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Inside Job: What It's Like to Be a Chef

Rachel Bachrach

What’s on the menu? Three seasoned professionals open up about what it’s like to feed the crowds from their kitchens

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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W hat’s on the menu? Every day is different, which is why one morning might entail preparing roast rack of lamb with English mint sauce and watercress salad for a crowd of 80, while the next will have you painstakingly piping mini tzitzis onto 50 cookies, only to finish off the week by churning out 20 pans of schnitzel. Three seasoned professionals open up about what it’s like to feed the crowds from their kitchens

Esther Mendelevich, 31, is a personal chef at The Kosher Gourmet, her home-based business in Brooklyn, New York. She’s been working in the food industry for seven years.

People assume that when you’re cooking for a crowd you just multiply your favorite recipe by five or twenty. But it’s not that simple because

Dealing with a large crowd means you’re dealing with a bunch of different tastes, dietary restrictions, allergies, and so on. When I cook in my house, either you eat what’s served or you don’t, but when I’m cooking for a crowd, my job is to please every person in that crowd. If one person leaves unhappy with the food, then I’ve failed.

The two foods that are always finished first

Sushi and hors d’oeuvres. Everything made mini always goes; it’s amazing how much more people eat when it’s bite-sized. In terms of what men eat versus what women eat, I guess the stereotypical assumption is that men like the meat, while women eat the salads, but that’s not really true — women like their meat, and men like their salads, too. What I’ve noticed is that men like bigger bolder flavors, they prefer more spice, while women like things a little blander. Women also eat more desserts than the men — even though they pretend they don’t.

Three ingredients a good cook never runs out of

Number one has to be salt — it’s not just a spice, it’s a flavor enhancer, it makes all the flavors in the dish pop. My other ones are onion and garlic; there’s no dish, aside from dessert, that can’t benefit from some onions and garlic, whether they’re sautéed, roasted, or fresh.

My biggest flop, and what I served instead

I’ve definitely had a few. When it happens I have to eat — no pun intended — the cost.

 

There was the time I burned a tray of chicken and had to make a lot more. Another time, I was cutting meat for an event and somehow the roast fell apart completely, so instead of having beautiful slices I ended up with shredded beef. But when life gives you pulled beef, you make pulled-beef tacos! And you know what? They were eaten faster than any sliced roast I’ve ever served.

The largest/most unusual meal I catered

Right out of culinary school, I thought it would be a good idea to cater my twin son’s and daughter’s upsheren/birthday party. I knew nothing about cooking for a large crowd or buying things wholesale, and I ended up spending triple what it would have cost to hire a caterer. Plus, I spent so many hours in the kitchen, I completely lost track — I can’t even tell you how many hours I put in for the event. 

Luckily for me, my inefficiency came into good use. I thought we were having 150 people, and I way overcooked for that amount — so I had more than enough for the 300 that showed up. But lesson learned! For my next son’s upsheren, I hired someone else to do it. Granted, the food wasn’t exactly how I would have liked it, but I got to actually enjoy the party instead of directing the waiters and making sure everything was refilled. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 567)

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