It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning. My alarm goes off and I jump out of bed and into the clothes I laid out the night before. I quickly self-administer two cups of coffee, brush my teeth and hit the road.
I’m heading out to Stockbridge, MA to be part of a team working under Brian Alberg, the Executive Chef of the Red Lion Inn at an Outstanding in the Field dinner. For those not familiar with Outstanding events, they are renowned for their food and drink, but also their setting. The venue for today’s event is Lila’s Farm in Great Barrington.
After a dark drive on the Pike, I find my way to Alberg’s kitchen by 7:45 (For those of you exploring a career in the culinary arts, there’s a saying in kitchens: “If you’re on time, you’re late.” Always show up 15 minutes before your start time.). Alberg fortifies me with more coffee and I'm ready for the day.
Breakfast service at the hotel is already in full swing, and as the rest of our team assembles, we need to stay out of the way of the cooks and porters who are already deep into their workday. Our able crew consists of several members of Alberg’s team as well as teams from The Williams Inn and Allium Restaurant.
By 9:00, the The Red Lion Inn van is loaded and ready to head to the site. Alberg’s team has been preparing for this dinner for weeks and our van is full of ingredients: raw, pickled, smoked, fermented, brewed, and distilled.
The back of the van is stacked like a expert-level Jenga puzzle, so our drive from Stockbridge to Great Barrington is slow and steady. To our relief, our caravan arrives at Lila’s Farm with everything upright and intact.
So now, the fun begins: guests are expected to arrive by 3:00 and before that, tents need to go up, a kitchen needs to be constructed, final prep work has to be completed and a table for nearly 200 guests needs to get laid out. Fortunately, our group is only responsible for the food at this event and the Outstanding team takes care of the tents and table. (Since rain is in the forecast, the organizers have decided to take out the insurance policy of erecting a tent for 200. This turned out to be an excellent call as during dinner we get hit by several very heavy downpours.)
Alberg gives us all our stations and assignments for the rest of the day and I am excited and terrified to discover that he has appointed me as the lead on hors d’oeuvres for the cocktail reception. I gather my crew and our ingredients and head down the hill to the barn to build our makeshift kitchen and prepare for the reception. If this was a movie, at this point, the day’s activities would have entered the montage stage. Imagine flashing knives, platters flying, faces set in stony concentration, and the occasional playful obscene gesture , all set to a bouncy pop-music beat.
After the cocktail hour ends (and a hour has never gone by so fast), we run up the hill to help out with the rest of the meal.
As is customary at these events, each course is presented family style, which makes for slightly faster plating, but each plate has a lot of components. No matter how organized things feel when each course’s plating begins, we all end up in a table-top version of Twister: our arms intertwined as we try to get that garnish right, or wipe the spots off a plate. As each course is presented to the tables, we wipe down the plating station and get ready to do it again for the next course.
And so it goes until the meal concludes with the kitchen team walking around the table to resounding applause from the diners. During the day I had the chance to speak with a number of the dinner guests. Diners ranged from Outstanding devotees who follow the events around the country and try to attend as many as they can, to locals who are fans of Alberg and the farm, to folks celebrating a special occasion (One gentlemen proposed to his girlfriend at this dinner and yes, she said “yes”!).
We load the van back up and drive back to Stockbridge and the Red Lion. Since Alberg has a full crew and someone is always in the kitchen, I am incredibly grateful to hand off the unpacking of the van to the night crew. It’s been a long day, but a great experience.