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10 Greatest Cooking Disasters

I read this on another food blog and loved the idea!  Lord knows in my well-over-50-years of cooking, I’ve had a disaster or ten.  Biggest problem is actually remembering them.  I tend to forget disasters.  Hell – I tend to forget, period.  I guess it’s what keeps me in my normal jovial mood.  Blissfully ignorant.  That’s me.

On the other hand, I really do tend to brush aside screw-ups and classify them in the oh-well category. Life is too short to dwell on stuff, ya know?!?

I think this shall be a work in progress. Things will be listed as I think of them and their order doesn’t give precedence over another – it’s merely when I thought of it.

Happy reading…

10)  Our First Thanksgiving – my family:

I’m not sure this counts as a cooking disaster, but it truly shows how totally neurotic I can get.  Picture the Day Before Thanksgiving, 1995.  It was our first Thanksgiving together, and the first major holiday we were hosting for my entire family.

With six kids in the family and their assorted spouses and kids, plus my parents, it had been years since we all actually sat around a table for a holiday.  We just outgrew it.  Regardless of whether it was at my parents’ house or one of the siblings, dinner was a buffet and you grabbed whatever seat or floor space there was.  If you had a good seat, you stayed there – because the moment you got up, another sat down.

I decided that for our first family holiday, we would do a sit-down dinner for everyone.  We were also having a couple of friends join us, plus my sister-in-law’s mother, brother, and his wife.  Maybe 22 people.

The simple fact that our dining room table sat 8 shoulder-to-shoulder didn’t faze me in the least.  Sit-down dinner.  I had decreed.

I had six-foot folding tables lined up from the far end of the dining room through the dining room and through the archway into the living room.  The table had to be way up against one end of the arch so people could squeeze (and I do mean squeeze) from one room to the other.  Once people were seated, there would be no movement whatsoever.  People sitting at the archway would be sitting right up next to the wall.  They could lean forward and look around, but they were crammed up against that wall.

I set the table.  20 feet of matching tablecloth and napkins.  China plates, silver and glassware, centerpieces, candles.  It was pretty spectacular.  The only real problem was there was no place to put people before or after dinner, and barely any where to put them during.  I had literally taken over all of the dining room and half of the living room.

I moved things, I rearranged things.  I was good in math.  I knew that a finite space would hold a finite amount.  I didn’t care.  I was determined.

Victor was great (and smart!)  He didn’t say a word.  He just watched as I moved things, changed things, rearranged things, redid things and redid them, again – and again.

Finally, I stood in the doorway and just stared.  My vision shattered in front of my eyes.

I calmly walked back in, took everything apart, and set up a buffet in the dining room.  Or, at least that’s my memory of it.  I’m sure Victor has a much more colorful version, but I’m the one who is writing this.

What we did have was a great dinner with the entire family – and they grabbed whatever seats or floor was available and ate and drank and ate and drank some more.

And a wonderful time was had by all.

9) Our First Thanksgiving with Victor’s family

I had only met Victor’s family a couple of times.  Once when I had stolen him from them and moved him to California, and once when we flew back for his cousin’s wedding.  Phone calls, letters, cards, and emails, but not a lot of face-time.  That was about to change.  We were heading back to Pennsylvania and his brother’s house for Thanksgiving!

The family wanted me to feel welcome and was asking Victor what I liked, what could or should they do… Victor just said don’t worry.  Throw him in the kitchen and he’ll be fine.

On Thanksgiving Day, that’s where they threw me.  I was put in charge of Turkey and Gravy.  Perfect.  Two things I could do blindfolded, standing on one leg, with an arm tied behind my back.

Tim can cook turkey and make gravy.

But…  Tim was going to make sure this was a PERFECT turkey and gravy.  I grabbed Marie’s thermometer.  I had actually never used a meat thermometer before.  There are a dozen ways of telling whether a bird is done, and I know them all.  I’ve cooked many a turkey in my time.  But I was not leaving anything to chance this time.  Perfect Turkey.  Thermometer.

Into the fattest part of the thigh it went, and into the oven went it all.  I basted, I spun it around, I babied that bird, and when it hit temperature, i took it right out of the oven.  The timing was perfect.  I didn’t pay attention to anything I had learned or known in the past.  The thermometer was God and that was that.

Everything was just about ready and I went to carve the bird.  First slice in and I had a raw bird.  I had an OMG IT’S NOT COOKED raw bird with Victor’s family starting to make those “When’s dinner ready?” noises.  Victor’s mom had been watching all of this and just told everyone to shut up and get out of the kitchen.  She played interference with the family while I scrambled in the kitchen.  (I do love that woman!)

I came as close to panic as I ever want to come in my life.  My insides were churning and I was ready to throw up.  I was trying to look calm – and I pretty much succeeded – but I was anything but calm inside.  I turned the oven up to 500 degrees, split the breast from the legs and thighs, and back into the oven it went.  In 25 minutes, we had the most tender and juicy bird imaginable.  Perfectly cooked, with excellent gravy.

I found out later that evening that Marie’s thermometer was 15 degrees off.  The next day we braved the crowds and bought her a new one.

Thanksgiving.  My favorite holiday.  I’m getting better about it.

8)  Working at the Westin Indianapolis

I’ll count this even though I didn’t do the cooking… Once upon a time, I opened hotels.  All over the USofA.  I was working for Westin and it was the day before our official opening.  The hotel was hosting a dinner for the Governor and all sorts of Indiana dignitaries.  40 people.  Tiny by any hotel standard, but it was the day before we opened, we had virtually no staff on the payroll, yet, and an Executive Chef who was definitely more talk than cook.

Westin had their standard “crosshatch” china pattern for banquets, and I had used it at the San Francisco property I opened.  However, somewhere between SF and Indy, they went to a new manufacturer.  I don’t remember if it was Shenango China to Homer Laughlin or the other way around, but the two chinas were decidedly different.  We received china for I dunno, four thousand or so – mixed from both companies.

I had been bitching about it for almost a month to no avail.  No one believed that they could actually be as different as I was saying, that the new china wouldn’t “nest” when stacked, that the color was noticeably different, that the metal plate covers didn’t properly fit.  I brought samples into the F&B Director,  showed everyone the differences.  It wasn’t deemed to be a problem.  I kept up my protests, but was basically being told to shut up.  It’s not a problem.  It’s not an issue.

The day before we are to open the hotel, with banquet tables set for the Governor and dignitaries, all of a sudden it was “The China doesn’t match!  What are we going to do?!?”  It was a HUGE problem and a HUGE issue.  I said “Get them all drunk and they won’t notice it.”  It was too late TO do anything about it.

The dinner started off late – not a good sign – and just kept getting further behind.  It was a 4 or 5 course dinner and it was taking forever to get from one course to the next.  I do not know what the chef was doing, but it sure as hell wasn’t cooking.  The intermetzzo had been cleared and we were waiting – and waiting – and waiting for the entree to come up.  Easily 30 minutes had passed since the last course had been cleared.  FINALLY the food is on site and we plate up.  The food is meticulously put on the plates.  Every one a showpiece.  Gastronomic art.

The plate covers don’t quite fit, the stacks are a bit wobbly, so I’m only doing three high instead of the customary five in the warmer that I’m going to use to transport them the 100 feet from the kitchen hallway to the banquet room.

Now remember.  Everything is late, everyone is ansy.  They want their food N-O-W.

I pull the cart across the hall, swing it around, and the plates-that-will-not-nest go flying inside the warmer.  Literally flying.  You could hear the crashing for miles.  I didn’t stop.  I pulled the cart back to the hallway and the dumbfounded kitchen staff.  There was no broken china – just a huge mess as I opened the door to the warmer.  We frantically replated the food and in less than 10 minutes, had it served.  Looking back, had there been shards of glass in the food, they probably would have just pulled out the big pieces and kept going.

What a night.

I eventually “sold” all of the old-style (and definitely better) china to another hotel so we only had the one style.  I called Carter-Hoffman – the makers of our 25 plate warmers – and they fabricated a piece to fit into the warmers to force the plates into the center – and keep from falling out.  They retrofitted all 25 of my warmers for free – and then offered it to the other hotels as a hundred dollar upgrade.  We got new plate covers that actually fit the plates, and life was beautiful.

Well… not really beautiful.  I decided I had had enough of hotels.  I was supposed to head to Orlando and open up the Walt Disney World Swan in a couple of months, but I kept fighting with the Executive Chef.  To say we didn’t really care for one another is an understatement.  After one particularly ugly episode, I quit, vowing I would never work in another hotel as long as I lived.  That was 28 years ago.

I never worked in another hotel.

7) Mike and Debbie’s Wedding Cake

1985.  Back home in San Francisco and working for the SF Convention Facilities Management folks at Moscone Center and Civic Auditorium.  My older brother is getting married.  It’s about time.

Mike is Chief Engineer of the landmark Bank of America Building and they decide to hold the reception there. Fancy.

Debbie asks me if I’ll make their cake.  Of course I say yes – even though I have no oven or place to bake it.  So… over to Mom and Pop’s for a week of hell.

When making a wedding cake, the first rule is the tiers are  a graduated 4″ difference in size, so a 4-tiered cake will be 6″ top, 10″ layer, 14″ layer, and 18″ layer.  Very basic, simple, easy to do.  Naturally, my largest pan was 16″.  I went for it, anyway.

Now…  I’m making this in my mother’s kitchen.  She may have been able to produce three meals a day for 8 people in that cramped and outdated space, but I’m used to REAL kitchens with stainless steel counters and someone to come by and clean up the mess on the floor.  Not to mention I had to be able to get in there when she wasn’t in there, and have my messes completely cleaned up daily.  No leaving anything astray.  It was a challenge.

Debbie’s favorite color is purple, so I decide on a lavender cake with deep purple roses.  I have to mass-produce a bazillion flowers, as well.  I sat at their dining room table for days making those flowers.  Thank the stars Debbie had given me her KitchenAid mixer or I’d probably still be in there!

I had to bake 8 layers of cake.  6 white and 2 carrot.  One layer at a time in Mom’s oven.  From scratch.  No mixes for this boy.  Lemon filling.  Cream cheese filling.  Royal icing, white icing.  Matching shades of purple…  What was I thinking?!?

The first layers come out – the 16″ – and they’re a bit lopsided.  Mom’s oven isn’t the greatest thing in the world – so I trimmed where necessary and started building.  Next layers came out perfect – all the way to the 6″.  I’m building it layer-by-layer and keep noticing that the bottom layer is thinner than the other three.  I pay it no heed.  I have cakes to decorate.

When it is finally finished, I am horrified.  There’s a beautiful three-tiered cake atop a ridiculously small bottom tier.  In fact, horrified doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. The 16″ base would have been bad enough, but it was so much thinner than the other three that it looked as if it should be on another cake somewhere else.  Now… if I had done the same thing today, I’d put out a beautiful three-tiered cake and have the 4th tier in the back room for serving.  But that wasn’t my scrambled thought process then.

The catering folks did a great job in masking it by circling it in fresh greens and flowers and visually expanding the base.  All I could see was a totally humiliating cake.

I got really, really drunk.

6)  Christmas at Tom and Joanna’s

I was cooking pork tenderloins in their kitchen on their Viking range. It’s a way-cool stove!!!

I have the flame blasting underneath, flames shooting out of the pan as I caramelize these little suckers… Smoke filling the room (Tom had turned the exhaust fan on low…) I’m in my glory. It’s like my former exhibition-cooking days. Life is good.  I’m having fun.

Then the smoke alarm goes off.  Happens, ya know???

No big deal.  Except…

It seems THEIR smoke alarm is hard-wired to the fire department. There’s an alarm going off out front blaring “Fire!  Fire! Evacuate! Evacuate!” The sirens are screaming down the street, the neighbors are gathering out front. (Remember, this is Christmas Day and it’s SNOWING outside…)

We try calling the Fire Department to explain what happened, but they HAVE to respond.  Poor guys.

The firemen were great. Gave ’em cookies or something… I was doubly mortified because my father was a fireman…

And those tenderloins were DELICIOUS!!! <g>

5) The Italian Rum Cake

A few days ago Victor came across a recipe for an Italian Rum Cake. It’s a four-layer sponge cake laced with rum and filled with chocolate pastry cream, vanilla pastry cream, and whipped cream. They are rich, decadent, and slightly time-consuming to make. I decided it would be the perfect Christmas Eve dessert!

We have a dozen baking and candy-making projects going on, the kitchen doesn’t have a single horizontal place where a cookie tray, cooling rack, or cookie bin isn’t covering. Perfect time to start a new recipe.

Now… I’ve done a bit of baking in my life and the cake immediately seemed wrong. It started off wrong and just continued. My instinct was to throw it out and start over, but a couple of weeks ago I had baked a loaf of bread where the instructions actually stated not to follow your instinct – follow the recipe. With that in the back of my mind, I proceeded.

I should have listened to the first thought.

It went into the oven. It came out of the oven. It went into the trash. It was horrible.

So… I did what any other pig-headed baker would do. At 9pm I started my favorite genoise. A Julia Child recipe that has never failed me.

It came out absolutely perfect.

We have to travel on Christmas Eve so I can’t assemble the cake until we arrive. 2 pastry creams, rum syrup, 2 cakes, cake plate, pastry bags and tips, chopped almonds, offset spatula, heavy cream… all the things I’ll need – plus all the other stuff we made. Oy.

4) The Flying Tart

Ever use a tart pan with a ring and removable bottom? Of course you have, and so have I. Many hundreds of times. And, of course, you’ve learned that you always put them on a cookie sheet or use two hands when taking them out of the oven.

It seems I forgot that.

I had a lovely peach tart in the oven and it was time to take it out. I reached in with one hand and pulled it out, and as I got it off the rack and just ready to grab the other side, my hand went up through the bottom and the 400° ring went down my arm – burning the hell out of it. When ones arm is starting to sear, instinct takes over – and instinct is to get the burning object off the arm in the most expedient way possible.

In this particular instance, it was to throw it off. Sadly, there was a peach tart in the way, so the peach tart had to go flying, also.

Yes. I threw a peach tart up in the air. And it made a really big mess when it came down. I scared the hell out of the dog. I turned the air blue with language a stevedore would be embarrassed to use.

I was not amused.

Victor came running into the kitchen to see what happened and immediately started laughing when he saw what I had accomplished. Did I mention I was not amused?

The more I fumed the more he laughed, until I could stand it no more. I started laughing, as well.

We went out for ice cream.

 

To Be Continued as I think of them…

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2 Comments

  • avatar image
    Anthony
    June 16, 2009

    Hey Tim~ Where's 5-1????????? LOL!

  • avatar image
    Tim
    June 16, 2009

    I haven't thought of them, yet... :)

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