Chef: $3,500 Worth of Meat Rides on His Decision
At the precise moment Sally Scardina and Andy Tutino are standing at the altar, a kind-faced man is walking down a concrete tunnel. At the gloom of the far end he turns left through swinging doors, into the steel and tile neon glare of the main kitchen of the Hotel del Coronado.
It’s 2 p.m. Carlos Meneses is about to create a banquet for 500.
The yellow order sheet says: Scardina: 7 p.m. 500. Salad; cream of mushroom soup, prime rib of beef, med. rare; double-baked potatoes, two veges. Will provide own dessert.
Hmm. First things first. Check the stock. Go chat with the butcher. Check the potatoes and “veges,” the 65 pounds of carrots and 65 pounds of string beans. The morning crew will already have put the prime ribs in the ovens. Meneses has a meat-stab thermometer in his white chef’s jacket. He’ll know if it is heading for “rare” if it reads 125 to 130 degrees. If it’s nearer 140 we’re talking medium-rare.
Carlos Meneses, banquet chef for the Hotel Del, has another banquet going tonight, too, so he’s going to have to keep both things running in his mind. He is about to take out his thermometer. Uh, no. He puts the darned thing back. Never has liked them. They start the meat bleeding, drain it. Besides, in his 30 years of cooking he’s become far happier judging meat by touch. He dimples the glistening rack with his fingers. A doctor’s touch. If the meat’s loose, it’s not cooked. If it’s tough, it’s too cooked. He reads the bones, checking how far the flesh is pulled back on them.
“Hmm, another 45 minutes I’d say.” He’s got to be right. $3,500 worth of meat ride on this decision.
Meneses’ road to the Hotel Del came via jobs in Los Angeles, at Ernie’s Taco Shops, and in San Diego, with a Chinese restaurateur called Tom Lai.
Then he landed a summer job with the Del, “on the line,” serving up vegetables, preparing fish. He got interested in understanding the workings of a great kitchen. And the interest paid off. They kept him on after the summer.
Then he started going to seminars on food, buying books, joining the San Diego Chapter of the Chefs’ Assn. He started learning more about French and Italian cuisine. Now he’s been perfecting himself for 30 years, has grown to love the art and craft of cooking, and is ready as banqueting chef to cope with just about everything they can throw at him, including ribs and “veges” and twice-baked potatoes for 500 at 7 p.m.
It’s 3 o’clock. Time to get the prime rib out. It is underdone. Dripping red blood. That’s OK. Take care of that later. Carlos has an assistant blanch the string beans and carrots. He’s saving the meat drippings to make the au jus. He adds stock from the steaming stock-pot caldron, skims off the grease, adds pickling spice, then leaves it to cook for two or three hours, skimming it off until it’s nice and clear. It will be about 5 by the time he can strain it off and put it in the bain Marie, a tub of near-boiling water, to keep them warm. The twice-baked potato skins have already been once-baked overnight. Now it’s time for the insides.
“I want 200 eggs and 3 pounds of butter!” he shouts to his assistant. He has to be thinking about the soup, too. It must be waiting in the bain Marie by 6 or he’ll have a crisis on his hands. He decides to start early.
At 5 p.m. the wedding party is at home, changing, having their hair re-done, resting for a half-hour to get their strength up for the night.
Meneses is anything but resting. Still balancing the needs of the other reception, he’s:
- Putting the now-ready soup into the bain Marie .
- Checking the twice-baked potato mixture.
- Cutting the ribs off the 40 slabs of prime rib.
- Making sure the salads are prepared.
The time is flying by 6 p.m. Outside the bridal party is being photographed on the beach for romantic sunset shots. In the kitchen Meneses puts the prime ribs back for a final 15 to 25 minute cook. He throws the 500-plus potatoes in the ovens for the “twice-baked” bake.
Out come the prime ribs at 6:25. He lets them set for five minutes on the table to lose some of their heat so they don’t continue to cook.
At 6:30 the meat is put into the double-door “Queen Marys,” the rolling warmers that will transport all to the ballroom kitchen. At the same time, the soup rolls across the quadrangle to the ballroom. It has to be ready to serve at 7 o’clock sharp.
At 6:45 it’s out with the potatoes and straight into the Queen Mary. Cerrump ! go 130 pounds of carrots and beans into a caldron. Meneses pours boiling water over them. This has to be the last item. He won’t do this more than 15 minutes ahead of time. Freshness is everything.
And at 6:58 the procession begins: three Queen Marys roll through the double doors. No. 1 has the vegetables, No. 2 the potatoes, No. 3 the prime ribs and two pots of the au jus. As the hotel clock strikes 7, Meneses and his army of helpers rumble through the double doors of the ballroom. The banquet captain stands nervously waiting. The people are out there already. The bride is here. The groom is here.
It’s time to carve.
Meneses knows his commission’s done when the captain comes back through those automatic doors and says, “We’re all served, Carlos--we’re going to dessert.” Then all Meneses has to do is roll his hollow Queen Marys back as the guests start getting up to dance, save what food can be saved (once it’s been on a plate it can’t be) and then get back to his yellow order forms to see what’s needed for tomorrow.
At 8:45 the Scardina commission is over.
If it has been successful, the head chef, Jay Pastoral, will be complemented. If not, Meneses will hear about it from him. To the revelers, the wedding guests, Meneses doesn’t exist. He’s just the guy who does it. The invisible man. But sometimes he sneaks out into the Great Hall just to see if they’re enjoying it. If he’s done it well.
It’s 10 p.m. He takes off his chef’s hat, picks up the phone, and dials his home in Chula Vista.
“Hello, darling. I’m on my way. What’s for dinner? I’m starving.”