Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Braaaaaaains ...

No, I'm not going to write about brains as food - at least not yet. What I'm talking about here is one of the most useful kitchen tools for cooks who have to make the occasional huge feast: The Brain Book™.

I'm quite sure others have come up with similar concepts before - I don't claim at all that this is original - but I got the idea for The Brain Book™ after watching a good friend organize a miniature-painting competition. She had a box which she referred to as "the brain", which contained all the paperwork, reference sheets, rules and other documents. When one of the many people assisting her needed to know something, the answer was usually along the lines of, "I don't know, check the brain."

Now I'm one of the first people to admit that I'm not the most organized person in the world. In fact, my organization skills have been scientifically measured as being the third-worst in all of recorded history. This is why, when thought about "the brain" in terms of a way to organize cooking feasts, I immediately saw how useful it could be. So two and a half years later I finally managed to get around to putting it into action (which is a pretty good turnaround time for me).

So what goes into The Brain Book™? Good question!

What goes into The Brain Book™
I start with a thin 3-ring binder - one of the ones with a clear pocket on the front and two pockets on the inside - kind of like this one. All of the pages that go inside are put in clear plastic sheet protectors - an especially good thing in a kitchen, where a notebook naturally attracts substances like grape juice and peanut butter. The actual contents, in order of appearance, are as follows:

  • Shopping list
  • The Menu
  • Pre-cooking and prep work schedule
  • Cooking schedule
  • Plating and garnishing guide
  • Recipes
  • Receipts envelope

Shopping List
This is one of the few things in the notebook that doesn't go into a sheet protector because it's a multiple-page document. Instead I staple it and put it into the inside-front pocket. I usually work up the shopping list in a spreadsheet. All the ingredients for each recipe are listed, with the quantity needed multiplied out for the entire feast. Then I sort by ingredients and total everything up. Finally I add a list of all the non-food items (e.g. paper towels) I'll need at the bottom. When things are purchased, I check them off on the list. This seems simple, I know, but it really does help things.

The Menu
Not much to comment on here. This is mostly so the other staff in the kitchen can check on what goes out with what.

Pre-Cooking and Prep Work Schedule
This is a one or two page, day-by-day listing of what needs to be cooked or prepped in the week or so before the feast. For example: Monday - bake & freeze 2 batches of bread, Tuesday - buy tart crusts, Wednesday - put frozen meat into refrigerator.

Cooking Schedule
This is another spreadsheet. I break the day down into 1 hour segments across the top, and have the full menu (broken out into sub-components of a dish where necessary) down the left side. Then I mark out when things need to be chopped, cooked, put into holding boxes, plated, and served. The part of the schedule that covers the actual feast is sometimes broken down into 30 or 15 minute intervals when appropriate.

Plating and Garnishing Guide
A list of every dish, grouped by course. It states what kind of serving plate should be used, what serving gear (e.g. spoon or fork) should be included, and how the dish should be garnished.

One page per recipe, with the full list of ingredients and complete instructions. This year I'm experimenting with adding a "red card" to recipes where I need to make accommodation for guests with particular food allergies - I'll let you know how it works out.

Receipts Envelope
This is so I can get reimbursed for any money I've spent. It gets tucked into the rear-inside pocket of the notebook.

This seems like a lot of work, but it's worth it. During the feast, any of the kitchen staff can determine on their own what work needs to be done, how something should be cooked, and how and when it should be served. Because of the redundancy, multiple people can be working on different things at the same time (e.g. two people can be working on different recipes, another can be plating, and another can be instructing servers). This hugely improves the efficiency in the kitchen, reduces stress, and helps prevent mistakes. It's also very helpful in that during a feast, when the staff asks what needs to be done and my mind has turned to mush, I can say, "I don't know. Check my brain."


Unknown said...

great info! Very similar to the way big events are run in mundane food service.

Unknown said...

It's normally very helpful running either mundane or SCA events if you have some historical records to the even to consult. Or are you mearly looking at the feast here? Not concerned with the setup of the whole event?

Doc said...

I pretty much stick to cooking feasts. You're right though, having records from previous events would be very helpful to the event steward.

There is a bit of that for me when I make up a brain book too, in that I usually start with the one I used for the last feast. It helps me remember the sort of things I like to put in the notebook, eliminate parts that didn't work, and make sure I don't forget something that did work. It's a bit of an evolutionary process, really.