The halls of Congress clattered with 3,000 plates, a fitting sound for the International Association of Cooking Professionals' eighth annual convention. The moment was a formal reception for more than 600 members and guests, the location was the marble grandeur of the Cannon Caucus Room, and the noise indicated a new kind of giant cocktail party.
Ordinarily a chef would feed hundreds of people with a buffet: He'd set up a handsome display, then move out of the way and let everyone get fed. This reception was the handiwork of Yannick Cam of Washington's Le Pavillon restaurant, however, and he does nothing in an ordinary way. In his restaurant the food is arranged on the plate with intense care and precision; it looks breathtaking and delicate. So the idea of people gouging his food from a buffet and dolloping it on their plates was one he wouldn't consider. He expects his dishes to be portioned just so and set on the plate exactly to his taste. So when he was asked a year ago to do this cocktail reception he insisted on having plates prepared in the kitchen and passed by waiters.
Prepared in the kitchen? What kitchen? There was none available in the House of Representatives' Cannon Office Building, where the party was to be held. Everything had to be made ahead at Le Pavillon -- with the staff working until 2:30 a.m. the night before -- and ferried a couple of miles through rush-hour traffic after the restaurant's lunch service was finished. Six different hors d'oeuvres and desserts were served, all of them cold except beet ravioli with chive butter sauce, a beautiful pink-on-green dish that is a signature at Le Pavillon. The 3,000 ravioli, in fact, were being cooked on two-burner hot plates in an anteroom of the Caucus Room, boiled in water, drained and briefly saute'ed in butter, then arranged, three per plate, on a pool of chive butter and garnished with osetra caviar. Smoked salmon was also being sliced on the premises, the paper-thin slices topped with coriander, cre me fraiche and caviar. The rest of the dishes -- terrine of foie gras and sweetbreads, terrine of crab and lobster with a coulis of tomato and asparagus spears, raspberry and chocolate torte and white chocolate mousse with praline -- merely needed to be sliced or scooped and garnished to be served. The cold dishes were chosen for consistency, foods that could be completely prepared ahead and portioned on plates by whoever was available to do the job, while Cam and his cooks bent low over long folding tables laboring on the more complex dishes. "If I had to produce two dishes like the ravioli, nothing would come out," said Cam. Nevertheless, the party required 50 waiters, wine pourers and dish scrapers, as well as the entire staff of 10 cooks and eight waiters from Le Pavillon. And 40 cases of wine to wash down the food.
And it took such detailed planning that caterer Joyce Piotrowski, whose Epicurean Events provided the waiters and dish scrapers, timed her son days ahead of time as he marched slowly through the empty room, paused as if passing the tray and picking up dirty dishes, and circled back after leaving off the dirty dishes. It took 12 minutes per round trip, and with five or six plates per tray that meant a waiter could serve 25 to 30 dishes per hour, up to 60 during the entire party. The 50 waiters were each assigned a particular kind of food and a section of the room so that the six parts of the room would all receive continuous service of all the dishes.
In reality it was more difficult, as more than the anticipated 500 guests showed up. They thronged to each waiter, instantly depleting his tray. Waiters held their trays high to get to their assigned segments of the room. The pace was measured -- too measured for the crowd at first. Everyone wanted to taste everything at least once, which meant that some guests were going to be shortchanged.
In the meantime, in Room 304 down the hall, three high school girls were scraping all those plates under the watchful eyes of Lincoln and Washington in portrait. "Fish eggs, only fish eggs," they shuddered as they cleaned the plates of their caviar dregs. Three thousand plates, 2,800 glasses, 250 clean napkins to line the trays.
After the first hour the rhythm was well established and chef Cam stood with a glass of wine in the middle of the black-tie crowd. The food, he noted, was "not different from what we do at the Pavillon, we just have five times the number of waiters." The makeshift kitchen, though, was another matter. "Everyone was speaking a little bit different language," he said of the conglomeration of waiters and cooks working together. He had counted at least five languages.
From his point of view it had gone well, despite a waiter having tilted a tray of uncooked ravioli so that 600 of them had stuck together and had to be disentangled. From an eater's point of view, nobody had solved the problem of how to eat from a plate with a fork while holding a glass of wine. Asked how that was to be accomplished, Piotrowski quipped, "We provided them with an extra arm for the evening." Then, getting more serious, she supposed, "When the food is this wonderful, people manage." Tabletalk
Observations from the eighth annual convention of the International Association of Cooking Professionals:
Cooking professionals, more than most professionals, should know how to accurately follow directions. Yet the keynote luncheon, "a dialogue" between authors Craig Claiborne and Barbara Kafka, turned out to be a reading by Claiborne, followed in self-defense by a speech by Kafka, with time for one question before they both dashed for their planes.
Beef is going to make a comeback," predicted Kafka. And even more significantly, since this is a society that increasingly dines out, "The quality of life changes critically when it is lived in restaurants."
At the keynote luncheon the main dish was pout, an "underutilized species" of fish. While that pout was being eaten, said Fred Jungmann of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., 100,000 pounds of it were being thrown overboard by fishermen. Maybe they wouldn't have if they, too, could have tasted it breaded with sesame seeds and pepper.
Cooking teachers these days are a slim group. You couldn't guess by the shape of the crowd that this convention had anything to do with food. LE PAVILLON RAVIOLI AUX BETTERAVES (Makes about 50 ravioli)
FOR THE BEET AND ONION PUREE:
2 pounds red beets
2 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste
FOR THE PASTA:
15 ounces (3 3/4 cups) high gluten flour
1 cup beet and onion pure'e
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
FOR FINISHING AND SERVING:
Butter for sauteing (optional)
4 ounces caviar (optional)
Cover beets with water and simmer until tender.
Peel beets and pure'e in a food processor and then a blender. Place in a saucepan and reduce over low heat to a thick paste (like tomato paste). This will take 6 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully so the beets don't burn.
Slice onion thinly. Simmer in butter, stirring occasionally, until tender. Do not allow onion to color. Pure'e in food processor and then a blender. Reduce over low heat to a moist pure'e. This will take 3 to 4 minutes and will not become as dry as the beets.
Mix pure'es together. Add salt to taste and cool.
Place flour, 1 cup pure'e, egg and olive oil into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until fairly dry (press between the fingers and it will compact like wet sand). Remove from processor and knead by hand for a few minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside for an hour. Pasta will become pliable while resting.
Using a pasta machine, roll out pasta. It should be quite thin. Pass the pasta through the machine twice on the last setting.
Cut strips of pasta into 12- to 15-inch lengths. Place one strip of pasta on the counter. Cut pasta into circles, using a cookie cutter. Place about a half teaspoon of pure'e on one side of the circle and fold over to form a crescent. Press lightly to seal. Or shape into traditional ravioli shapes.
Bring a large pot of water to just below a boil. Drop in ravioli and cook for about 1 minute. Drain.
If desired, saute' for a moment in butter until lightly coated. Place 5 to 7 ravioli in a circle on a bed of whipped chive butter. If desired, top with about an eighth of a teaspoon of caviar. Serve immediately. CHIVE BUTTER (Makes 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon finely minced chives
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature.
Whirl chives and butter in a food processor. Pipe or spoon onto plates as the base for ravioli. agcrdt2 1986, Washington Post Writers Group