‘Me Oh My Oh’: Catering Lessons from Heather and Izzy, Jambalaya Edition

Jambalaya is so quintessentially New Orleans that, when menu planning, I considered the rice-sausage-and-seafood casserole to be a no-brainer of a show-stopper main course for our Mardi Gras Dinner.

As it turned out, both “no-brainer” and “show-stopper” were painfully apt descriptions, as recounted in this continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of ‘Catering Lessons from Heather and Izzy’. An ill-conceived plan to assemble, decorate and bake the jambalayas just before service – along with my failure to anticipate the overcrowded oven being sluggish – halted the progress of our Mardi Gras service for at least 30 minutes.

Even so, I sent the course out at least five minutes before it would have been perfectly done. On a “do you want seconds?” scale of ‘Yes!’ to ‘No thank you,’ undercooked rice has to come in on the ‘many leftovers’ side of the ledger. Undeterred, our guests ate almost all of it, which I like to think was a testament to its deeply satisfying flavors, but might also have been a function of how tipsy and/or hungry they were by the time it finally arrived.

There were a number of errors both in the conception and execution of the dish that were completely my fault. There was also, a #seafoodcrisis at it was later hash-tagged by Margaux in a breakdown of the night’s breakdowns. The #seafoodcrisis was only partially my fault.

Catering Lesson:

4. When Things Go Wrong, It’s Almost Always Something You Assemble/Cook at the Last Minute, So Try To Avoid Doing That

I don’t know how this ended up at number four, because it’s almost certainly the most important lesson I learned from Chef Heather. I helped Heather with a handful of weddings and other events over the 8 weeks I was at Ratho Farm and never once did I see her assemble and bake the main course onsite just before service. Instead, she brought lovingly prepared mains in amazing homemade sauces locked in sous vide bags, which she dunked in an immersion circulator until the moment she wanted to slide them onto heated plates. There were exceptions to this no-last-minute-dishes rule, but only when she could not dissuade either a bride or groom from having a ‘pain-in-the-arse’ dish served at their reception; one that could not be prepared in advance (of sufficient quality). For example, one couple insisted she serve lightly steamed vegetables for 60 as part of the main course (Ratho has a 5-burner range) and a memorable 100 rice-paper spring rolls that took three women working non-stop a full hour to assemble just before the appetizers went out. But at least Heather had dopey newlyweds to blame. My selection of jambalaya, whose main ingredient is the fickle and tricky-to-pull-off rice was unquestionably an unforced error.

5. Fully Conceptualize How Recipes Will Scale Up

It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t really think through HOW I would proportion the rice, veggies and broth into the 10 oval stoneware casseroles, when anyone who’s worked with rice knows that having precise proportions of liquid to grain is the ONLY way to get an end product that’s neither soupy nor dry. I made a gorgeous and rich homemade chicken stock and, in one of my suitcases, I brought 5 pounds of the beautiful ‘popcorn’ varietal of rice from Louisiana, which New Orleans Chef Susan Spicer talks about in this interview. Although I was careful to combine broth and rice at a precise 2-1 ratio, only afterwards would I realize that measuring them into each casserole would have been the better move. Ladling the mixture out into the casseroles  from the stockpot undid all that precision. I did my best to eyeball a uniform ratio of liquid and rice in the casseroles, but there were no doubt inconsistencies. And that’s BEFORE the lot of them went into an oven that was ill-equipped to deal with that much food at once.

6. Crowded Ovens Cook More Slowly

I didn’t add extra time in what we’ll loosely call ‘my schedule’ for the extra load on the oven of having 10 casserole dishes in the oven at a time.

7. They Waited This Long, They Can Wait Another 5 Minutes

Another rookie mistake on my part was giving in to the pressure of being late getting the jambalaya out to the diners and, over Heather’s reasonable objection, sending them all out just five minutes before the rice would have been cooked, or at least acceptably al dente. “They’ve waited this long, they can wait another 5 minutes,” Heather said, but I had come back panicked from the dining room, where I was gamely trying to make small talk from table to table to cover my delay.

A mother I recognized from the verandah — her young son Harry had wowed all the guests by having grown-up tastes with the appetizers – told me kindly and gently that her son was hungry and wondered if he could have something to eat. I playfully reminded her of how many boudin balls and green-tomato-okra fritters I had seen him eat.

I made a big fuss over Harry, who ate more rice-and-lamb-offal boudin balls than any adult present. Somehow I didn’t notice his brother — or menu plan anything kid friendly.

“This one’s a little bit different,” she said, laying her hand on the forearm of a different son, who was slumped sideways on the dinner table. He appeared to be on the austism spectrum – and not having an especially great time of it. I was mortified, initially because this was the first time I had taken any notice of this second son, and again when I realized there had been literally nothing kid-friendly served up to this point. If Harry hadn’t been so adventurous an eater he would have been starving as well. In hindsight, I can’t explain why this revelation caused me to rush back to the kitchen and decree that 10 mostly-but-not-quite-all-the-way baked jambalayas be distributed immediately to the assembled. It’s not as if jambalaya, (particularly a little bit crunchy jambalaya) is any child’s dream dinner. If I had explained to Heather WHY I suddenly wanted to bum-rush the jambalayas into the dining room, she would have sensibly suggested I make the boy a grilled cheese (cheese toastie I think they call them?), as she told me later as we drank wine and broke down the evening. Why didn’t I think of that?

8. If Someone Has To Eat RIGHT THIS MINUTE, Make Them a Sandwich

A well-made sandwich works both for children and for adults who are acting like them.

Final tip of the night:

9. Bring a Cheerleader Along Who Knows When to Send You on Smoke Break

Given her lynchpin importance to the Mardi Gras Dinner’s success (at least for those at the front of the house) I’ve written surprisingly little about Isabelle “Izzy” Bickford up to this point. But Heather’s gorgeous teenage daughter is really the glue that holds the morale of Bickfords’ catering operation together. She is a regular mood-managing godsend, or “chef-wrangler,” as Heather calls her. Every time a problem cropped up, Izzy was quick with a “She’ll be alright, mate,” some deft assistance, and, once everything was somewhat smoothed out, recounted an even gorier catering horror story. I found her cheerful stream of one-upsmanship (or is it one-downsmanship?) amusingly de-fusing. I also watched Izzy nurture and buoy her mom through each of her dinner services, making sure she ate something, drank some water, sat down occasionally and in what felt to me like a particularly filial act of devotion, insist that she take a much-needed smoke break.

Wow, honest self-critique is completely exhausting!I plan to publish a separate recipe post for Tasmanian Seafood Jambalaya, a Ratho Farm twist on a New-Orleans’-Spanish-settler re-invention of paella that substitutes tomatoes for saffron.

Next up: A foodie tour of the state capital, Hobart with my second Tasmanian girlfriend, Cally Lyons, the proprietress of Rathmore House, Hollow Tree, Tasmania.

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