The journey of thousands of meals must begin with a single plate.
That classic white china plate with a square rim pattern holds the fare that is charged with satisfying the particular appetites of the 3,600 guests Sunday at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball, which, according to organizers, constitutes the largest annual formal dinner in America.
The culinary logistics, overseen by Patina Restaurant Group founder Joachim Splichal and Patina Catering executive chef Alec Lestr, for the post-Emmy fete held at a ballroom in the Los Angeles Convention Center are staggering: 10,500 plates; 4,776 bottles of wine; 1,750 California avocados; 984 pounds of rack of lamb; 900 pounds of heirloom tomatoes; 800 pounds of dark chocolate; 300 pounds of chickpeas; 195 cooks; and much, much more.
“Everything is broken down mathematically,” says Cheryl Cecchetto, head of Sequoia Productions, which has staged the event for the last 13 years. “Even the wine is uncorked 45 minutes in advance because it’s a big wine.”
And doing the math for Sunday’s primetime ball started with a test run Saturday, when the same catering team served 2,600 people for the Creative Arts Emmy Awards Governors Ball. (The ceremonies mostly recognize technical and other behind-the-scene television workers such as sound editors, casting directors and the like.)
Saturday’s celebratory evening began in earnest just after 4:30 p.m., when some 400 servers clad in black pants, buttoned-up white shirts and black ties streamed out of a holding pen and through the metal detectors that led to the ballroom, which is the length of a football field and twice as wide.
They then pulled corkscrews out of their pockets and filed behind massive black curtains that were joined at the seams to create the velvety-midnight illusion of the evening’s theme, “Starry, Starry Night.” (The very prom-like theme is the same one Sunday.)
There in the cold kitchen and plating area, 71/2 giant tables were lined up, six plates wide and 63 plates long. Preppers in white put the final touches on a salad of white and green asparagus, spicy greens, Parmigiano Reggiano, tomato and citrus vinaigrette. A woman in a stained apron bent close, inspecting each dish before gently dribbling a few small chunks of peppercorn at each plate’s edge and moving down the monstrous line.
“At 5:15, the salads go out; at 6:15, the customers come through the door; at 7:15, they pick a main course,” said Splichal, who reflexively glanced at his wristwatch throughout the night. Splichal, who is short and pleasantly round, with shaggy graying hair and small glasses that slip down his nose, was in pressed khaki trousers and an unbuttoned white chef’s jacket.
“When service starts off, we open slowly, line by line, and then all of a sudden it’s like a speed train and in 15 minutes it’s done,” he said. “By 8:15, the last dessert is out, we fold the kitchen up in 10 minutes and we’re out.”
Meanwhile, in one of the hot kitchens, a small army of Patina chefs -- Kevin Meehan, executive chef of Cafe Pinot; Steven Mary, executive chef of Pinot Bistro; and Lestr, among others -- focused on the preparation of a duo of filet mignon and braised beef brisket with smoked tomato, cipollinitarte Tatin with crisp onions and tarragon mustard.
“Doing an event for 200 people or 2,000 people is the exact same thing,” said Lestr, a bit sweaty in his kitchen whites, but otherwise exhibiting little signs of stress. “It’s just more planning and more math.”
” Mise en place is important,” said Mary, his thick, tattooed forearms and strong hands busy with the task of stirring a braising juice from the brisket. “Everything has its place, and everything is in its place, and if it goes well it’s a perfectly choreographed dance number.”
For that to happen, the front of the house -- shaped a bit like the Pentagon and divided into 36-color-coded sections filled with 10 tables each, situated around a 60-foot-wide elevated circular dance floor and revolving orchestra platform beneath a Milky Way of 6,000 mirror balls -- must be in perfect communication with the back of the house.
Only the plates of food and the servers made the journey between the two disparate worlds, although Splichal peeked into the ballroom from time to time, monitor the proceedings.
Occasionally, a picky diner delivers a special request that the kitchen can’t accommodate -- in the past, this has included Jell-O, a Weight Watchers meal and shredded carrots in lemon juice. In such cases, a runner is dispatched by van to the nearby downtown Ralphs to grab the item.
Lestr calls this “Our George Burns policy,” so named for the cigar-munching comedian who more than a decade ago asked for ketchup and there was none. So, someone raced to a nearby Jack in the Box and picked up 15 ketchup packets, which were squeezed into a sauce dish and handed to Burns in less than 10 minutes.
“His steak was still hot,” said Lestr.
These days, special requests usually lean toward vegan and vegetarian options, which the kitchen is fully prepared to deliver: Portobello mushroom ravioli with braised baby artichokes, crisp mushrooms and micro basil; or salmon ratatouille with sweet basil and fried zucchini blossoms for those who prefer fish.
But Sunday’s main course is rack of lamb, which will be served with dried fruit crumble; chickpea puree; basil-marinated grilled eggplant with summer vegetables and rosemary juice.
The meat will be sliced to order in the plating area, where row after row of cooks will stand eight-deep on either side of long tables, waiting to add a single element to each plate before sending it down the line to an expeditor, who will flip over a tray and yell, “How many do you need?” at the lines of servers waiting for their orders.
Shouting, “On your left,” servers will carry the covered plates into the ballroom, where kitchen captains dressed in black will direct them to the correct table and seat for each dish.
The dishes that don’t make the cut will be whisked back to the kitchen, where Lucho Euribe, head of the return table (which he gamely calls the “I don’t like this, bring it back” table) will assess whether or not the dish can go back out again or whether it needs to be replated, reheated or discarded. (About 5% of the night’s dishes end up on a different plate on Skid Row, as donations to the Midnight Mission.)
For plates used at ballroom tables, a different fate awaits.
Off the floor, behind the giant curtains, they travel to a murky nether region of milk crates and trash cans, where a handful of workers such as Manolo Licardie dispose of the scraps.
Of all the glitzy hubbub, Licardie just shrugged. “It’s OK, a friend of mine got me this gig. I just clean the plates.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
The Governors Ball after the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday will feed an army of hungry celebrities. Here?s some of what it will take to satisfy the 3,600 guests:
*195 cooks in the kitchen
*2,500 champagne flutes
*4,416 bottles of Beaulieu Vineyard wine
*360 bottles of Beaulieu Vineyard dessert wine
*1,750 California avocados
*984 pounds of rack of lamb
*900 pounds of heirloom tomatoes
*800 pounds of dark chocolate
*800 pounds of Japanese eggplant
*437 pounds of Dungeness crab
*300 pounds of chickpeas
*15 pounds of fresh rosemary
Source: Patina Restaurant Group / Sequoia Productions