The Art of the Dinner Party
I'm amazed. In awe. Inspired.
The setting is Saint Paul RiverCentre. William Morrissey Grand Ballroom to be exact. The site of the "So the World May Hear Awards Gala" benefiting the Starkey Hearing Foundation to raise money to help provide hearing aids to people in underdeveloped countries. This event attracts nearly 1,600 guests, most dressed in glittery gowns and dapper tuxedos. A mash up of local do-gooders and celebrity humanitarians coming together for a great cause and a memorable night with a star studded line up of entertainers and heart-warming stories. In my head, I'm developing a long checklist of questions to satisfy my insatiable curiosity about this event. Mainly though......how do these events happen so flawlessly, yet continue to out-do the previous year? And how is it humanly possible to serve a melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon / chicken duet dinner (plus an equally impressive salad and dessert) to nearly 1600 people......all at once?
Now.......don't for a second think I'm going to be hosting a black tie dinner for 1600 in my dining room anytime soon. Let's be real here, I struggled with pulling together what I (previously viewed) as a HUGE family dinner for my parent's 50th wedding anniversary last month. I had some notes to take with high hopes of knocking everyone's socks off at the 51st.
Upon my arrival, I stayed out of the way of the fast paced production crew that was rolling out the red carpet (literally), focusing the lights from the ceiling and performing a technical rehearsal with a bald eagle that....wait for it.....flies over the dinner guests in the ballroom while the perfectly harmonized Australian quartet ARIA sings God Bless America. None of that will be happening at my dinner party, so I headed to the kitchen instead.
When I entered the kitchen, another army was in action, but this time a culinary sort. Seventy skilled people working cold lines, hot lines, prep lines, pastry lines. All completely focused on delivering a plan that had been developed months earlier at a tasting event with Saint Paul RiverCentre's caterer, MHC Culinary Group, and the Starkey Hearing Foundation clients. I expected to see the Chef stomp into the kitchen with his hands waving in the air signaling distress, but alas.......that must only happen in my kitchen. (Have I said too much?) I should've never second guessed the coordination of this culinary operation. After all, MHC Culinary Group belongs to the same family that runs the renowned St Paul Grill and The Saint Paul Hotel. I guess I just had to see it for myself.
The Director of Culinary (aka Chef Sam) informed me that months of planning were spent preparing for this one meal and the planning didn't stop once the menu was selected. His team works together to think through every possible hurdle to ensure a flawless presentation and meal. Even the appliances are scrutinized to ensure reliability. I learned that there is one in particular that deserves the most respect.
Chef Sam says that while there are many ovens that easily allow him to shift production if needed, the loss of the dishwasher would be devastating. This 4 ton, 24 foot long machine moves dishes through a conveyor belt and even though it gets serviced monthly, it receives its very own special inspection and tune up just for this event. I'm fairly certain my dishwasher hasn't been inspected since, well, never.
More planning. More action.
As the culinary staff moved in perfect precision to be on track for the "serve time," another throng of hospitality professionals worked feverishly to set the 3,200 plates, 4,800 glasses, and light countless candles to prepare for the magical moment when the doors open simultaneously, the orchestra strikes up and the room fills with energy and vibrancy like no other. I watched this team of hospitality professionals as they approached each table offering a warm greeting, fulfilling a myriad of special dietary requests, and filling wine glasses...all the while being careful to not detract from the true show going on at the front of the room. As the "serve" transpired, yet another team of people were working back of house to be at the ready for swift problem solving for the hundreds of bartenders and servers.
Once the ballroom production and program concluded, I was whisked off to the after party on the lower level. A whole different feel awaited this group with a lively band, funky decor, warm, colorful lighting and of course......more food. Salty and savory combinations including chef sliced stromboli, fried cheese curds drizzled with honey and fresh thyme, delectable hot dips, and gourmet popcorn. No one left hungry.
As the evening wrapped up and I witnessed thousands of guests enjoying one of the most entertaining shows in town, I found myself equally amazed by this team at Saint Paul RiverCentre that worked from start to finish to ensure a memorable event. I felt oddly proud. Mama Bear proud. Of people I didn't even know. A strange reaction that surprised even me, but as I ponder my next social gathering (knowing that there will not be soaring eagles, desserts served in martini glasses or even an appliance inspection) I do know that I will forever have a new found respect for the art of the dinner party.