In late November, I had the opportunity to prepare and serve an exquisite meal on a Monday evening. The occasion was simple but the execution was anything but -- two close friends in the restaurant business in Chicago had just become engaged and I offered to cook their celebratory meal. Joining us were two other good friends, making the table set for six, in total. As an amateur cook -- and former minimum wage professional dishwasher and prep chef when I was in high school -- I knew I had my work cut out to give my guests the meal they deserved and had come to expect given their line of work. After spending the better part of the previous weekend preparing for the feast, I knew my efforts so far were only beginning. For serving a great meal with multiple courses (six in this case) requires thinking through all the details. And even then things can go wrong, like the slightly overcooked braised leg of lamb that was supposed to be the focal point of the fifth course.
After I had selected the wine and filled my ramekins with everything from diced shallots to fresh mint to truffle oil, I turned my attention to the event execution. At this point, I realized that I faced an even greater challenge as I began to contemplate the final presentation for each course. As any chef worth his salt knows, the visual elements of a meal play arguably as much a role when it comes to the diner’s net experience and memory as the quality and taste of the food itself. I've always found that visual food memories lock in my mind -- taste is more abstract and difficult to remember. So for the two professional foodies who would soon be seated in my dining room, I knew I had to get this part right.
Now, as anyone who has been to my house for a meal knows, it's a bit of a mixed culinary metaphor. I have the best of stuff and the worst of stuff when it comes to kitchen and dining related wares. Everything from $300 Tiffany platters and $400 blenders to $20 Target serving plates and $2 Ikea glasses grace my cabinets and cupboards. Our regular plates and bowls hail from numerous sources and somehow manage to match well enough to do the trick. But for a meal like the one I was about to serve, I realized I needed something better. To address this need, I raided my kitchen storage cabinet looking for a slightly more upscale place setting and found a partial one that could have done the trick. But just then, my wife suggested we take out the china and give that a try.
At first, I was not sure what she was talking about. But then I remembered that we did have a complete hand painted Limoges set for 12 dating back to the early 1900s (passed down from generation-to-generation in her family). In fact, the hundred odd pieces stare me right in the face every time I walk into the kitchen, sitting in wait behind a smoky glass cabinet. Still, as far as I can remember, we've not used the china at all in recent years, despite all the meals we prepare at home for guests and ourselves.
China, for all intents and serving purposes, is incredibly impractical. It's fragile, sensitive to temperature (i.e., don't pop it in the warming drawer or the oven to heat it up) and anything but dishwasher friendly. But the really tip-top stuff has a certain refined yet lightweight and usable elegance to it. It's hard to explain unless you've experienced this, or ideally, served a meal on it. For the cyclist in me, it's the equivalent of riding what a Merlin used to be (or a Seven Cycles now). And for a driver, it reminds me of a finely tuned, older SL Mercedes. It's timeless and surprisingly svelte. And above all, it's seemingly designed to be used. Putting it in the cupboard to come out once a year -- or in our case, once a decade -- does not do it justice.
Serving on china really kicked my game up a notch in the final staging and delivery of the meal. It was a totally different experience knowing that when plating each course, the dishes were a part of irreplaceable history. When I usually cook a meal as involved as this one, I quite often end up breaking a plate and usually two wine glasses. Which is not bad considering that I typically deploy all twenty-four fragile Riedels in my collection for such a night. But when serving on China, there is no margin for error. Even though you move as swiftly as when serving and removing normal plates, you take that much more care in the process. China seems to tune your senses at a higher level than when serving without it.
Serving on China also forces a discipline of organization. To account for the inventory and safety of each piece, you need to follow a similar preparation and cleaning process at each serving and removal cycle. And this of course, forces an entire new level of organization and process discipline when serving in a small kitchen like mine. I almost felt like the portrait of the lean, Six Sigma chef, avoiding waste to insure the same level of quality at each stage of the process while also minimizing any chance of a catastrophic failure.
I believe there are many lessons in our non-culinary professional lives that we can cook up in the workplace and the procurement profession as a result of learning from the china serving experience. For one, it can sometimes pay dividends in multiple areas to get our hands into something far more strategic and high value to the business than we usually do. I never would have known, for example, the benefits of taking such careful inventory of plates and bowls during the in-between course clean-up through out the meal. Doing this with china not only reduced the risk of breakage, but surprisingly sped up the process by forcing a specific routine for washing and storing every dish the same way, every time. It's a lesson I'll deploy with every meal now, as well as apply at work. And the same can be true for taking on a very strategic category or decision in procurement (e.g., an outsourcing or make/buy decision) and carrying the lessons into the other areas we pursue everyday.
But perhaps the most important lesson from serving on china is simply the thrill and heightened senses that the process brings. While each meal is no doubt any more or less important in our lives than the next from a nutritional perspective, what you serve it on most certainly brings a welcome diversity and excitement to the process. Whether it's a literal plate or a metaphorical sourcing category or business role, china is, by nature, not something we want to use everyday. After all, we will have slip-ups regardless of our planning and careful usage. And its very special occasion status is what makes it such a treat and continuous lesson. I've learned that the process of using it is one we cannot only simply enjoy in the moment, but one that can enhance everything else we do.
I'll leave you with one last Spend Management thought in this rant. And that's the belief that in many ways, real china represents everything that Chinese exported goods are not in today's world. The irony here, I hope, is not lost on anyone who knows the history of the subject -- history buffs should take note that China was not only the first porcelain maker, but was once a world-renowned producer of the highest quality. Of course that was nearly two millennia before China devalued the RMB to flood the world market with cheap crap that represented a complete antithesis of its high quality past, but I'll leave that story for another day. And another meal. Preferably served on the real thing. And hold the MSG (and melamine and lead), please.
Menu for the no-shortcut “served on china” meal
1st: Soup of butternut and acorn squash, apple cider, lavender honey, aged balsamic
2nd: Purple and green brussel sprouts, wild smoked salmon, butter
3rd: Truffled mushroom risotto cake
4th: Wild arugula, spicy mesculin, raspberry maple vinaigrette
5th: Slow braised
leg of lamb, Italian bitter greens, roasted purple potatoes
6th: Pumpkin parfait
Sine Qua Non, Hoodoo Man (2006)
Manzoni Barolo (2004)
Magnum: Domaine Beaurenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Boisrenar (2004)
Alvear Pedro Ximenez Sherry (1927)