Friday 2 November 2012

My Secret Dinner

Far and away the most bizarre and challenging event I've hosted in my career as a cook was the "secret" dinner party I catered in Stellenbosch last Saturday. It began as a logistical frightfest, and ended up a rollicking party that I'll remember for years to come.  I met some wonderful people, learned a few new kitchen skills, and came away with a heart gladdened by the generosity of strangers.

The organisers of the Spier Secret Festival invited me and a variety of local cooks, caterers and food personalities each to host a dinner party at an undisclosed venue, for unidentified guests.  We were provided with a budget of R100 per head, in the form of Woolworths vouchers, and no restrictions were placed on our choices of menu.

Preparing my starter of Gin-Cured Gravadlax, to be
served  tartare-style with capers, dill and chives.
Until three days before the dinner, I didn't know where I'd be cooking, whether the venue would have a decent kitchen, or who would be pitching up at the event.

I always plan my menus with the following criteria in mind: the food must delight the guests, it must tickle their tastebuds and it must leave them feeling satisfied and comforted. But how on earth do you select appropriate dishes if you don't know who's going to be eating them? One thing I did appreciate was that anyone who had forked out for a ticket to the festival would expect something  more sophisticated than the food I'd normally serve at a feast for family and friends.

Lovely little rainbow carrots
After some deliberation, I chose as a main course an accessible classic dish - my version of Beef Wellington, served in individual potions, with a wild mushroom sauce - and, for the opening salvo, a selection of four small, attention-grabbing starters. For dessert, I stuck to something simple and foolproof, but with sensational flavours (the way to go with a sweet course, I reckon). I designed the menu so almost everything could be prepared well in advance, and estimated that I'd need just over three hours for last-minute tasks: prepping the vegetables, finishing off the sauces, primping & plating the starters, and of course laying and dollying up the table.  I also packed two suitcases of kitchen utensils, linen, serving dishes and small sparkly things.

I think it's best to draw a veil across the state in which I found the venue, suffice to say that due to organisational misunderstandings, I was not expected there, and  it took a full ninety minutes of persuasive talk for me to gain access to the building, figure out how to work the kitchen equipment and find an appropriate table to lay. Once all these ducks had been placed in a haphazard row, with the help of the festival's organisers and my heroic kitchen elf Tania Roux (see end of this blog post), it was time to cook.

But before I tell you about the food, let me describe the venue, because it was peculiar. I found myself in labyrinthine boarding house (or perhaps an old school, circa 1925, judging from the leaded windows and soaring ceilings).  The entrance hall was welcoming, clean and cheerful, with its wooden floors and community notice boards, and behind it were three cavernous kitchens well equipped with gas ranges, fearsome industrial ovens and pots the size of swimming pools. But leading off this entrance hall was a long, murky, somewhat mildewy passage, opening on to fifteen or so locked bedrooms, and numerous other rooms and bathrooms and warrens that were so deeply shadowed that I felt a genuine frisson when I scurried down the corridor to have a wee.  I could almost hear the distant laughter of children, and I've never pulled up my knickers in such a hurry.

Where we dined, as viewed from
 a spooky corridor. 
Anyway, the team who arrived to help hauled some tables from the dining canteen into the entrance hall, and helped my kitchen elf set up a cheerful small table for eight while I had quietly had hysterics in the kitchens. Candles were lit, tablecloths were ironed, plates and glasses were ferried over from the Spier estate, wine was chilled, and when our six mystery guests arrived just before 7 pm all that was left was for me to stumble, red-faced and gibbering, from the kitchen to explain that things weren't going exactly to plan.

They were very gracious, my guests, climbing obligingly into the wines provided by Spier, ignoring the cacophony coming from the kitchens (chiefly, my howling as I burned a hole in my thumb, and the timers on the monster ovens shrieking every ten minutes).  If they were astonished and creeped-out by this spectacle, these well-mannered people did their best to hide it, and within half an hour the conversation was a-sparkle and any house ghosts had given up their lurking and sloped sullenly to the far corners of the boarding house.

The dinner was a thundering success in the end, and my guests greeted the food with great appreciation and warmth (click here to read a guest's account of the food and party, by the charming Pat Elk of Yumsy). We finished up with a fizzle and crack as dessert was served and small fireworks were lit, and there was merriment for many hours.

I didn't take a camera, so relied on my cellphone for these snaps of some of the starters.

Judy's Toffee Tomatoes with Basil

'Lollipops' of Springbok Carpaccio filled with horseradish- and
white-pepper-flavoured cream cheese
with Verlaque pomegranate syrup 

My Nasturtium  & Macadamia Pesto on toast. 

Passion Fruit, Crème Fraîche and White Chocolate Cream Tart (an old photograph, from this recipe post)

This is my self-appointed kitchen elf, the lovely Tania Roux of I have followed Tania for several years on Twitter (and met her briefly at a book event a month or two back) but we don't know one another.

Imagine my astonishment when Tania tweeted me, out of the blue, on the Saturday of my secret dinner, offering to drive all the way to Stellenbosch to help me. I'd sent out a wailing tweet earlier that morning when I discovered that other secret dinner hosts had roped in helpers (including some professional chefs, which rather defeats the purpose, in my view). I didn't expect anyone to have any sympathy, because it was unrealistic to think I could manage this alone, but Tania rose most elfishly to the occasion.  Given the delays and the odd choice of venue, I am so grateful that she volunteered to help, because I couldn't possibly have dressed the table so simply and stylishly, and put food on it, in so short a time. Tania toiled cheerfully for hours, without my once having to slap her around her pointy ears or lock her in the onion drawer,  as one must do with troublesome kitchen elves. Thank you so much, Tania - your generosity is heartwarming.  Here's her short account of the evening.
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Lulu said...

Your meal looks like it was amazing!
And reading the review on Yumsy, it tasted incredible too!
Well Done!

Jason Elk said...

Very interesting insights on all the behind-the-scenes preparation for what turned out to be a spectacular evening of fun, adventure, discovery and unexpected pleasure. Truly a once in a lifetime event that the universe decided to include us all in - thanks to you for the care and passion you put into make it an unforgettable night; you pulled it off like a professional but in such a friendly way that we almost forgot that we were dining with a celebrity foodie :)

Kit said...

Sounds enough to drive anyone into strong hysterics!
Impressed you managed to pull off such a fantastic meal under so much pressure. The tastes sound amazing from Yumsy's descriptions. R100 a head sounds generous, but when you're only cooking for six people it doesn't go that far, so I think you did a fantastically creative job producing such a feast!