Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner – post mortem (post partum?)

Last Monday heralded probably the most momentous event of my short food blogging career. If you could call eating food and ranting about it a career. Some people do.

I was part of a crack team of food bloggers who took over the kitchen of Miss Jackson cafe, to cook for an audience of 45 paying guests. I guess the aim was to experience what chefs go through in running a busy kitchen every day. Flipping the coin, if you will.

Taking the lead from the Sydney Food Blogger’s Dinner, Penny had approached the kind folk at Miss Jackson to see if they’d be interested in hosting the same sort of event. They said yes, and the roller-coaster ride began!

Initially I was going to be responsible for designing the pre-dessert, which felt like a manageable and fun challenge. After another blogger was forced to pull out, I eventually ponied up and agreed to take on main course. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid, right?

Thus began my great porcine experiments of 2010. I embarked on a heavily pork-laden diet about a month, which surprisingly didn’t result in massive weight gain. During this month, I would learn how to properly tie a rolled pork loin, then render that technique redundant with the discovery of transglutaminase (thanks to Penny), as well as learning how to produce Dong Po-like gelatinous pork skin. I also taught myself to ‘turn’ vegetables, though I remain still something of a hack. My intention in participating in this venture was always to push myself and learn new things, so I was already ahead. Yet the biggest lessons were still to come!

A couple of weeks into my porcine studies, we had our team trial dinner. We each produced the ‘draft’ version of our dishes, and critiqued one another. It was such a helpful experience, and I only wish I had a team of tasters and a dry run before every dinner party I hosted! With notes made, and adjustments planned, we all went our separate ways, and honed our recipes in isolation again for the next two weeks.

I think it was a couple of days later that I started re-purposing pork into other meals. Congee became the default go-to when faced with a cooked loin of pork I didn’t know what to do with. When all else fails, double-cook it, right? Another week later, I started giving away my experimental pork, as I couldn’t face eating yet another meal of pork.

It was about this point that I thought I had the project in hand. Of course, this was a naive and foolish notion. Because although I may have perfected my recipes, cooking at home is spectacularly different from catering for a crowd of 45 in a commercial kitchen. I use the word catering here because in hindsight, the event was more like a catering event than running a restaurant kitchen. And while I think I’ve gained something of an insight into what’s involved in running a restaurant or cafe, I’ve learned a lot more about the logistics of event catering through this adventure.

The Sunday night before the dinner, the team turns up to start the prep work; stocks are prepared, meat is marinated, and about a thousand shallots are peeled. Three hours in, I have a diva meltdown moment when I realise the pork loins that the butchers have butterflied for me have been cut too thick. It was really the stuff of reality TV, though I’m really glad it wasn’t captured on video! It was completely my own fault when passing on instructions to the butchers, but a jarring setback nonetheless. But the show must go on, and I continued to roll the pork loins anyway. They ended up about double the size of the ones I’d been making at home, so cooking time was about to become a guessing game.

After a night of fitful sleep, I headed back in on Monday morning – the main event was about to begin. Having the most prep work left to do, I was the first to arrive, and was extremely grateful and relieved to find that we’d have some help from the kitchen hands at Miss Jackson. So I set to searing my pork belly and beginning the braising process, while palming off the task of peeling carrots.

The team turned up as the day rolled on, and the kitchen became quite the bustling hive of activity. We definitely gave the stove and ovens quite a workout! And at the behest of Miss Jackson’s chef Sarah (with much hearty agreement from Jess and myself, but utter disdain from Mat) the kitchen’s work anthem quickly became Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair. Think what you will, ‘cos we don’t let haters keep us off our grind.

The afternoon quickly disappeared, and before we knew it, it was 6:30 and guests had started arriving. Mat and Jess kicked into high gear, knocking out platter after platter of awesome canapés. Canapés so awesome that people were quite obviously too busy eating to take photos of, as I haven’t been able to track down any! Though I’m sure Henry (our official photographer) has some, because he took over 2000 shots over one and a half days. In any case, I think my favourite thing I ate all night was still those sage and white anchovy fritters. There was also a pea veloute with slow-cooked quail egg and crackling crumbs, and bresaola with goat’s cheese and cornichons on sourdough.

Good reviews started rolling in, and the pressure was on. As soon as they were done serving, Penny set up to lead the team in plating the entrée course. Ox tongue was sliced, sauces were brought to temperature, polenta was vigorously – and unendingly – stirred in shifts, and the assembly line kicked into gear. It was really quite a marvel to see everyone working together as a team, and it still fills me with pride to think back on how well we rallied together when it came to crunch time.

Penny’s entrée was a double braised ox tongue with polenta, parsley puree and apple and sourdough crumbs. It truly was a memorable dish, and I’m fairly sure it would convert many an offal-averse punter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Once the last plate of Penny’s entrée was sent out, the team swiftly moved to clean up and get my main course ready to go. My adrenalin was pumping, and the stress level just hit an eight. The Jurassic pork loins came out of the oven, which had somehow crept up from the 150 degrees where it was supposed to be to 180 degrees in the fifteen minutes since I had last checked on it! Yeah, commercial ovens don’t have thermostats. Stress level nine.

I started the beets and carrots glazing, and left them in the capable hands of Mat and Ed. I moved to slicing up the pork belly, while the rest of the team had a last minute pow-wow about how to plate the dish. Evidently, I don’t deal well with stress level nine. My ability to multi-task goes out the window, and a wall of silent grumpiness raises itself around me, partly to shield myself from further anxiety, but I think mostly because otherwise I’d likely explode. And I don’t really do the exploding thing.

Somehow, while I was intently portioning pork belly, everything else started to come together. Remember those mighty forces? They manifested in the form of my fellow food bloggers. Swiftly executing the (overly ambitious?) boldness that was the main course I had devised. Penny, Ed and Mat managed to portion and plate the side dishes, without me needing to do any more than to check the portion sizes. Penny then set to slicing the loin. It was very much the moment of truth, and I breathed a massive sigh of relief when Penny announced that they weren’t overdone. Though in truth, I think she was just being supportive, and I would have preferred them a little less well done. Sarah and Jess started composing the plates, and they started disappearing out into the dining room.

Pork two ways: Roast pork loin with a miso panko crust with a pickled ginger aioli and cider-braised pork belly, served with baby beetroot and carrots.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

From rear, clockwise: Radish and cucumber slaw, rosemary and duck fat roasted potatoes, asparagus with anchovy butter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Was I happy with what went out? Maybe 75% happy. There was a lot of room for improvement, and of course now with hindsight, there are many things I would have done differently. They say you’re your own worst critic, and that might be true.

But I digress, because there were still two courses to be served. Most of us set to cleaning up the tornado-struck kitchen after the last main course left the kitchen, and Ed moved to prepare his avant-dessert: a green tea and mint granita soused with gin.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Not having sampled this before it went out to the customers, I was really impressed with how refreshing this little shot of granita was. It really was a great palate cleanser after all of the flavours I’d managed to pack into my main course.

At this point, we were encouraged to actually leave the kitchen and face the music, though none of us were really that eager to. It was a little daunting to meet the people you’ve just fed. When we finally did go out into the dining room, there was nothing but praise – some more muted than others – but when you’re cooking for such a supportive audience, I wonder if we could really have expected candid feedback. I for one welcome it, so if you’re reading this and you were complimentary on the night, but perhaps had some suggestions to make, please make them (anonymously if you feel the need) below. Like I said, this was meant to be a learning experience for us all.

Sarah started composing her epic three-piece desserts, comprising a trifle with strawberry liqueur and white chocolate mousse, a creme brulee tart, and a strawberries and cream semi-freddo sandwich.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

I think many people struggled to fit the desserts in, because we’d fed them a lot of food up to this point. Which was a shame, because each of those desserts was delicious.

I’d like to thank everyone who came and supported our crazy cooking experiments, especially those who didn’t even know us before the event, and were brave enough to take a punt on a team of culinary unknowns. I’d also like to thank my fellow bloggers for being such an awesome crew to work with, and especially for steering me through my moments of incapacity and self-doubt. Finally, I’d like to thank the team at Miss Jackson for all of their support, patience and guidance throughout the whole process. It may have come together in a single night, but there was a lot of work leading up to that point, and it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of courage, diligence and faith from everyone involved.

If you’ve made it through this far, then you’ll probably be interested to know that Miss Jackson are planning on running this event on an annual basis after the amazingly positive response. I look forward to seeing what the next crop of food bloggers comes up with, and it’ll certainly be a much more relaxed night next year in the dining room. Because I’ll definitely be there!

So what have others had to say about the night?

Penny’s take
Bryan’s recollection