"One time we served an intermezzo course of raspberry sorbet topped with blue-and-white spun-sugar globes for the biggest patrons of the Chicago Planetarium," recounts Larry Piaskowy of his days at one of Chicago's highest-profile catering companies. "The guests had to break the globes with a spoon to get the sorbet. For three nights before the event, the chef, the sous-chef, and I worked all night blowing 500 spun-sugar globes -- figuring about a hundred would break -- and storing them in moisture-proof containers. You don't ever learn stuff like that in a restaurant."
Piaskowy and I are chatting over coffee in the kitchen of Oakland's Blue Heron Catering, where he is now chef. I feel as though I've just entered the Bat Cave: When I showed up at the address Piaskowy gave me at 24th and Telegraph, all I found was a blue garage door. I buzzed the intercom, the door opened, and I walked past three vans parked bumper-to-bumper into a well-worn and well-equipped professional kitchen that dwarfs any I've ever cooked in. Along one wall are racks of platters, baskets, and glasses; along the opposite, several ranges, a grill, a couple of convection ovens, and long prep tables. As Piaskowy and I settle at a work bench near the ovens, Mario cleans the grill and the range, and Debbie, the baker, mixes up batch after batch of cookie dough to freeze ahead.
To me, there's something spooky about sitting down in a kitchen. The cast-iron smell of the ovens, the steady blowing of the fans, the infinite clutter, all take me back to my restaurant days, but no one's yelling out, "Hey, chef, where'd you say you put the lemon zest?" or huddling over a cutting board, sneaking panicked looks at the clock.
It's Thursday, and Piaskowy's hustling through his Monday morning tasks so he can head out for a weekend-long hike in the Sierra. Every time we talk, he raves about the fact that his job at Blue Heron allows him weekends off. "Sure, I miss the excitement of being on the line, the rush. I miss the finer, prettier work of arranging each plate. But here I know what my days are like: what I'm going to do when I come in the morning; how much salmon to order so I'm not stuck with old fish I can't sell; who's coming into work. I can make plans."
Planning is the crucial component of this stage of the business. It's not about quick reflexes or improvisation or adrenaline, qualities that on-site cooks and servers need in spades. Piaskowy's job requires efficiency and a strong sense of organization. Cooks -- especially catering cooks -- live and die by the prep lists they make. More obsessive than proofreaders, they check and triple-check their lists. There is nothing worse than trekking out to a party in Livermore and discovering that you didn't bring enough tablecloths.
Monday, Piaskowy goes over all the menus for the week and calculates exactly what he needs to order; this becomes the master prep list. The owners of the fourteen-year-old company, Lisa Wilson and Karen Lucas, try to coordinate the week's menus so the cooks can make large amounts of similar items -- say, three parties will use a raspberry vinaigrette and another four parties will serve focaccia with roasted red onions and blue cheese. That day Piaskowy calls in the orders for cheeses, dry goods, bread, and meats to different vendors, then separates all the menus into party-specific prep lists, which hang on clipboards in the central area.
On Tuesday, he goes shopping for produce and fish at Berkeley Bowl, and makes vinaigrettes, sauces, and fillings for hors d'oeuvres -- items that will keep for several days and require a head chef's palate. Wednesdays through Fridays, the rest of the crew comes in and they prep for the weekend -- "ninety percent of our business is on the weekend" -- taking time out to prepare tasting menus for prospective clients.
Wilson and Lucas write the menus, so the recipes used are mostly theirs; Piaskowy makes up his own recipes when new items are introduced and tweaks existing Blue Heron recipes when tweaking is called for. Piaskowy's arena is primarily the prep kitchen, which means everything from wrapping up 600 mini-spanikopitta to making three quarts of romesco sauce for the crudité platters and cutting 150 six-ounce portions of salmon.
Everything goes in tubs packed for the on-site cooks, who then finish the dishes -- oven-roast the salmon, dress the salads, heat preblanched vegetables -- and arrange everything on platters. Blue Heron specializes in mid-sized parties for one hundred to three hundred, mostly held at venues with professional kitchens. Blue Heron's owners run the on-site part of the business, so Piaskowy only has to work extra-large parties or fill in when the company is short-staffed.
At 32, Piaskowy has now cooked professionally for twelve years, mostly in Chicago. His cooking experience spans the gamut from catering to the restaurant biz -- right after cooking school, he started at a Marriott Hotel "making salads for $6 an hour"; soon he'd worked in every area of the hotel kitchens. Before moving to Oakland eighteen months ago, he was a pastry chef, a restaurant manager, and a banquet chef at a Doubletree Hotel.
Restaurant folks ask him if he misses wielding creative control over the menu and writing his own recipes. "Nah. I've done all that. I feel like I've earned a spot like this. I worked eighty to a hundred hours a week for years to learn enough so that I deserve a job like this. I get to cook cool food, so I'm happy. I've already told my bosses that they're going to have to kill me to get me out of here."
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