Mashed Potatoes And Broken Dreams…

Last year I was interviewed by Steve LaRosa for a profile in Lux Life Magazine. One of his questions asked me to describe kitchen disasters I’d been a part of over the years. I gave him a few good stories. Here’s one I left out:

Years ago I was asked by my dear friend Cathy Levering to cater a fundraising event for her daughter’s High School. Cathy has always been a great friend and supporter and, as anyone who knows her can attest, is impossible to say no to. I would be responsible for cooking and serving food for 300 attendees, almost all of them parents and their extended family. To make it “easier” on me, I would be assigned a brigade of student “servers” and parent “cooks” who would help in the kitchen. My dear friend and soul mate Teresa Urkofsky offered her help which I promptly accepted. Teresa is an accomplished culinarian and ridiculously competent at everything she does. She’s also a self described food goddess. At one point in her career, she had business cards made with “Food Princess” printed beneath her name. Occasionally, to live up to the title, she would come to work wearing a tiara. The night of the event we showed up with our food prep and several student volunteers plucked from the culinary program at American River College where Teresa plays an integral role as instructor and mentor. The quantities of food were carefully calculated based on the number of attendees. There would be little room for error. Our “kitchen” for the evening was a converted class room replete with wall mounted wood cabinets, Formica counters, and florescent light fixtures. My crew began to set up the work area and I started to brief the student and parent volunteers on what their duties for the evening would be. The parents would be responsible for plating, the students would deliver the plates to the guests, two at a time. When we were given the cue, I directed the parents to begin assembling plates. Each of them would be responsible for one of the three components; roast beef, vegetables, and mashed potatoes. It started slow, but as each of them got the hang of it, we began to click. After several tables went out, I noticed the portions getting larger, especially the mashed potatoes. I was able to rein them in, but only temporarily. About half way through the service, I had the gut wrenching feeling that the quantity of potatoes was not going to make it. There wouldn’t be enough time to go back to the restaurant for more. We started rifling through the cupboards in a desperate attempt to find a substitution. Teresa found a couple of bags of dried pasta. We cooked it, tossed it with butter, and were able to continue sending plates out. When the pasta was gone, we grilled table bread and used in place of the potatoes. Finally, with two more tables to go, there was simply no more food left. We were done. Toast. Some unfortunate soul was given the task of informing those tables the kitchen was out of food.

Drunk on adrenaline, hunger, and fatigue, what immediately followed is only a vague memory. I do know that my crew and I ended up at a Chinese restaurant on Broadway. For a couple of hours, it gave us refuge and anonymity from the rest of the world. I ordered from the encyclopedic menu. We sat quietly, seated around the Lazy Susan, a constellation of cooks orbiting the Sun Tak chau fan, and platters of mu shu pork, and Kung Pao Ming Har. We started to talk about the night, and were even able find some humor in the evening’s events. Teresa has a gift for that. I made it up to the guests that weren’t served by offering letters of apology and complimentary dinners. In the ensuing years, I’ve spent a significant amount of my time preparing and serving mashed potatoes to satisfy our guest’s seemingly insatiable appetite for them. A coincidence? Or are the food gods making me pay for my past foibles? You be the judge.


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