It's amazing how a cover of tablecloths, wine glasses, plates, glowing candles and the night can do to change the ambiance of a space. In a non-descript Thai restaurant in the middle of Union Square in Somerville, MA that was shut down for the night, locavore and private chef JJ Gonson* of Cuisine en Locale, staged a $50 per person, 10-course banquet on a snowy Sunday night to a capacity crowd. She calls these meals "O.N.C.E." - One Night Culinary Events. She plans the menu and sends and email out to her list and posts about it on her blog. Guests are treated to one of JJ's wholesome, extravagant meals, usually for a bargain price. Each dinner has a different theme - this one focused on the dead of winter, one of the more challenging times of the year for executing culinary variety and artistry. She had planned two seatings - a buffet for families and a more formal sit-down plated meal for adults.
When she told me about the event, I wanted desperately to attend. My current state of unemployment makes that virtually impossible, so instead I worked for JJ as her front-of-the-house 'manager' - which in my case meant awkwardly greeting guests, fumbling attempts to count and recount diners, forgetting courses for an entire table, and trying to keep everyone's water glass full.
It took hours to get to this point, though, half of which I missed by sleeping through the night. Overnight, JJ and her team labored to prepare many of the courses, from the delicate lobster ravioli that took 6 hours from start to finish, to a hearty country pate with star-shaped pastry dough. By the time I arrived at the Cuisine en Locale base camp about 5 hours before the first seating, the prep kitchen was empty of life and the bags and pans and bins were full and waiting to be taken to the Thai restaurant for the evening's meal. The only hint of what was to come was contained in a notebook, with a list of 'to-dos':
Lining the walls were the bags and pans and bins:
I wandered around for a few minutes, peeked in a pantry, looked at the refrigerator and tapped my fingers before JJ showed up. I had made a stop for Shaw Farm Dairy ice cream (read the ingredients carefully before you buy - not all flavors are all-natural) and milk for her and wanted to make sure I picked up a few things before heading to the restaurant to set it up for the dinner.
JJ showed off her racks of lamb, which she had acquired from Stillman's:
I helped her portion out her ravioli into bags:
She showed me her pate, too - apparently she's been really into making forcemeats since her return from Paris a few months back. This one was made in celebration of Pork Day - it was made with pork liver and loin and a few other cuts. I didn't try any (as I do not partake of the four-legged beast) but friends reported it was delicious.
After checking out JJ's prep, I ran over the restaurant and began rearranging tables (my apologies to anyone who felt squished that night - we didn't have much space to work with). Within an hour JJ and her team arrived with the prep and started planning out the sequence of their meal. Here's what they ended up with:
To the best of her ability, JJ sourced local ingredients for the dinner, as she does for all of her cooking. Grains remain a challenge for those of us in Massachusetts - there's not much here at all, and what there is is hard to find. So JJ used Texas rice and Italian pasta and Midwestern wheat flour. She threw in a bit of Florida citrus - from a small grove, of course. Otherwise, most of the ingredients were local - cheese, vegetables, lamb, apples, cranberries, squash, pork, lobster, seaweed.
Before the crowds arrived, JJ set to work in the borrowed kitchen. The team wears brown - that's the official un-uniform of Cuisine en locale. I didn't know this ahead of time and by chance I was decked out, head-to-toe, in brown. JJ thought it was serendipity. Which is was to an extent. Truthfully, half my winter wardrobe is brown, so there was a 50% chance that I would be wearing brown.
In the hour before service began, Henry and I jumped in the car and hit a few stores looking for simple tablecloths to cover the Formica tables. Attractive natural-fiber tablecloths were prohibitively expensive, so we settled for some rather ugly light blue polyester cloths that were met with JJ's stinging disapproval. "I'll never use them again," she sighed as I forced them on her at the end of the night.
The first seating - which began while the sun was still in the sky - was a simple camp-style buffet for families: mac 'n cheese, sauteed cabbage, some squash. It was a simple way to start out the evening, requiring only minimal prep and service.
For dessert, JJ served up a massive apple grumble- a combination of apple chunks, cranberries, oats, and sugar. She paired it with Shaw Farm Ice cream.
At 6 pm the dining room cleared and we reset it for our 7 pm seating. We cleaned, moved tables (again), redecorated the tables. JJ and crew - which included her right hand Bonnie, Arun the engineer, Darius, and Eddie the dishwashin' machine, set to work getting prepping the formal meal.
When JJ's guests started arriving at seven, I went into disorganized hostess mode. I had counted the number of tables incorrectly and was short three seats. Luckily, one table pulled a no-call/no-show and we were able to accommodate everyone. The restaurant took on an air of civility as wine glasses were brought to tables and wine was uncorked.
(That's my friend Alex on the far left. Hi Alex!)
The first course came out quickly once the seating was worked out. One of JJ's signatures is a filled savory profiterole. Don't call them gougeres!
I missed photographing the soup course - it was a fragrant vegan seaweed soup. Likewise I missed the pate course, though I did capture it whole. Before JJ cut into it, she had me present it to every table and explain what it was. Of the 37 guests, only 3 passed on it. The rest cleaned their plates.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, JJ, Bonnie, Arun and Darius plated up the next course - a raw salad with pea sprouts, sunchokes & beets with an umeboshi dressing.
Next up - lobster ravioli. JJ made these ravioli as pure as could be - just lobster, seasoning, and essence of lobster, made from a lobster stock and reduced to almost nothing. She sauced it with a little butternut squash and vanilla essence:
This ravioli, was, from the perspective of time, effort, and ingredients, may have been the highlight of the meal. She had a few left over and I was able to indulge in one. It was packed full of lobster flavor.
The lobster was followed by an intermezzo - a simple grapefruit and fresh mint palate cleanser. It was refreshingly acidic.
Next up: Stillman's lamb. JJ made a rub of various nuts - pistachio and almonds, I think, with plenty of salt and pepper. Though I didn't taste the lamb (again, no four legged animals), I did sample the rub, which was just perfect. She served it alongside a sunchoke and arborio risotto and a beach plum-Grand Marnier sauce.
JJ single-handedly portioned out the lamb, chop by chop:
The team garnished:
And the guests enjoyed:
The third-to-last course was a duo of cooked salads - one based on sweet potato, the other kale:
During this course, JJ asked her guests if they wanted to keep going. They had already eaten 8 courses. A unanimous "MORE" was the response. So JJ complied.
Next up: Mac 'n Cheese, made with local Gouda and cheddar, and scented with truffle oil:
At this point, JJ and Bonnie and Eddie were starting to feel the burn and were exhausted. It was nearly 11 pm, 4 hours since the diners first sat down. My shoes were beginning to torture my feet - I hadn't sported heels in months and my 4" heels were wearing the balls of my feet into achy lumps. I had been serving and clearing every course, along with John, and making sure no one went thirsty. The water filter was in back of the kitchen, so there was a lot of lap running between courses.
Finally dessert arrived - plated apple grumble with Shaw Farm Dairy ice cream. I noticed not a drop was left in bowls when I cleared the tables for the last time.
By 11:30 the room was empty.
By 12:30 am the room was returned to its normal, pre-O.N.C.E. state. There wasn't a trace of locavore left.
To find out more about JJ Gonson and her food, check out her website and sign up for her events announcements: http://www.enlocale.com/
*full disclosure: I've known JJ for about 23 years, as her sister Claudia is my closest friend.