"Avarice needs to get moving in five minutes!"
"Someone get me more baking trays!"
"Where are the paper towels?"
According to Milton, Lucifer said that it was better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. He never said anything about serving in Hell.
Probably just as well. From what I can see, it involves a lot of heavy-duty baking trays and swearing at a cabinet trolley. I suspect it probably wouldn't make for great literature.
I'm in the kitchen prep area at O.N.C.E in Hell, the ten-course dinner theater extravaganza based on Dante's Inferno, presented by Cuisine En Locale and Oberon. This is my third O.N.C.E, but it's the first time I've ever been present as a kitchen minion (or should that be minor demon?) Tonight's service is well under way: Gluttony (beans and slow-cooked pork ribs) has just left; Avarice (turnip flan with celery root mash) is coming up next.
The baking trays aren't for baking. We're using the baking trays - slotted into cabinet trolleys - to transport plates between the kitchen area and the backstage area. My task for the night is to stick with Jen, JJ's assistant, and help her get the food from one point to the other without any mishaps. Between courses, I'll be conscripted into doing whatever else needs to be done - like collecting and cleaning the baking trays as they come back from the kitchen, so that they're ready for the next course.
Oberon is a club, not a restaurant. There's a kitchen area with a sink and bar fridge, but not an actual kitchen. Instead, the O.N.C.E team has brought in steam cabinets, coolers, electric burners, microwaves, toaster ovens, fans and even a fryolator, to create one.
We have folding tables set up end-to-end to create a counter for plating. For Avarice, I help lay out trays of red-and-gold bordered plates; Trevor moves down the line with a piping bag of chocolate ganache, tracing dollar signs, and JJ and others follow with individual flans, tipping them out of the molds.
(No photos. My hands were full enough without a camera. But you could try the writeup here.)
I scramble for the paper towels so that we can wipe off any stray drips, help Jen move the trays of completed plates to the cabinet trolley, and take one end for the trip down the long, twisty, bumpy corridor to the backstage area, praying we'll make it without any mishaps.
Unfortunately, prayers don't count for much when they come from Hell. The trolley is old, and one of the wheels comes off its track when we're halfway down the corridor, causing the cabinet to tilt at an alarming angle. There's considerable cursing as we half-drag, half-carry the trolley to the backstage area, and we hold our breaths as we pull the trays, hoping none of the finished plates suffered any mishaps.
Thankfully, we're spared that fate. The plates are fine, and once they've been handed off to the serving staff, we lug the trolley back to the kitchen area, where Annabelle manages to get it back on its tracks.
Now I just have to unload the trays, wipe down the trays, and start laying out plates (navy blue borders with gold edges) for Heresy while the rest of the team fills mugs with jasmine-scented kale salad for Wrath.
Our kitchen area isn't equipped to handle the kind of power a commercial kitchen demands. Tech has fiddled with the power so that we can theoretically run everything we need, but the circuits keep blowing. Trevor has been baking off the last of the pastry coffins in between blowouts, and the final batch has just finished cooling when we start to plate Heresy.
As Jen frantically communicates with front-of-house through her headset, we decorate plates with swirls of pumpkin puree, top them with pastry coffin vol-au-vents, fill the vol-au-vents with lobster salad, and add a final sprinkling of spicy dried chile powder.
Jen and I fill the cabinet with the trays of finished plates, and once again drag the trolley down the long, twisty, corridor, trying not to curse too much when we hit the bumps. We hand off the plates to the serving staff, and I drag the trolley back to the kitchen.
I'm starting to hate that trolley.
Violence is cold beet soup: the glass goblets are transported backstage in crates (no trolley!) and the serving staff pour the soup from pitchers. Our prep is thankfully minimal, giving me extra time to collect and wipe down baking trays for Fraud.
For Fraud, the menu indicates that we're serving Beef Wellington with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. While there is puff pastry and duxelles, it's been wrapped around firm tofu, not beef. (That's the fraud.)
Out come the plate-covered baking trays, and we move down the tables with pots of mash and pans of vegetables, following with slices of Tofu Wellington and saucing with mushroom gravy. The trays go into the cart, and we're back to the long, twisty corridor.
Back in the kitchen, we're experiencing technical difficulties: the electrical circuits are not playing nice with the fryolator. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they hate the fryolator almost as much as I hate the cabinet trolley. They're blowing every ten minutes. Heresy is supposed to be a mini beef slider with French fries; JJ makes the decision to eighty-six the fries.
The burgers are fine, however, and we wipe down the folding tables and lay out sheets of greaseproof paper. We set out buns, and JJ gives quick tutorial on how to wrap a burger for those of us who never worked in fast food. The patties come out of the oven, and we start wrapping as quickly as we can.
The burgers are served in paper bags with a pamplet from "Beelzebub's Burgers"; they leave the kitchen on two big trays, sparing us the task of dragging the trolley back down the corridor again.
The final course is Heaven: a dessert of creme anglaise topped with a meringue, garnished with basil-blueberry sauce. We set out wide-mouthed glasses, floating meringues atop creme anglaise and adding dollops of sauce. Once dessert leaves the kitchen, JJ ducks out to catch the Heaven performance, and the rest of us take a break.
By which we mean "nibble on the leftovers." After all, there are some perks to serving in Hell.
There are plenty of extra vol-au-vents, and I snag a spoonful of creamy lobster salad to eat with the flaky, buttery pastry. There are also extra turnip flans, which sound odd, but have a light, custardy texture, and a sweet, delicate flavor.
Peering into the steam cabinet, we find a bowl of beans and ribs, and extra slices of Tofu Wellington, gravy, and sides. The beans and slow-brined ribs are fantastic, but it's the Tofu Wellington that surprises me. Disturbed as I am by the concept, it's actually quite delicious. The tofu texture works well with the flakiness of the pastry, and the duxelles and the gravy are flavorful enough to make up for its blandness.
When snacktime is over, cleanup begins. As Jennifer, Trevor and Bee ponder ingredients and logistics for the next evening's show, I make my way to the much-despised cabinet trolley. I have yet another stack of baking trays to clean before my night is over.