Friday, November 7, 2014

Gather: Día de los Muertos

Last weekend was the fourth of Miss Chef’s underground dinners, completing the first year of our seasonal events.  There were a few differences from the other dinners.  First, after dissatisfaction with a couple of people she’d had running “front of house,” we decided I would give it a go this time.

Second, when she told me she’d settled on the Saturday right after Halloween, I said, “You do realize that’s the Day of the Dead.”  And she decided to run with it, the first time we’ve had a theme for a dinner.  Having taught Spanish for five years, I thought it would be a fun, adult way to take advantage of Halloween without overdoing it.


I did up our Facebook and Eventbrite pages with bright colors and this vibrant calavera, and for the first time I sent out the announcements without worrying about whether we’d sell enough tickets to break even.

A week before the dinner, Miss Chef and I were getting a bit nervous.  In spite of many people telling us they were coming, we’d only sold four tickets.  She said if she didn’t have at least six diners, she would cancel it—something I hadn’t even considered since the early days of this Underground adventure.

Then, as always, tickets started selling two days beforehand.  When the dust settled, we suddenly had 22 paying guests to feed.  It felt glorious, right until I realized this just upped the challenge level all the way around.

Part of that challenge lay in the fact that for the first time we’d have to provide all the table settings.  So we took a trek up to Ikea, on the far side of town from us.  Since Miss Chef has always capped the dinners at 30 people, we needed 30 place settings.  Sounds straightforward enough, until you consider that she uses different plates for appetizers, soups, several courses and desserts.  Not to mention the various salad forks, dessert forks, soup spoons, coffee spoons, steak knives, water pitchers, coffee cups….

Anyway, an hour or two later, and we had blown almost all our revenue on hardware.

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Oh, and did I mention Miss Chef had bought a truck a few days before?  She’d been wanting to for years, just something small we could use for home-improvement supplies, yard projects and Gather.  When she doesn’t have a kitchen available, she uses our grill, so we needed a way to haul that.  And I can’t complain too hard at the prospect of getting compost or mulch by the truckload, instead of buying those stupid bags from Home Depot.

Anyway, back to Gather.  Our Día de los Muertos event was held at Atherton Market, where I’ve been volunteering and Miss Chef has added to her regular Saturday morning market route.  It was indoors, with plenty of space, and even offered a large sink we could do some washing in.  Our last site didn’t have any hot water available, and the cleanup was just this side of traumatic.  Fancy stoves we don’t need, but hot soapy water is a deal-breaker now.

As soon as Miss Chef had decided to adapt her menu to match the theme, I jumped in with the clever idea of providing blank sugar skulls for our guests to paint.  Lynn, our resident pastry chef, agreed to provide the colored royal icing for the decorations, and it fell to me to make the skulls themselves.  I ordered a mold off the internet and spent an afternoon making them…but then, with our numbers jumping at the last minute, I had to get up early to make a second batch  Saturday morning while Miss Chef was at the markets.


Just two ingredients: sugar and egg whites.  I had no idea how many skulls I’d get out of one 6-cup recipe, so I bought a big ol’ 10-pound bag.  Turns out I only needed about 8 cups total.  Oh well, holiday baking season is just around the corner!

Just a tiny bit of egg white gets the sugar to wet sand consistency, enough to hold its shape when it pops out of the mold.


It was all very easy, once I got the system down.  Of course, the cat had to inspect everything as I was working.


Elbows Paws off the table, Princess!”

The reason I had to get up early for these is that, without a week’s worth of drying time, they had to bake at low temp for four hours to get properly rock hard.


All in all, the whole project went off very well, and I was out of the real cooks’ way right on time.

Although, to be honest, time was in short supply…after a day of prep, we all left late for the market, and weren’t halfway set up when the guests got there.  For my first time as front of house manager, I felt I was doing a terrible job.  Fortunately, most of the guests are also friends, and with a few extra hands, we got everyone settled.

Sadly, I was a little late sharing the story behind the sugar skulls, and some of the guests were too happy sitting down with their first glasses of wine to go play.

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Miss Chef was feeling a little panicky too, but by the time the salad course came out, I had caught my breath and my stride and was able to start taking pictures.

This was before the salad dish, so not my photo—this is posole soup, which came with a little history, thanks to Miss Chef’s having taught the Latin Cuisine course a few years ago.  This traditional soup was eaten by the ancient Aztecs, as a side benefit of all the meat available after human sacrifices.  When the Catholic priests hit the scene, they insisted on substituting pork for human flesh, as it’s apparently the closest in flavor.  Yum?

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Next dish—scallops!

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22 plates, including one vegan and a gluten-free vegetarian, and no heat lamps!  The scallops were paired with a butternut squash purée and emperor’s rice.  Here’s a picture I stole from one of our guest’s Facebook posts, because I didn’t get one of the finished product.

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The beef course was coffee-molasses glazed flank steak with a black bean tamale, cilantro gremolata and crispy fried pepper bits.  The upright garnish is popcorn shoots.

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I would say this was the general favorite, as the diners sucked this down so fast I barely had time to refill water glasses before it was time to start clearing the empty plates.

Regardless of how tired our feet get or how much our backs may hurt, the guests always seem to have a great time.

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Lynn’s dessert was a cream puff with pumpkin and goat cheese mousse, a “swoosh” of chocolate and toasted pecan brittle.

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As if this weren’t enough, we had a special guest chef helping out, and he happens to be a self-described Chocolate Guy—he does some work with Callebaut chocolates.  So he put together an after-dinner treat that was so good, most of the guests actually found enough room after six courses to actually eat some of it.

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I was too busy clearing plates, filling water or trying to catch up with dirty dishes to hear what all of these were.  Actually, our Chocolate Guy had spent a good portion of the night washing dishes, which saved my bacon when we needed more dessert forks.  Still, gathering up all the dirty pots and pans, leftover food, remaining supplies, decorations and general trash was a daunting prospect.  By the end, it’s possible that some of our crew may have become just a little hysterical.  (Warning: loud volume, mildly improper language)

Today, almost a week later, we’ve just cleared the last of the clean dishes out of the living room, storing them away in the shed until next time.  Already the sore feet and backs are just a fuzzy memory, and for some crazy reason we’re actually looking forward to the next event in January.

Because when you live with a chef, crazy is catching.


  1. Ouf, I'm tired just reading about your event....I don't know how you get the energy to put up such a meal and deal with the stress....Bravo to both of you!

  2. Me either...I just got back from helping with another benefit dinner tonight, doing pretty much the same thing! At least this time there were about a dozen other people helping serve, though.

  3. Wow, dinner for 30! That would totally intimidate and overwhelm me! But you guys are professionals. Well done, you. Love the sugar skulls. I would have been painting and enjoying the wine.

    1. Well, I'm not a professional so much as the rest of the gang! You're welcome to come out and join us anytime. January might be the perfect month to take a break from winter, eh?

  4. Did Miss Chef plate all the courses by herself? If so, bravo to her - and also to you for serving, clearing, etc. all by yourself!


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