This was written by Meesteress Annetje VanWoerden in response to requests the Gazette has received for an article on how to cook a feast. The Gazette thanks her for writing the article.
So. You have decided that you want to create an SCA feast by offering to be a head cook.
Welcome. We are a small, but happy, crew that delights in newcomers, and we are more than willing to share our kitchens, floor space, and techniques with you.
Pull up a chair, cozy up, here’s your beer.
To begin, you should know that it’s hard work, but some of the most rewarding work I have ever been a part of. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a feast hall full of happy diners who have eaten all that you have prepared and knowing that you met your expectations and your budget!
The first thing I highly recommend is that you go into and learn in other people’s kitchens. This is the best way to get an idea of the similarities and differences between feast cooking and a modern party planning kitchen. You’ll learn how to deal with volunteer help with different abilities, site restrictions, and maintaining the menu and serve time no matter what you are exposed to. The experienced head cook will duck and parry and will continue until all the food is served and eaten.
To start, you must know the group you will cook for. Are there written rules to follow? Is this a themed event? What type of budget are they aiming for? What type of food are they looking for?
Once these basic answers are given, you will need to determine your menu . What time, place, and budget will you be working with? Who is in charge of setup, who is in charge of clean-up? I highly suggest that your kitchen staff should NOT be the cleanup crew. You will be exhausted.
First and foremost: Go with the autocrat to see the site. Turn on everything. Make sure the ovens heat up. Bring a thermometer to test them. Make sure that the sinks really drain.(Really. Experience here.) Tailor your menu to the equipment you have available. Plan ahead if you will need to outsource other equipment. Be sure you know exactly what equipment is available to you — what the site will let you use, what local group has, what you have. Add oven thermometers to your kit … ovens that work on visit day don’t always work as well on cook day.
Second: Build a menu of things you know will be both tasty and easy to execute. Recruit your friends for taste testing and kitchen help! Go over your menu often until you can do it in your sleep. Then practice some more.
Third: Use in season or easily obtained items in your first feast. Your fabulous idea of serving quail and asparagus in the middle of winter will break your budget. It can be done, but it requires a great deal of preparation, and it is better to be shelved until you have some experience under your belt.
Fourth: Keep the communication open. This can make or break your kitchen. Even the smallest glitch in this can cause your kitchen to grind to a halt. This is probably the most important item other than the food itself. Stress can increase the anxiety levels of your staff, and lack of interpersonal communications can break down the efficiency of your kitchen. Keep the flow by having a well located chore list for people to follow (Erasable white boards are awesome here). If it is a large event, designate crew chiefs to be available to answer questions from volunteers if you are not available. Have separate food, drinks, and things for your staff to make their volunteer experience nicer.
Fifth: If you have an event where the start time is uncertain (i.e., Court is running late), a cold first course can be a lifesaver. You can get it prepared well ahead and let it sit in the refrigerator, and it’s ready to go as soon as your diners are seated. Keep an eye on the timing. If the event is causing a lag, adjust the kitchen to that lag. Monitor food handling, food storage, and oven temps with appropriate modern techniques and practices. Cold food is cold, warm food is warm, and nothing stays out at room temperature unless it is safe to be so.
Sixth: Send the food out. Keep to your schedule. Make it pretty if you can. But overall, make it go out. It will be hectic and amazingly hard for about a hour, but know that with time and experience, this hour gets easier and easier to work. Fill bowls, cut things, slice and plate, and pass it to your servers. Push through and send out everything from your kitchen until it’s all gone.
Seventh: It’s done. Turn off the burners. Sit your staff down. Eat your food. Put your feet up. Toast your volunteers. Rest until you need to gather up your gear for the night. Socialize with attendees if you still feel able to. Thank the autocrat for their hard work.
Extras, as time and more experience allow: Provide music in your kitchen, encourage turnover breaks if you get a lot of volunteers, send people away from the kitchens to see the event if you have the time. Have someone in the hall just to monitor course flow, and adjust timing as necessary. Having a musician friend who can fill in a food course serving gap is a great friend to have.
For yourself in general: Invest in really good arch-supported shoes or boots. Have your own food and drink available. Designate someone not on the kitchen staff to monitor your food and drink intake. Take bathroom and hall monitoring breaks. Wander the hall during service to see how the food is being received. Being able to see your dream of a medieval feast completed as you imagined it is probably one of the greatest joys of a cook. I highly recommend it and would be very happy to help you in experiencing it for yourself.