HOW ONE HOTEL PREPARES A FORMAL LUNCH FOR 1,200 PEOPLE

It's a little before noon in the California Foyer of the Century Plaza Hotel as lawyers in dark gray suits mingle, back-slap and check their phone messages. They're waiting for the double doors to the ballroom to open, at which point they will file in, eat chicken and hear a bunch of speakers.

You've seen it a million times. What you probably haven't seen is what happens behind those doors. Or, more to the point, how do you serve a hot lunch (well, reasonably hot) for 1,200 people?

"Timing is the most critical aspect of doing large banquets," says executive chef Andreas Nieto. "If you're dishing 2,000 people and your timing is off, there's no way to recover. It's like steering a ship toward an iceberg you can't turn around all of a sudden. You can't speed it up any more if you're off."

The Business Journal recently trailed the many waiters, chefs and managers to see how it all comes together. It happened to be a relatively quiet day compared with the day when several large conferences were going on at once, requiring 5,000 plates of food to be served simultaneously.

Still, a 1,200-plate event can't be taken lightly, even at a place that did $18 million worth of banquet business last year.

Advance prep work

Luncheon preparations for the Association of Southern California Defense Counsels, featuring President Gerald Ford as keynote speaker, actually began a month earlier, when a convention manager worked out the menu and seating arrangements. The amount of food required was then calculated so many ounces for so many people. (For this event, the per-plate charge was $35, though banquet prices vary based on any number of factors.)

At 9 a.m. the day before, key members of the kitchen and catering staff go over everything from the menu to the color of linens and special arrangements. Much of the prep work chopping, peeling, marinating also got done that day, along with the making of mini-cheesecakes for dessert so they would have time to cool and be removed from their molds.

Complicating the prep work were two other luncheons scheduled at the same time as the lawyers' event, adding another 500 meals. "The hard thing for us is not doing (big) parties," says executive sous chef Paul Gregory. "It's all the little parties in addition."

Only so much could be done ahead of time. On the day of the event, it takes about 100 people including cooks, stewards, servers and dishwashers to make the luncheon happen.

Starting around 7 a.m., the pastry staff arranges the dessert plates puncturing each round cheesecake with two chocolate sticks and artfully arranging a scoop of caramelized pecans and poached baby pears. The 1,200 plates are stacked and placed in walk-in coolers until they get delivered to the ballroom later in the morning.

At 9 a.m., the garde manger staff begins assembling salads. Seven plates are placed on each large tray, and two people distribute spring mix while others follow down the line, adding three slices of cucumber, julienned carrots and tomato wedges to each salad. After the plates are filled, each tray is stacked in metal racks and covered in plastic. This takes about two hours.

Blending the roux

For a noon luncheon, everything has to be cooked by 11 a.m. for "plate-up." Nieto can tell just by looking at the work unfolding whether the staff is on schedule. So far, so good.

At 9:15, saucier Raul Solis prepares a roux to thicken the sauce for the main course, chicken. It consists of a blend of artichokes, onions, wild mushrooms and Madeira that bubbles in two large caldrons on an industrial-size stove. Solis tosses salt into the pots and stirs the mixture with a two-foot-long flat spoon, standing momentarily on tiptoes. He blends the roux with a gigantic whisk, splashes a bit on a finger and checks the flavor.

Other cooks are preparing vegetables, candied yams, Bolognese sauce and seafood bisque all for other functions being held that day or the next. Conversations are short and to the point "Have you got plastic wrap?" as each cook focuses on the task at hand.

At the back of the kitchen, a 100-gallon vat filled with peeled potatoes boils away, soon to become garlic mashed potatoes. But because so many potatoes are needed, more are being steam-cooked as well.

Around 10 a.m., a cook slowly drains the water from the vats and transports potatoes to a giant mixer, where he drops in several hunks of butter, milk and crushed garlic.

Asparagus already has been piled in pans and placed in the empty steamers but won't be cooked until later so it doesn't end up as limp, overdone stalks. "I'm very adamant about quality," Nieto says. "I want to cook at the last minute. You take a gamble, but the guest benefits."

Meanwhile, the Madeira sauce is done, so two men hoist the pots into a tub of hot water to keep the contents warm. Solis writes a label for each on a piece of masking tape across the top of the pots.

Only 45 minutes to go

Cut to the dining room, where an army of gray-jacketed waiters is setting tables with ice water, butter and napkins folded into fans. A keyboardist and vocalists test the sound system.

Back in the kitchen, it's time to bring out the chicken breasts, which were seared the day before and refrigerated. The chicken will go onto revolving racks in two huge ovens for 45 minutes to cook through. Seasonal root vegetables parsnips, turnips and carrots are julienned by two workers in another wing of the kitchen.

At 10:15, the energy level jumps a few notches, with only 45 minutes to go before plate-up. "Now we're down to the wire," Nieto says.

Then there's a glitch. The last of the potatoes Yukon gold have taken longer to cook than expected, putting the mashing behind schedule. While Gregory helps drains the potatoes, another cook is using the mixer to make vinaigrette.

"Carol, how much longer you gonna' be there? We need to use the mixer," Gregory calls out. By 10:40, he and another cook are scrambling to make the 11 a.m. deadline.

"Paul, are we gonna make it?" Nieto asks Gregory.

"Yeah!" comes the reply.

Plate-up is less than 10 minutes away. Workers ready the area, sweeping the floor and placing Sterno heaters on the shelf under the metal tabletops to keep them warm.

Hot metal boxes used to keep the dishes warm are lined up at one end of the tables, while empty cabinets on wheels are placed at the other, ready to be loaded with filled plates. Each has room for 120 plates and is numbered on the outside 120, 240, 360 and so on to 1,200.

"This thing is like a machine. If one component breaks down, the whole thing could be a disaster. But it goes off every day," says Nieto. "We're running a few minutes behind, but we'll catch up at dish-up."

The staff forms four lines at the two long tables and pull gloves onto their hands.

The potatoes are ready.

"Everyone line up at the table, please!" Gregory shouts.

A couple of pans of chicken are brought out, along with the side dishes, and Gregory assembles a sample plate.

At 11:07, he gives the word: "Here we go!"

The clanging of plates is punctuated by requests for more "chicken!" "pollo!" or "asparagus!" It takes only 30 seconds for a plate to travel from one end of the table to the other, get covered with a lid and loaded into the cabinets.

By 11:30, waiters are setting salads out on tables, just as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. addresses a standing-room-only crowd in a neighboring meeting room.

Around noon, the lawyers start filing in and waiters gradually head back to the kitchen, trays in hand, to line up. The strains of "Glory, Glory Hallelujah!" being performed by the musicians waft into the kitchen.

At 12:10, word is it will be another 10 minutes before meals are served because the head table has to eat the salads first, and they're listening to the music, not eating.

At 12:18, plates are removed from the wheeled cabinets, loaded on trays with two tureens each of sauce and whisked to tables. Twenty minutes later, the first dirty plates are taken back to the kitchen. And finally, at 12:55, it's time to hear from Ford, who receives a standing ovation after he is introduced.

"It's an honor and a privilege to make remarks to this prestigious organization," Ford says.

The kitchen staff doesn't linger to hear the speech. Instead, they take a short breather before gearing up for dinner.

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