Monday, 21 February 2011
The Montpelier Basement - Behind the scenes
The last time I actually wrote about our Bristol supperclub ‘The Basement’ was just after our second event in October last year. We were complete novices back then embarking on an exciting new venture, fresh faced, young and naive. Much has happened since then. 12 suppers later, and we’ve been transformed into grizzled veterans; complete with scars, burns and wry smiles that seem to say ‘we’ve seen stuff’. But, and this is the nice thing; one of the reasons that we continue is that each event is still as incredibly exciting as the first.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all takes a hell of a lot of work. In the weeks before there’s the actual administration, announcing dates, emailing backwards and forwards, replying to people who want to come and filling spaces if people drop out. (Last minute cancellations being the absolute worst nightmare of a supper club. The ingredients are bought to order, and it’s not like a restaurant where you’ll get passing trade to fill those places), luckily we’ve not been troubled too much in this regard, *touch wood*
Then there’s setting the tables, cleaning the cutlery and glasses, ironing tablecloths (and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of napkins), drawing up seating plans and building a fire. This is all before we’ve done menu planning, emailed this out to our guests, and then spent at least a couple of days shopping.
Buying ingredients for a supper club presents it’s own problems. You want to cook pork cheeks? Superb. Now try and ensure you’ve got two each for 34 people on the exact weekend you want them. But what’s this? There’s been some kind of balls up at the butchers and the aforementioned porcine cheeks order hasn’t turned up in full and it’s too late to find anything else. So do you scrap that idea and cook something else entirely? It’s often a logistical nightmare I tell you.
Then there’s the sheer bulk of what you have to buy. How about 30 onions, 20 leeks and six kilos of pork belly? Not having a car means I’m slowly developing the squat, muscular build of a man who’s forever humping heavy bags of vegetables and meat for miles and miles in an urban environment.
The night before (or sometimes two nights before, depending on what’s on the menu), we begin to cook. Preparing as much as we can in advance to give us a fighting chance on the actual night of the supper. We have a four-burner hob and one oven. Trying to cook an eight-course menu on that for 17 can be incredibly tricky unless you plan it carefully (as we’ve learnt to our cost when horrified, we discovered three things we should be cooking, had to be in the oven all at the same time, at different temperatures. As you can imagine, much panicked juggling ensued!)
So we bake tarts, make ice cream and simmer stocks, normally working well into the night. The morning of a ‘Basement’ involves getting up early, shopping for last minute items and then cooking, cooking and more cooking. We write a ‘to do’ list; stick it up on the kitchen window and cross stuff off as it’s complete.
No matter how much time we think we have to prepare, the last few hours before a supper always pass in the blink of an eye. There’s normally the slightest moment of calm, a limbo where we wait for the first guest to arrive, and then we’re off, it’s wacky races (I’m Dick Dastardly, and I wont tell you who ‘E’ is……..Ok, who said Mutley?)
We both cook, and love it, sharing all the prep and the actual cooking on the night but we’ve also learnt to play to our individual strengths. ‘E’ has much experience of managing restaurants and waitressing, so she normally takes on the role of maitre d’ and waitress (Moving through the diners, smiling and balancing ridiculous amounts of plates on each hand “gracefully, like a swan” as one of our more poetic diners put it).
My own skill set lies more towards verging on being utterly OCD where it comes to tidiness and organisation. Basically, in between cooking, I wash up and put stuff away like a man possessed. (Finding enough space to plate up 17 dishes is hard enough even with the worktops clear!)
Obviously there’s some overlap, I sometimes act as greeter, clumsily bring dishes out to tables or clear them away and ‘E’ sometimes helps with the washing up (although she absolutely detests doing it), so actually it all works like a well oiled machine…sort of.
One of the main problems is getting the food out all at the same time and hot, but we’ve become pretty adept at getting this right. Making sure the plates are warmed beforehand is a must. (So, just one more thing to cram into the oven then yeah?).
Normally the main course involves much frantic activity, more often than not it’s served with accompanying vegetables and side dishes, which means mucho hob juggling trying to cook everything and keep it hot.
But once it’s all out and our guests are eating, it’s cheesy grins and high-fives. We’re over the ‘hump’ and it’s all downhill from here, (often literally, this is normally my signal to start drinking…. extravagantly). We come out of the kitchen for a bit, mingle, chat to everyone and have a drink with them before finishing off with the desserts and our signature savoury of Gorwydd Caerphilly and Bristol Beer Factory rarebit.
Then, feeling immensely satisfied, elated and buzzing it’s more mingling, chatting and drinking until in the early hours eventually people start to call it a night and drift off home.
Then it’s a sit down, a chat over a drink about how we thought the night went, perhaps a swift tidy up (That would be me), and then off to bed, to get up early and probably do it all again the next day. (Our preference of late is for back to back ‘Basements’ on a Friday and Saturday, it makes for a more manic time, but it means that people who want to come, can and we get some weekends off too…. it’s a tiring win/win).
But wait, the work doesn’t end there. Did I mention trying to get wine stains out of tablecloths? Or the problem of trying to get rid of all those empty bottles? God knows what our bin-men think; let alone our unsuspecting neighbours. Our recycling bin is normally bursting at the seams with 40 odd empty wine bottles on most Mondays…
If you fancy coming along and contributing to our Monday wine bottle mountain, then drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add you to the mailing list.
Oh, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @montpelierbsmt