur Sandwiches, meat terrines, and asparagus spears en croûte
- Grilled burgers and hot dogs
- Roasted pear cakes, English trifle for dessert and more
The client for the outing came in and was taken back by the work and display. She then asked my chef friend to speak with her in the corner. I thought to myself, “He must be getting praise for the great cuisine. This is good.”
He came back and looked a bit puzzled. Said she loved everything but was concerned that the guest may not have enough “substance” as she put it.
“Substance,” I asked. “What is she talking about? Our quiches, the salads, the soups, my signature asparagus and the elegant sandwiches will make for a great meal. These people will go crazy for our efforts and realize what great food they are eating. They will remember this affair well after it is over. Be proud and let the people relish in our fine cuisine.”
The doors opened and in came a crowd of big burly men who looked like they could eat a horse in one sitting. Turns out, the golf outing was for a local union of plumbers and construction workers.
They walked up to my chef friend and asked, “Where is the buffet? Where is the real food? We are starved.”
The special event was a thank you for all the work these individuals had done for a club member who owned a major company. There were over 200 customers attending the meal. And they all looked perplexed and puzzled as they examined the food.
I started to help serve and took over the quiche station. One of the guys came up to me and stood there. He asked, “Where is the prime rib, Chef? Where is the steak course?”
He was a bit on the large size with hands that looked like they could hold two basketballs apiece and make them pop. He must have been at least 6”3 and 300 lbs. I looked up and said, “Well, sir, there is no prime rib, but we do have a great selection of quiche you can try.”
“Quiche? Quiche?” he said twice. Then he stared at me with a not-so-friendly expression. Then, in the deepest voice that I have ever heard, and in a very loud tone, he said, “Chef, what the #@*# is quiche?”
I thought to myself, “This is not going very well.”
Others in the room looked to see what was going on. Some even started to come over to my station.
I thought that this could be a quick end to my career, but I then stood proud and explained to him, “Sir, quiche is the newest omelet. It has a variety of fillings like cheese, bacon, ham, onions, and eggs all baked in a deep dish of pastry to make it a hearty meal. We designed the dish just for you. Look at it. It’s like omelet pie.”
He stood there and said, “Let me try a piece.” I gave him a slice. He ate the whole thing in three bites. Then he stood there for a bit as he chewed.
Finally, in that same deep voice he said, “This quiche stuff is good, man. I’ll take some more.”
The others then lined up as he grabbed a half quiche and said, “Thanks, Chef. It’s good, but change the damn name, will you?”
We were relieved—and made sure dinner featured some nice steaks and big baked potatoes.
After it was over the member thanked us for the interesting and successful party. We looked at each other and took a few lessons with us that still ring true today. Here they are:
- Know your customer prior to planning and serving them food.
- Ask questions so you can better understand a function and its purpose prior to planning.
- It can be hard for chefs, as we are creative souls and our intentions are always good, but place ego aside and think of the membership and their guests attending the function.
- Club and event committees can forget the 300 people attending an event. As chefs, we need to guide these decision-makers and ensure we do the best to please all the guest for the best outcomes, not only the select few.
- Ensure the food we serve or want to cook can be executed for the number we are serving. Some things just cannot be done for a large volume unless you have the equipment and labor to support it. A wine dinner for 40 guests is doable with a team of six. But it’s not possible for 250 and it will not yield a good outcome.
- Pinterest is not our friend. A committee chair or member can might suggest an apple tart that looks like a rose, but they must understand that rolling up apple slices for tarts for 400 people is not a thing. Give options that meet the objective, but can be executed.
- At the end of the day, great-tasting food cooked properly and served simply and elegantly will always be a crowd-pleaser.
- Think very fast on your feet.
- And lastly, remember that real men do eat quiche. It’s all in how you market the product.
For us club chefs the journey never ends. It’s always a new road, always a new venture gained and a challenge to meet head-on.