Gail Simmons talks catering, weddings, and Stephen Aspirinio's ego.
Catering a large wedding is an entirely different challenge than cooking in a restaurant. As any couple's wedding day is likely to be the single most important and memorable of their lives, the entire experience of planning its details can be incredibly emotional. Expectations are always higher and clients are sure to be pickier than at any other event. Brides and/or grooms are looking to have their dreams fulfilled more than ever before and the job of a wedding caterer is to translate those dreams into edible reality. In order to do so, they must consider very carefully what their own limitations and capabilities will be. Furthermore, they must pay particular attention to timing, location, and mass appeal. Managing a client's expectations and making reasonable promises is vital to delivery of the final product.
Our remaining chefs presented "The Scotts" with five very different interpretations of a Pan-Asian wedding meal. Stephen, as usual, went high concept, complete with a menu requiring its own translator. Tiffani chose to present a simpler idea, featuring her signature clean flavors and an endearing twist on the traditional wedding cake. Humble Harold stuck to what he knew best with dishes based on his South East Asian travels, while Dave stayed true to his passion for flavorful, functional food. Lee Anne, on the other hand, went for the wow factor! She dazzled the Scotts with origami lovebirds and pretty painted sketches -- I would have been dazzled too!
Sitting down to eat, my first tip off that there may be cause for concern was that the menu did not contain a single cold course. Besides, Dave's last minute crab hors d'oeuvres and the single oyster in Lee Anne's trio of amuse bouche, every dish served needed to come out of that kitchen hot and fresh. Not an easy task with one hundred rowdy wedding guests, a different wine pairing per course and multiple, spontaneous speeches with which to contend. A beautiful salad or creative chilled soup could have made the whole ordeal much easier for the kitchen and the wait staff. The Top Chef team barely pulled it off and there were definitely a few hitches along the way. The shrimp toasts were greasy, the salmon was cold and bland, the seafood Lover's Nest was over sauced and under seasoned, there were eggshells in the cake -- made from a mix, no less! If memory serves, aren't eggs practically the only ingredient besides water that is added to a store bought cake mix? The fact that they could not get that right amazed us all! I specifically remember one wedding guest being so hungry and disappointed with her meal that she actually ran across the street for take-out between courses. There was no question in my mind that if Lee Anne had thought her menu through more carefully in the first place she could have avoided several of these problems.
Despite this lack of foresight, once in the Hotel Monaco kitchen, Lee Anne did manage to stay calm and organized. According to most of her fellow contestants, she was a strong manager and a pleasure to work for under the circumstances. The Scotts, although underwhelmed, left on their honeymoon happy and grateful for all her hard work in contributing to their special day. She clearly put her heart into this challenge and no one can find fault in that.
And then there was our beloved sommelier.
Last week Tom could not have been more serious when he warned that in the next challenge Stephen had better show up in his chef whites. And again (although dressed appropriately) he disappointed us by barely contributing to the workload while his fellow contestants scrambled to get it all done. Knowing that at several times throughout their prep he abandoned the others so he could direct wine service infuriated me.
I recognize how earnestly Stephen wants to share his knowledge. I appreciate his belief that he can "elevate" the industry and I applaud his lofty ideals, as without this type of ambition restaurants would not be challenged to move forward. But with each episode, his ego has clouded his focus. Time and again he has demonstrated that he is far more concerned with the location of Rioja, the acid balance of Rose, and the correct temperature of Pinot Gris than with getting his hands dirty in the kitchen. The irony of it is that he speaks about wine to diners twice his age as if they are children, when the kid has only been drinking legally for three years! I trust that one day Stephen will be the great chef, sommelier or even the award-winning restaurateur to which he aspires. He has the drive and the education. But until he learns that good service is less about hearing the sound of your own voice and more about tuning into the voices and concerns of your customers, he is going to have a very hard time finding anyone to listen.