2012 Behind the Scenes at Cape May’s Farm to Table Dinner

Cape May, NJ -  It’s the night of the big Cape May Forum Farm to Table benefit dinner. In an hour and a half, 185 people will fill the Congress Hall ballroom for this Slow Food feast, celebrating fresh and local ingredients. But it’s anything but slow behind the scenes.

5:20PM. Chefs Lucas Manteca and Jeremy Einhorn are in the Congress Hall kitchen looking over freshly picked and washed greens. Ten days earlier,  they inspected some of those greens still in the field at Cape May’s Beach Plum Farm. Now, it’s D-day. Time to turn those greens into  salad.

A three person assembly line hops into action.  The first person puts romaine on the plate. Manteca,  the executive chef at the Ebbitt Room, meticulously positions mizuna and mibuna greens and a single radish with leaves. Executive sous chef Jesse Goffredo adds some fennel and slides the plate onto a tray.  They don’t dally.  The process is repeated 200 times. It takes 40 minutes.

It’s 6PM. The first guests are now arriving. While the salads are being made,  Einhorn, the executive chef at Congress Hall, is finishing the potato hash – the chefs taste as they go.

Much of the food is already prepped.  Two of the main dishes for the night, local chicken from Beach Plum Farm and local flounder, are waiting and ready for the oven.  Beans for the third entree, a cassoulet, are simmering in a huge cauldron on the stove and get an occasional stir.

At 7:25PM,  the chicken gets a final once over before it slides into the oven.

Then it’s 7:45PM. Curtain time. The salads are up first.  But they’re not finished.

The pace ratchets up a notch.  All 200 salads are laid back on the stainless steel work surface.   The chefs quickly top each plate with a final garnish and a squirt of citrus vinaigrette, then waiters and waitresses snag plates as soon as they’re ready.

Soon after, soup is dished up into 185 waiting bowls.

There’s a pause in the kitchen during the dinner’s program.   When it’s time for the main course, the kitchen gets rearranged.  The work table splits into two. Heat lamps and stacks of plates appear. The major offensive is starting.

It’s 8:58PM and the roast chicken is pulled from the oven.

185 people are now waiting for their dinner. There are three different entrees.  The chefs and two others start plating furiously.

Manteca assembles each bowl of cassoulet on the spot. He ladles out the beans then adds pieces of local pork and duck to each bowl.

Einhorn arranges locally grown kale on each plate, scoops some risotto then carefully places the stuffed flounder on top.

Each plate of chicken gets a dab of sauce on its way to the door. A floor director keeps track of each table and shouts out directions to the wait staff, who grab the plates almost as soon as they’re finished.

Within a half hour, the kitchen crew has created 185 perfect looking plates of food.  Do the math. That’s roughly six dinners per minute.

The Slow Food dinner got rave reviews from the diners.  What many in the dining room probably never realized is how fast their slow food really was.

The event raised money for both Cape May Forum and Slow Food South Jersey.  Both groups are helping to promote the use of  local foods in the Cape May area on a daily basis.

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About Jane Kashlak

Jane Kashlak - a journalist, gardener and Cape Island resident - is writing a book.