Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Process Wednesday: qualification samples

I recently read Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir of life as the proprietor of a small restaurant in New York (Prune) and her life working in the kitchen. This passage about her life as a wedding catering chef was something that I could relate to: 
When the intended couple had agreed on this menu, back in January, after a private tasting in the little nicely dressed and furnished showroom of the catering company, it had been prepared for them by the chef of the company, in just enough quantity for the tasting -- not more than four portions of each thing - and each ingredient had been hand-selected by the chef and prepared the same day as it was eaten. In fact, it went from stove to table during the tasting and it, indeed, looked and tasted very good. I had been assigned to execute dozens of those tasting over the years and felt genuine pride in what we produced.  
But by the time the bride and groom, now betrothed, and their three hundred guests were enjoying this same meal on a beautiful June evening, we were now on a very different scale of production.... 
...The wedding meal itself, a sit-down dinner for three hundred that followed the butlered hors d'oeuvres hour, had sat in the warehouse kitchen refrigerator, some components of it for days, and then in the back of the cargo van in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the LIE. On the long ride out to Amagansett, three cater waiters assigned to ride with us, so they can help us unload cases of Sterno and staff cola and seltzer at the destination, sat on their garment bags containing their waiter tuxedos and sang show tunes. In the way, way back of the cargo van - perched on a five-gallon bucket of leek compote amid stacks and stacks of disposable aluminum hotel pans packed with salmon filets portioned at four ounces and already partially blasted in the convection ovens back at the warehouse - sat Andrea, the freelance chef assigned to run the party. 
Whenever a potential customer of a CMO receives a qualification sample from a company, I wonder if they ever recognize that the method used to produce this lovely, lovely in-specification 100 gram sample could possibly be very different from the actual manufacturing process. (Of course, a bride and a groom are much less likely to have a quality control department on their wedding day to stop the caterers at the door, inspect the incoming meal and tell them to send it back...)


  1. Stewie Griffin:
    I've encountered exactly what you describe. Lab sample is beautiful, no discoloration from drying, has a certain particle size and distribution, etc. Production material ends up being in spec but maybe looks a bit different or is different particle size. Even though we always emphasize to the customer to not assume the production will be EXACTLY the same, some are disappointed. I have learned to stop using the highest quality raw materials, water, fancy reactions, etc for making customer samples but instead try to do "bathtub chemistry". Seems to work out better for everyone - customer isn't disappointed and production is happier with a simpler process and raw materials.

  2. Having just been married this summer, my wife and I chose our menu based on the preparation described above. While gently seared tuna tasted great at the restaurant when served right out of the pan, it would not be so great on the 75th plate that passed the kitchen door. So we stuck with foods that hold up well with time, like baked chicken, mashed potatoes, lots of steamed vegetables and so on. There's a reason many catering companies stick to the basics.

  3. Typos corrected, thanks to Mrs. CJ.