On Friday, I had the privilege to hang out much of the day with Chef André Poirot of the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock. He had two events going on at the same time that I wanted to see, one of which was a local foods dinner for the Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association. (The other was a kosher meal for the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, which I’ll post later this week. Truly fascinating.)
Chef André is a hoot. You’ve probably seen him on TV or at the Arkansas Women’s Show, which I covered here. His on-stage interaction with Paula Deen is a story unto itself.
He teaches Culinary French at Pulaski Technical College’s Arkansas Culinary School, which I am taking this semester. J’ai bien mangé! I love the class, but it’s a lecture-style elective that doesn’t show his mastery in the kitchen. Friday, I got to see it firsthand. I’ll write another time about the tour he gave me through the bowels of the Peabody: never-ending kitchen after prep room after kitchen.
The local foods dinner, the highlight of the Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association conference last weekend, was a special challenge for Chef André and his banquet staff. Usually, they have total control over the product, its use and appearance. This time, the customer (local farmers) provided the product, which in some cases was quite different from what they were accustomed to.
As the assigned staff arrived to assemble the dinner plates, the earlier-completed salads were placed on speed racks (huge rolling cases made to hold several metal trays of food) and wheeled toward the banquet location. Word came back from the steward delivering the salads…”These tomatoes are wilted! They won’t do!” In actuality, they were fine, but were softer, purply heirloom tomatoes that had a different texture (and lots more flavor) than the kitchen’s standard fare.
I was allowed to work with the plating staff and assemble the dinner plates. (Let’s not talk about Christian, the executive sous chef for the Peabody’s Capriccio Grill, who tricked me earlier into thinking he’d let me do some prep work for him. I ran to wash hands and grab my knife kit, then…not so much.) As we lined up at the long, stainless steel table, covered with bright, hot lamps, one plater said: “This is it?” The banquet manager clarified: “This is a little more rustic than we usually do.”
Don’t misunderstand: the plate was lovely. Knowing the audience, a group of farmers and others passionate about the farm-to-table movement in all its rustic beauty, I knew it would be well received.
I placed about 170 plates’ worth of diced heirloom tomatoes that night, atop little mounds of delicately sauteed spinach. As each plate worked its way down the line, one of about seven platers would scoop, place or wipe according to his own assigned task: brown rice, poached chicken, mushroom sauce, spinach, tomatoes, clean the edges. The last man covered each dish of Arkansas treasures and placed it in the hot box to be delivered to the banquet hall.
After we completed all the dinner plates, including about 10 vegetarian versions (cheese raviolis with the same spinach, tomatoes and sauce), Chef André sent one more chicken plate down the line. He said it was for me.
I happily ended my evening in the staff cafeteria, savoring the flavors produced by Arkansas farmers, a French chef and his staff. Amazing.