Johan cooks dinner, part 2: So, how DOES one create a ten course gourmet dinner?

Truth be told, I had no friggin’ idea how to go about it and my research into the subject didn’t turn up much, so with me being rather oblivious as to how others would go about doing it, I figured that I’d just have to lay down my own conventions for how *I* would go about doing it. These conventions have been revised and updated over the past years and now stand as a few basic guidelines to add some structure to the complicated mess that is planning, preparing, executing and consuming a large tasting menu.

It goes to reason that some of the first things to do when planning a menu is to pick some sort of over-all theme, find some dishes that match the theme, work out a natural progression of the dishes and then match some wines with the various dishes (or beer, drinks, etc if you’re feeling particularly adventurous). This, in itself, can be enough of a hassle. Making dishes balance out and making sure that the flavors of one dish doesn’t interfere or overpower the next can be hard enough, not to mention that entire books have been devoted to the subject of matching wine and food.. But of course, I was never one to take the easy route, and I am quite the masochistic bastard, so in addition to these standard guidelines, I’ve set up a few for my own that I adhere to when creating menus for Tina and I:

For starters, I want each dish to have a specific meaning, story or symbolic reference. Because Tina and our friendship is two of the most important things to me in this world and because these dinners is one of those very special things we have together, I want this to be reflected in the dishes either in a symbolic manner – such as serving wild boar in a reference to our mutual love for the Asterix cartoons or by covering a dessert dish in gold dust to make it befitting for a princess which just so happens to be one of my nick names for Tina – or just by paying attention and noting things Tina express an interest in food-wise and taylor some dish according to that.

Secondly, on a somewhat compulsive neurotic note, I somehow have to mix Tina’s favorite ingredients of chili and lime into at least one of the dishes.

Thirdly, I have to challenge Tina somehow by making her eat something she wouldn’t normally think of eating such as, say, liver or goat’s cheese. She’s on record for saying that she’ll try anything, as long as I’ve cooked it, and I’m keeping her up to it.

Furthermore, several dishes need to be of an experimental, crazy and/or borderline weird nature and preferably not tested beforehand. This is one of the most challenging rules, but also one of the more fun ones which have led to such interesting combinations as a smoked Scotch Whisky/Ghost Chili marinade, smoked salmon with homemade cheese and cucumber/Chardonnay Sorbet and even a white chocolate, licorice, lemon mash-up topped with wild strawberries, balsamic vinegar reduction and cracked black pepper(!)

Also, with both of us being such special people and sharing a passion for high quality goods and slightly bombastic, over the top ingredients, dishes can only be prepared from the best ingredients and a few high-end luxury foods should ALWAYS be included.. Even if they have to be obtained through custom import. This naturally raises the price tag of such an experience to a point where most people would probably get a little iffy.. But, y’know, there’s no putting a price tag on our friendship, we don’t ever go out to eat, live simple little lives without usually blowing huge amounts of money on fun and games.. So who gives a shit? You only live once!

Last but not least, the final rule: Tina can’t know anything about what’s going on or going to happen beforehand. She simply has to dress up on the date, sit down at the table and trust me to walk and talk her through the menu, leaving her stuffed and happy and delightfully intoxicated. This, believe it or not, is probably the hardest rule to observe partially because Tina is by nature a very, very, very curious individual when it comes to surprises prepared for her and partially because it’s in our nature to share everything.. So walking around keeping secrets from her just feels plain weird coupled with the fact that we’re dealing with a subject that’s my great passion and one that interests her as well, so sharing ideas and plans with her just seems like the natural thing to do.. But it’s a big no-no!

So really, that’s what I have to work with.. A few basic guidelines and shitload of rules and restrictions.. But how, then, do I actually work something out based on this? Well, I generally have about six months in which to prepare a menu, and I generally spent about that much time doing it, literally. Which honestly means that I usually get up on the morning after our last dinner after way too little sleep with a tummy still full of last night’s cookery and a head swimming with a considerable hangover, but also with ideas. I know how friggin’ weird that must sound, but the whole process of executing, eating and explaining the thoughts behind a big dinner apparently works as a catalyst on my thought process, so I’ll usually end up spending the morning hunched over my laptop, making a few notes and checking a few sites for ideas and inspiration.. Nothing too tangible usually comes from this process, but it’s usually where some of the ideas for next time start to take shape (today, by the way, is no exception).

Usually the first thing that I come up with – within a few days to a few weeks, depends, is an overall theme. This might be a country, a style, a specific challenge to myself. a region or any common denominator. Past themes have included: a specific challenge (serving a five course tasting menu in the comfort of Tina’s old kitchen consisting of two small burners and a microwave/combination oven), a style (cook/dress to impress) and a country (France).

Next, there’s the matter of coming up with a number of dishes to fit within the chosen theme. The number of dishes have ranged from 5 – 10 because I generally prefer to have a lot of smaller dishes because it makes for a more entertaining and stimulating experience. Generally, for a six hour dining experience, I’ll go with three different bottles of wine and a single drink or shot because that’s generally what the two of us can manage without things getting too silly afterwards. The obvious choices are a sparkling white, a white and a powerful red, usually served in that order and the intensity and order of the dishes aligned to match: e.g. fish or shellfish followed by vegetable, egg or light meat based dishes followed by heavier meat based dishes or stews chased by sweet dishes and/or dessert.

Usually the process of creating the individual dishes start by coming up with a key ingredient, then thinking of an interesting way to prepare it or some likely (or unlikely) sides to pair it with. Inspiration can come from just about anywhere: some ideas are my own and seem to pop up out of nowhere. Many come from conversations with Tina during which she’ll mention things, preparations or combinations she either finds divine or interesting or would simply love to try – it’s then just a matter of putting my own spin on those ideas (there’s the added benefit here that girls adore when you listen to them, pay attention and remember what they say). As far as combinations and presentation go, I now and then also look quite a lot to the world’s premier food porn website, Tastespotting.com – I never go and use their recipes because I flat out refuse to follow such things and I do want to make the dishes my own, but there’s a lot of great inspiration (and pretty pictures) to be gathered from that site. When it comes to preparation and technique, my absolute heroes and great sources of inspiration are Heston Blumenthal and Alton Brown because they both show an unlimited dedication to understanding the nature, history and compositions of the products they cook with as well the process through which they cook it.. But I don’t shy away from also taking inspiration from the likes of the Danish brother’s Price, Gordon Ramsay (would you believe, he actually cooks at times!) and Jamie Oliver.

The process of coming up with dishes (and wines to match) can easily last a month or two (hey, I have real life stuff to worry about on the side). Once I know what I want to do, my research begins as to how best to do it. Since I don’t bother with the whole recipe thing, these days my research is mostly into cooking methods, the nature of my desired ingredients and what not. Where others may spend days finding the perfect recipe for roast chicken, I sorta know by heart what flavor combinations I want and how to achieve them, so rather I spend days researching preparation methods and roasting methods in an effort to figure out which procedure achieves the best result in terms of flavor texture and overall desired characteristics.. Yes, I’m a geek.

Once I’ve satisfied my neurotic urge to know as much about the process as possible and feel that I can confidently pull it off with a convincing result, I usually have about a month left on my schedule to solve a surprisingly complicated logistic problem – actually getting a hold of all the ingredients and remedies I need for the project. Some of it is straight forward, I’ll go have a talk with my wine guy, explain the situation, my budget and the characteristics of the wines I want. Additionally, as far as regular ingredients go, I’ll keep a look out on prices at local trusted stores for other ingredients that I need and pick them up along the way as needed. Other parts of the ingredient procurement process isn’t so simple. I’ve had to solve questions such as where to get fresh Caviar and how to properly store it, I’ve had to deal with custom import of various luxury food items, I’ve searched high and low for truffles, saffron and God knows what.. I’ve even had things flown in over night. It’s been challenging, it’s been fun, it’s been stressful. And all of this I’ve had to do with Tina prancing around me either physically, or in spirit by doing what we usually do which is check up on one another on a daily basis, and having a pretty good idea about what the other is doing at any given time.. It’s not always easy getting things by her little nose and there’s been a fair amount of covering up, white lies, dodging around and explaining away going on (No, sweetie, I can’t play today.. Uhh.. For reasons I can’t tell you!)

By the time I’ve gotten a hold of anything but the last minute fresh ingredients and the two to four items I always forget, (you’d be absolutely shocked by how many ingredients are needed and in what quantities to create ten dishes for two people) I usually have about a week left of the six month period in which to actually cook up all the dishes and get them ready for the big day. When it does arrive, I want to be able to enjoy it nearly as much as Tina does – and while I do derive joy from cooking for Tina, that means spending as little time in the kitchen as possible on the day in question.. Coz, well, for starters I don’t want my lovely guest to be left to herself, and secondly, to me the evening is nearly as much about the company and about having fun together as it is about the food.. So everything gets prepped as far as it can possibly go so that on the evening of our great dinner, most of the cooking I have to do involves reheating, timing and plating things.. Depending on the dishes in question and the cooking methods chosen, total cooking time for a gourmet tasting dinner usually amounts to anything from 48 – 96 hours and can be a bit of a drag to be honest, but hey, at least that way you sleep well on the night before the big day, no matter how nervous you may be about the outcome..

That’s sort of the general overview of how you (and by you, I mean I) create a ten course gourmet dinner, stay tuned for part three of the saga in which we follow Johan through the actual process and the complications thereof.

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