Over the weekend, I did something I’ve never done before: provide 1,000 tastings at a food festival. It was at the inaugural LuckyRice night market, held in Culver City (Los Angeles). I’d attended about a dozen of these ‘walk around’ events filled with booths or stations where chefs and mixologists offer food and beverages. Why not experience it from the other side of the table?
Among the sea of chefs at the event, I was the only person whose primary profession was that of a cookbook author. That meant that I had to finesse things a little. My friend Danielle Chang of LuckyRice said that each participating chef (ahem, that included me) had to do 1,000 tastings. Tastings are not huge portions but you have to make sure that things can be plated up, look nice, and taste good. I didn’t have a professional kitchen crew so I relied on some of my best friends (THX Michelle Esperanza, Alec Mitchell and Victor Fong!) and my husband, Rory. I briefed them before the event and when we were on the ground. Everyone had a job and was ready to pitch in elsewhere.
You also have to have a team that works fast and are people oriented. I spent about a week thinking of a gameplan and for the most part, things went swimmingly well. But there were some frightening, good for reality-TV-show moments too. Here’s a [hopefully] entertaining recap:
Keep It Simple
I wasn’t about to deep-fry on the spot for 1,000 people. The idea of handling hot oil was going to be left to my friends, like Diep Tran of Good Girl Dinette and Bryant Ng of The Spice Table. Kris Yenbamroong of Night+Market was grilling stuff too. That was not for me.
I was destined to assemble my dishes on the spot. My aim was to do as little on-site cooking as possible. So I chose to make a couple of Asian Tofu: (1) silken tofu and edamame soup garnished with togarashi chile powder and fresh lemon zest and (2) Sichuan pressed tofu with chile bean sauce. Both can be served at room temperature in small 2-ounce containers that people can down as shooters or spoon. Walk around food events usually mean that people can only eat with one hand because they’re holding a drink in the other as they literally walk around.
Bus Tubs are Your Friends
These are the workhorses of restaurant kitchens because you can haul a bunch of heavy stuff in them and they’re nicely weighted. I have about half a dozen around the house for storage but I got a few more at Smart and Final for about $6 each. For LuckyRice, I packed my bus tubs with equipment and ingredients that I rely on – what would make cooking and prepping for 1,000 people. Bus tubs are terrific for holding large amounts of ice so you can keep food cold.
And for emergency equipment needs, I noted where all the restaurant supply places were located near where we were staying.
Pack Your Trusty Equipment and Ingredients
We were renting a house in Los Angeles and I didn’t know what the kitchen was like. Needless to say, it was minimally stocked with the cheapest Ikea equipment. I brought essentials like these:
- Freshly sharpened knives
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Giant colanders and mixing bowls
- Big pots and pans – because rentals usually have small and flimsy cooking equipment
- Large storage containers for transporting food ("Cambros")
- Lots of ziplocs, plastic wrap, foil, food service gloves and parchment
- Blender – because I needed it for the soup
If you have your favorite equipment, you're less likely to trip up under pressure -- like cutting 5/8-inch cubes of tofu.
Be Ready to Improvise
My husband complimented me on how well organized I was with packing things into the car (e.g., decor and boxes of Asian Tofu were stashed in the furthest part of the trunk so we didn’t need to fuss with them until the day of the event). I had done practice rounds on the food to see how much advance prep work could be done, and that I’d be on top of my game. But wouldn’t you know it, there were glitches.
Soup spoilage: I had this clever idea of using Fiji water for the soup and then refilling the water bottles with the edamame soup so that it would be easy to pour at the event. The event was Saturday night and I made the soup on Friday. After I’d poured it into the water bottles, the soup felt just slightly warm. We were in a rush to go out to dinner so I capped it and stuck all 7 bottles in the fridge.
Fermentation had happened. The soup smelled off. I tasted it, shook my husband awake from his nap, made him taste the soup. It was vaguely tart. The soup had spoiled – probably due to me capping the bottles before it had fully cooled. [Dear friends: take note of my mistake and do not repeat it!] Danielle had emailed the night before asking all chefs to make a little extra because the event had sold out of all 1,000 tickets; I couldn’t be short on my tastings.
“Put some clothes on and run to the market for more edamame,” I told Rory. I luckily had extra rice and dashi leftover from the previous day. We were supposed to be at the event location at 4 p.m. and Victor, Alec and Michelle were waiting for us. Let’s just say that for 1 1/2 hours, I was cooking like a whirling dervish. My husband cleaned up after me as I went along. I made 2 gallons of the soup in record time and we arrived at 4:45 p.m. , hearts racing.
No carts for unloading: Luckily, our friends were there to help us unload. There were no carts to help us so we hand-carried all the food, equipment, and decor to my station. By the time we finished, we were dripping with sweat. Last Saturday was the beginning of a heat wave that hit Los Angeles this week. We got our workouts.
Pouring soup neatly is not so easy: I’d tested it out at home with OXO measuring cups, which my friend and stylist Karen Shinto uses on photo shoots. At LuckyRice, the soup splashed onto our serving trays (my beat-up baking sheets lined with unbleached parchment) as it fell into the tasting cups. Victor was blotting the trays clean while pouring. Alec only partially filled his measuring cup and had a better go with things because the soup’s weight was making pouring tough.
We were next to the Bombay Sapphire gin booth. The bartender had borrowed some sugar from me so I looked around at his equipment and spied some small flexible cups that turned out to be perfect for portioning the soup without splashing.
Health inspectors: My plan was to let guests retrieve their own tastings but not long after the event started, a county health inspector arrived. Did we have a sneeze guard? What if someone sneezed on the food? What would we do? I’d brought 1,000 food service gloves but no sneeze guard. Alas, he was doing his job and told us that we had to serve each person their tasting and pull everything back from the edge of the table, where things had looked much more inviting.
The new order wasn’t elegant, so Alec devised a nifty workaround: he walked into the crowd with trays of our tastings and served them himself. Direct marketing was the result of the health inspector’s visit. It worked for getting food into people's hands!
New and Old Friends
Despite the minor challenges, the Andrea Nguyen/Asian Tofu booth was a hit. People came back for seconds, and a number of folks said that our food was among the best that night. Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes stopped by for some soup and complimented me. One of the best compliments was getting a visit from Susan Feniger, who gave me my first and only restaurant cooking job in 1993. She was at LuckyRice to represent her restaurant, Street. Susan is an amazing woman and I should have gone to say hello to her, not the other way around! Coincidentally, we were the only stations serving tofu at the night market!
I also got to see my chef friends Bryant, Diep, Kris, and Mohan Ismail of RockSugar. It was great camaraderie as we brought food to one another’s stations. You’re basically trapped at your station once the event starts.
There were also VWK visitors who learned about LuckyRice and came to say “Hi.” I love meeting people in person! Christina C., the winner of the VIP tickets, brought her mom. There were people who stopped by to ask me technical tofu questions too. I had an ingredient display to help answer questions.
We finished packing up around 11 p.m. and attended an after party over at Chef Sang Yoon’s place; Sang was the lead organizing chef of the LA LuckyRice event. A gin and tonic followed by a Singha beer on ice were exactly what I needed. It was a fabulously successful evening. Would I do it again? Sure, no sweat next time.
Ever done a big-scale food event? Share your experience or tips.