Friday, April 11, 2014

Lessons Learned in a Kitchen

Shrimp moqueca
Quite by accident, I found myself cooking in a restaurant for 50 people. It all started by finding something out of the ordinary for a friend visiting Portugal and ended in a memorable evening with a few mishaps included.
The mishaps are the relevant and interesting parts of this entertaining story. This was just another real life example that a project is just a project, no matter the industry involved.
You find this a bit to far fetched, do you? Just keep on reading then!

The beginning

This adventure started when I was trying to find something out of the ordinary for a friend visiting Portugal. I was dining at a restaurant and I asked the owner if he knew someone who could sing Fado at his restaurant - that would prove a good experience. But it was hard to find exactly what I was looking for as I wanted something you just couldn't find in any Fado restaurant. Eventually, the restaurant owner came up with this crazy idea and provocation: would I dare to cook diner at his restaurant?
In no time we had the complete setting complete, menu and all.

The plan

So the objective of all this was to provide diner based on flavors other than the everyday ones that we're used to. I have roots in Angola, so naturally part of the ideas for the menu came from there. The other ideas came from someplace I cannot pinpoint... but somehow India was included in the lot.
The plan was to be at the restaurant at about 6PM and cook diner there in order to start serving at 9PM. The agreed menu was set to be:
  • Bell pepper and chili jam served over goat cheese
  • Kitaba (or quitaba) is an Angolan recipe - being the best reference I found this one
  • Papadums, an Indian crunchy bread
  • Shrimp moqueca and lemon rice (moqueca is originally from Goa, India unlike what is written on Wikipedia)
  • Encharcada, a traditional Portuguese desert based on eggs and sugar with an English reference here
  • Mango mouse
The date was set to a Saturday and I was to bring all the necessary ingredients the day before. All except the jam, kitaba, encharcada and mango mouse - as these I was to bring from home on the day of the event.
The people working at the restaurant were to set the tables and serve the starters. Me and my friend (yes, he was also recruited as kitchen help) were to start off by preparing everything in 2 rounds, one to be served at 9PM and the other at 9:30PM, being chopping peppers the most time consuming work. And the papadums would go to the pre-heated oven as people would arrive (it's really fast to cook them, a few seconds in the oven is enough).
The restaurant guys would plate and serve the moqueca and the deserts, so we would be freed from the kitchen duty soon enough.

But actually...

You may have noticed that no project ever goes exactly according to plan and this particular project was no exception. Things started to go wrong right after we left my house for the restaurant, a 30 minute drive - I forgot the jam at home! So right from the start I, the project manager for this project, had to re-plan and adapt. This jam challenge was overcome by my wife: she had to go back home to get the jam after dropping us at the restaurant... it was not something she was wishing for but at least there was no harm done to the restaurant clients, right?
Lesson learned #1: Maybe a checklist is too much for something as simple and basic as this, but a little flexibility and an extra hand are a must when dealing with "accidents" such as this. Call it "unknown unknowns", if you will...

Afterwards things went smoothly until we had the 4 pans ready to go to the stove, exactly according to plan. These 4 pans were for the 2 rounds of the moqueca and lemon rice, so the plan was to get 2 of them going (one for the moqueca and another for the rice) and after some 30 minutes we would start the other 2. The jam with the cheese and the kitaba were already on the tables and the oven was on. Finally, the rice was cooking (as the way I do the rice to go with the moqueca involves cooking the rice in just water, stopping the cooking altogether and afterwards finish it by adding lemon zest, butter and salt). So once cooked, I put the rice into this recipient to rinse it in cold water in order to stop the rice from cooking any further. This is something I do all the time, so I expected no problems here. By this time, friends and clients started to arrive at the restaurant and I managed to receive them as the work was basically on stand by at this point in time.

Sometime before sitting the clients at the tables, we started cooking the papadums in the oven. A few seconds there and they were both burned and raw at the same time. This spelled trouble and meant that the oven was to hot but it was at the lowest temperature possible. Oops!
They had a microwave in the kitchen and we tested it putting 2 papadums in there. That seemed to work, we just had to fine tune the time and we were off the hook. After a few trials, for that microwave oven at maximum power and for 2 papadums we settled for 1 minute and 25 seconds.
Lesson learned #2: Test any equipment you're going to use prior to the moment you really, really need it. In this case we could find a workaround - but at the expense of some time and some extra stress. And in a worse case scenario, we could have been forced to drop the papadums altogether!

I'm not going to dive into the details, but there was a major accident with the rice as it didn't stop cooking completely as I intended. And we found this just some 15 minutes prior to start serving, can you imagine the panic? What really made the rice unusable was the fact it some part of it was glued together but even the rest was quite sticky - which was the opposite of the intention of doing the rice this way. Thanks to the resident chef's experience, we managed to save most of the rice using the oven (which was, thanks to the papadums, already hot).
Lesson learned #3: Trust and empower whoever has the knowledge (technical or whatever). This oven trick saved the day and I've never heard of it before that evening!

While this accident and the respective workaround was happening, in the midst of all the stress, confusion and regular kitchen activity as well, the owner shows up in the kitchen saying there would be just 30 something meals to be served. There was less people for diner than he initially expected and some didn't really trust this unconventional menu of ours. So we decided to put a hold on the second moqueca round. We figured that if we needed more moqueca that we could serve it fast enough as everything was ready to start cooking. Soon we found out that the first round of moqueca wasn't enough for everyone and that there were near 50 people in the restaurant. Double oops!
Lesson learned #4: First oops because we underestimated the number of meals to serve. And in this case, better safe than sorry does apply! We would be safer if we cooked more moqueca than we needed. Instead, we had to say to the restaurant clients we were sorry for the delay... Not really nice for a restaurant experience, but nevertheless some people did wait a long time for their diner. But also:
Lesson learned #5: If I was paying the due attention to the restaurant owner, I should have questioned his estimate a bit. But, I remind you, the kitchen was under considerable stress with the rice thing and so I just accepted what he said... But questioning was necessary not only to find how sure the owner was about his estimate but what should we do if he was wrong. Does this sound familiar to a project of yours? Not paying enough attention to what's happening because you're too busy solving some nasty issue?

The menu proved to serve its original objective, that is: to provide a meal with flavors out of the ordinary, everyday meals. But alternatives are also necessary, not only because of the clients that lack the necessary trust to go for something completely strange to them, but also because there were some people that for some reason wouldn't eat a particular ingredient (there were some that didn't eat cheese; others chili; and even eggs).
Lesson learned #6: Consider providing alternative courses. For desert, that worked like a charm with the encharcada and/or mango mouse. One other path worth exploring is gaining trust from the clients first: why not give them a bite to try what was being served first?

With all this issues and mishaps, one might thing that it was a diner next to disaster. This was not the case, not at all. In fact, when we were halfway the entire diner thing, the owner wanted to schedule another evening with me to go there and cook again. And in the end, he tried to convince me to choose a weekday to make the restaurant's "Moqueca Day". So why was it such a good experience?
Lesson learned #7: Start off with a solid foundation and you can't go wrong. In this case, the solid foundation included: the design of the menu; the technical ability of the chef; the trust among everyone working together to produce this event (even considering lesson learned #5). In other words, a good business case, competency and a real team. Not that much of a surprise, is it? I don't thing it's a coincidence if this sound like some project of yours...


Cooking for 50 people in a restaurant was a memorable experience. I don't think I'll do it again (I mean cooking for strangers), but it was memorable nevertheless. It was much more energy consuming than I expected: when the evening was over I was really tired. And I did use the word "stress" a few times in this article when in fact I'm almost stress free. But stress was all over the kitchen that evening.
The funny thing is that, no matter how different your project is, a project is just a project. The lessons learned from this project could actually apply to some other project...
And finally, even this was a really good experience, it wasn't the greatest thing in the world for all the people there: just imagine going out for diner with your husband/wife and being offered a menu where you couldn't eat any of the starters. The truth is that, at least for a couple having diner there, he doesn't eat cheese and she can't touch chili... no starters for them. So remember that keeping every stakeholder happy is really some hat trick!

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1 comment:

mba project management said...

what a creative way to teach love your post