Like a crystal-clear tomato consomme reduced to its summery essence, preparing a virtuoso, seven-course feast for 157 guests boils down to one vital principle: mise en place. It's a French phrase that means having all the ingredients for a dish prepared and ready to combine up to the point of cooking.
Sounds simple enough. But consider the mise en place required for creating such a meal, as seven certified master chefs from around the country did on Sept. 13 to celebrate the 16th anniversary of Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg.
The mise en place for the wild mushroom mousse alone -- just one component of one of those seven courses -- will take at least 12 hours, counting the veal stock, to prepare. The mousse, to be served with pan-seared marinated quail, braised red cabbage and sweet potato hay, is composed of many parts, each requiring its own painstaking mise en place.
And each course of the gala dinner will include as many as eight components, most of them demanding equally labor-intensive mise en place. If you pay $160 for dinner, you expect culinary pyrotechnics: vegetable medleys, savory pouches, bouquets spun from sugar. Spectacular special effects, wonderful flavors -- and no shortcuts.
"Without the proper mise en place, you're dead," says Rudy Speckamp, presiding nervously but happily over his kitchen on the day before the feast. Around him, chefs and a small army of assistants brandish knives, stem fresh herbs, strain stock, crack eggs with a one-handed flourish, all in pursuit of mise en place.
"Behind you!" someone shouts. "Coming through!" Even though the kitchen comfortably holds only eight, 16 people in snow-white chef's togs avoid colliding in a practiced ballet.
Gathering from around the country to fix sumptuous dinners is a way to socialize and share tales and techniques among this elite group, who have passed the grueling 10-day test administered by the American Culinary Federation that accredits them as "master chefs."
It's a "friendship thing," says James Hanyzeski, executive chef at the Houston Country Club, who will prepare the first course, a chilled tomato consomme with Maryland crab meat and cucumber ice. It's "good to get together with people that have been through it."
Like Hanyzeski, some of the master chefs here still cook. But there are those like Tony Seta, vice president of menu and product development for a restaurant franchiser based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who welcome the opportunity to perform again in the kitchen. Seta's course for the evening is a salad of baby frisee, mache and radicchio, served with port wine and dried fig vinaigrette and a Gorgonzola torte.
Since 1981, only 54 chefs, Speckamp included, have survived the punishing master chef test, which measures the highest level of achievement in the Culinary Federation's system of providing standards for food-service industry employers.
A chef may ace the exam's charcuterie prep portion with unsurpassed pates and other meat specialties, fly through terrines and plated desserts, but after too many 18-hour days, freeze while concocting a repast from a "mystery basket" of ingredients.
Even those who pass -- the most resilient and best-prepared -- leave in sore need of sleep and solace. "You can't study enough for it," Hanyzeski says.
Culinary iron men, like Speckamp and his brethren toiling in the kitchen, not only thrive under pressure, but welcome it as participants and coaches in events like the Culinary Olympics, the Escoffier competition in Nice, France, and the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie. Master chefs aren't necessarily the best in the country, Speckamp says, but they are among the most disciplined.
Judging by the scene at Rudys' 2900, they are also among the most good-natured. As they chop, butcher and trim, moving through stage after stage of mise en place, the chefs indulge in a little horseplay, gossip and song. "Tomorrow is the crunch day," explains Kevin Gawronski, director of culinary arts at Schoolcraft College in Michigan, who flew to Maryland with two smoked salmon fillets in an ice-pack-chilled duffel bag on his lap.
Nearby stands Tanya Speckamp, the chef's knowledgeable 12-year-old daughter (her favorite food is foie gras), watching her father's friends at work. "My dad has been hyper for the last week and a half," she says. "This is really important to him. [He worries that] something could happen at the last minute, like a spill. Then, what are they supposed to do?"
Rudi Paul, who runs the restaurant's dining room, arrives. "Oh my god, I've never seen so many people in this kitchen!" he exclaims. Within minutes, Paul is sweating over the guest list, determined that his well-heeled clientele will get along at their assigned tables. Then, he'll supervise the folding of 157 "bishop hat" napkins, a marathon that will take two people four hours to complete.
Back in the kitchen, master chef Victor Gielisse, dean of baking and pastry studies at the Culinary Institute of America, skins nearly 200 sea bass fillets and slices the blood line, which "can taste a little bitter," from each fillet. The bass will be served seared, on truffle-oil-scented risotto with a spice-carrot nage (a white-wine-based vegetable stock).
Master chef Hartmut Handke, who has two restaurants of his own in Ohio, arrives from the airport. Bear hugs, then business. Handke plans a roast loin of lamb with Oregon chanterelles and corn in a savory pouch, over a medley of orzo couscous and pecans.
Downstairs in the restaurant's sweeping reception room, Joseph Decker, also from Schoolcraft College, creates stunning chocolate centerpieces that call to mind three-dimensional Matisse cut-outs in cocoa hues. He also will prepare the "intermezzo," a lemon-ginger sorbet to clear the palate between the sea bass and lamb courses.
Kitchen hierarchy demands a "don't ask, just do it" mentality of the yeomen, including former Rudys' staff members, gladly working for free today. Ask Daniel Kalber, a 17-year-old Culinary Federation apprentice and student at Anne Arundel Community College, why he is scooping out thousands of tiny papaya pearls, and he says, "Ask that guy over there." He points to Hanyzeski. The papaya will garnish Hanyzeski's consomme.
Even Tuan "Butch" Raphael, executive chef at the Meadowlands racetrack in New Jersey, is spending his two days off to blanch haricot verts for the master chefs and glean their expertise. He may be an executive chef at home, "But here, "I'm just 'green bean boy,' " says Raphael, who plans to take the master chef exam in 10 years, when he turns 40.
The next morning, Speckamp admits to little sleep. But he proudly shows off the walk-in refrigerator stocked with diced vegetables, fish, quail and crepes. "The mise en place is coming together," he says. Then Speckamp prepares lunch for the entire kitchen crew: big, luscious crab cakes.
Gunther Heiland, member of Chocolate Magazine's Hall of Fame, soon arrives from Exton, Pa., where he runs a company called Desserts International, to create a warm chocolate cake with red currant parfait and pineapple chutney.
While Paul debriefs the 13 servers working tonight, kitchen adrenalin accelerates. At 6 p.m., a sample display of the night's meal is arrayed on a table, and staff members, sous-chefs and chefs snap pictures. Several servers get the master chefs to autograph their menus.
By 6:30 p.m., the restaurant fills with serious eaters who sip champagne. Soon, the plating begins. In a well-choreographed frenzy that resembles a cross between a run-amok assembly line and an emergency room, sous-chefs surrounding a long table turn each of 157 plates into a gorgeously garnished still life. This scene repeats itself seven times as Paul, eyeing his diners, signals each master chef when it's time to supervise the plating of his particular course.
Uniformity is key. Each plate must look like the first: The consomme gets three avocado slices, four papaya pearls, no more. Seven peas per plate of sea bass. Sweet potato batonnets at "6 o'clock." Wipe down the spills. Place the pineapple chutney just so. Keep it moving.
In the rush, a slight mishap occurs. After Seta's salad has been plated, an assistant chef appears, splattered with liquid from head to toe. What happened to you, he's asked. "Chef dropped the vinaigrette," he says and returns to work.
Diners, oblivious to the frantic activity down the hall, murmur their pleasure.
At 10:35 p.m., it is suddenly over. The chefs, flushed from the hot kitchen, gather in the bar. They toast one another, shake hands, sing. Handke lights a cigar. They have sailed splendidly through another master chef reunion.
Raphael remains in the kitchen, assembling large pans of leftovers. "I'm serving the chefs dinner," he explains. Now, though, there is nothing to get stressed about. The mise en place has gone perfectly.