Cooking a 14 course dinner, part 1: Proper preparations, or lack thereof!

Note to the picky reader: I jotted this down in about 30 minutes over the course of a day in Microsoft Notepad without spell check, grammar check or anything.. There are errors, there are typos, I’m knackered, I apologize.

It’s been a while since I’ve done any real cooking. And by real cooking I mean, of course, one of my more elaborate meals.. And by more elaborate meals I mean, of course, one of my 10+ course tasting menus designed specifically to confuse and impress and test my abilities and patience.

Looking back at things now, there have probably been a few good reasons why I haven’t been doing any elaborate cooking lately. First and foremost, a 10+ course menu with wine pairings requires, well, a considerable investment. Not only in terms of money, but also in terms of time and effort. Obviously, money is hard to come by when you’re unemployed and living off of the lowest possible unemployment grant.. So while there has been some investment in terms of time and thought into producing new and elaborate dinners, there hasn’t really been much money to invest in the project.

With a new, well-paying job under my belt, this condition naturally changed dramatically. Suddenly I had all the money in the world to invest in the project – this is an overstatement, of course, but let’s just say I wasn’t exactly lacking money to put towards the idea, on the other hand, working 40+ hours a week and trying to maintain a healthy social life, I suddenly, rather ironically found myself short on time to invest in the project. I also found myself a beautiful dinner date short as conflicting schedules made it indeed very difficult for Tina and I to settle on a date where we could actually get together and have a little food and wine.. Sheesh, growing up is so comlicated some times.

After many weeks of plowing through schedules and calendars, we finally settled on a date well into the future and I got my final preparations under way. I’ve already many a time gone into details about the amount of planning and thought that goes into planning a themed dinner, so I’ll spare you the details and rather just mention the conclusion, I came up with which was, literally, very simple:

“While Tina deserves only the best, there comes a time where lobster, king crab, kobe beef and edible gold ceases to impress. Anyone can buy the most expensive ingredients in the world and make something good of it. But maybe it’s time to look at cheaper, local, more common ingredients and try to transform this rather simple base into something tasty, special and impressive. Therein lies the real challenge!”

Based on this rather simple mantra, I came up with a stunningly simple (and very trendy) idea: to use fresh, local, Danish (or Nordic) ingredients to cook simple yet complexely layered, familiar yet innovative, cheap yet fancy tasting experiences. In other words KISALS (Keep It Simple And Local Stupid).. And I managed to come up with something nice and simple.. To the extend that someone like me can possibly keep something Simple! Which is, well, let’s be honest, really not very well..

For instance, I spent months brainstorming ideas, flavor combinations and food pairings. Because, as it turns out, it’s a hell of a lot easier to make Beluga Caviar, King crab and Kobe beef seem impressive and extravagant than it to convicne someone that braised pork ribs can be a luxurious treat. Add to this the fact that I have created in Tina a monster and an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic eater/taster and, well, things just get increasingly difficult. It turns out there really is a downside to spoiling little girls silly.. Who’d have thunk?

After many weeks of soul searching, putting forth ideas, discarding ideas, putting forth new ideas and walking in circles, I finally had a plan: Mix great tasting, yet seemingly unimpressive, ingredients in new ways, mixing in some unusual ingredients, new techniques, a few fancy things and a bit of utter nonsense. The end result was a 14 course behemoth task mixing very unsimple preparations of simple ingredients to produce seemingly simple yet stupendously complex dishes mixing the simple and cheap with the luxurious.. Rock n Roll!

The task I’d laid out for myself was daunting: Having settled on a final menu and consulted my wine guy for wines to go along, I’d now “simply” have to figure out how to actually create the dishes I wanted to present, how I wanted to present them and – on top of that – find the time to cook everything and get it ready.. Not easy with a 40 hour work week and a host of projects actually making demands on my free time as well.. I know we want to create the impression that cooking is the easist thing in the world and that we hobby chefs are professionals and what not.. But let’s be honest here for a second, the task that I put in front of myself was massive AND scary!

I ended up spending what little time I had left over over a course of a few weeks just testing out things and making what little preparations I could along the way. I made purchases, tried off things, discarded ideas, tried new ones, took stock of the situation (and by that I mean making stocK: beef, chicken, pork, pheasant and lobster stock to be precise.. A bit of a time-consuming task, that!), played with some molecular gastronomy ideas and tools, and just generally got my bearings.

As for the final week before Tina and I were to get together for our grand dinner, I made some very elaborate time tables for my free time and spent my evenings creating granités, parafaits, mayos, cheese spreads and other crazy things.. The plan was to even take Friday afternoon off and spend all of Friday and Saturday getting everything ready for dinner to start Saturday at 4:30 PM.. It all was looking rather good, really.. Until we hit Friday  and I was getting ready to leave the office at noon.. At which point, the entire plan just toppled over.. Badly!

The minute I got ready to go, my work phone rang and I picked it up to hear my colleage, Frandsen, pass through a call from someone enquiring about our web shop solution.. “Fuck,” I thought, and put on my business tone of voice and settled into a long conversation about pros and cons of our solution. By the time five minutes had passed and I’d seen my bus drive by the window, Frandsen came barginga as silently as humanly possible into my office, waving his arms and mouthing the words “Dude, I’m so fucking sorry!”, then leaving before I could throw something at him. I, on the other hand, talked on for another ten minutes before finally being able to terminate the conversation and, having missed my opportunity to go home with the early bus, settle down with the others to have lunch. After lunch, I decided that it was time to try to go home again, only an hour or so later than I’d planned. So I headed out the door, walked down the street, caught a bus full of over-joyed 16 year old high school students down to the railway station where I was hoping to be able to find a train to Kolding.. And I did, only the electronic departure boards stated that this particular train (and all others for that matter) was running 30 minutes late, leaving me plenty of time to walk around the railroad station, fuming and ending up even more belated.

I finally made it home about two hours later than expected, grabbed my debit card and went out to get the last few ingredients in a bit of a sprint, I subsequently made it home again and got everything in gear, consulted my schedule and decided to save time by running preparations for about five dishes at once, rather than the planned two to three. So I fired up all burners and the oven, got everything well under way and was actually super amazed by my ability to multitask.. And then my work phone rang! – “Johan,” my boss demanded, “one of our dealers did something to his webstore, it’s all messed up, he’s in a panic, we need your help!” – Ooohkay, I thought, this should be interesting.. And it was! I spent over two hours trying to not ruin my dishes on the stove while putting out fires at work.. Something I wouldn’t recommend anyone try, it’s really rather stressful.

At around 5:30 PM, I was finally able to concentrate on my cooking which was, honestly, a bit later than I had hoped and, as a result, I got to have a lot of fun trying to actually get everything on my rather tightly packed schedule done – not done according to schedule – just, basically done.. With some working into the night (and the wee hours of the morning), I actually managed to get my Friday schedule done and treated myself to a blissful 5 hours of sleep as a treat, before getting up at 7 AM on Saturday morning to pick up where I left.. Oh it was a fun experience.. But, y’know, the things I do for the people I love..

Through a combination of experience, proper planning, artful execution and sheer dumb luck, I somehow managed to get everything wound up wrapped up, ready, packed and sealed before my 3 PM deadline. I even managed to have a shower and watch the stench of two days of non-stop cooking off me before jumping into a suit, packing everything up and shoving it into the car that Jeppe had very kindly provided with about ten minute notice to take me down to Tina’s. (btw, I give the poor guy a lot of flak jokingly, but you gotta hand it to the guy.. Not only letting his girlfriend be treated to a 14 course dinner from another guy, but also actually providing transportation before leaving to go do something else – that’s a thumbs up worthy kind of gesture) We then sped down to her, carried everything needed (you’d have to see the amount of food needed to prepare 14 dishes in order to believe it!) up to her 3rd floor apartment and while Tina got dressed and pretty, I set up shop in the kitchen and got ready to unveil the menu.. What menu, you ask? Well, stay tuned, I shall tell you tomorrow.

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