Hosting large parties and catering events can be big opportunities for operators. But with it comes big challenges. Chef Adam Walker is one of the best, helming the kitchen at Panache Fine Catering and executing some of the most memorable events in the Baltimore/DC area. A McCormick alumnus, he came back to his old stomping grounds to spend a day in the kitchen with Chef Rachel to talk about how spices influence his legendary menus and spill his secrets for pleasing large crowds with memorable fare.
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Q&A with Adam Walker
YOU BEGAN YOUR CAREER WITH MCCORMICK. HOW HAS THAT INFLUENCED HOW YOU VIEW SPICES?
Some chefs see spice as an accent, but undersells it. Spices are the little things that make everything come together. When placing orders we tend to focus on the basics first: meat, vegetables, carbs. That’s what fills up the plate, but the magic comes from a store room well-stocked with spices, sauces, and bases. You can do so much with the basics with a little pinch of this, or a few dashes of that. They’re completely transformative.
SO YOU BELIEVE SPICES ARE SOMETIMES UNDERAPPRECIATED?
They can be. It’s so easy to look at spices as just another ingredient that is on your list, to underestimate how important things like freshness or quality of spices are. I know from personal experience if you use an old or lower quality cinnamon versus like a nice, fresh, high quality cinnamon, the differences are huge. I mean, huge-huge. All spices are not created equal. Ordering supplies can be hard for a chef. You can be ordering a hundreds of things in a week. And we are conditioned to prioritize center of the plate. We think, meat’s the most important, then vegetables, then sides and down the chain. So when you get to spices you may think, check dry storage and see what we need to stock up on. We may not hold the entire list to the same quality standards, but we should.
ANY CHALLENGES WHEN SCALING-UP RECIPES FOR LARGER GROUPS?
You always have to be at the steering wheel of the recipe. You can’t just multiply it times-twenty, and say “it’s done.” You have to taste it, you have to check it, because things like salt and spice can gain on you. It’s weird how it works, but a teaspoon of cayenne can season a gallon of chili or three gallons of chili.
Also, it’s so easy to underestimate how long it takes to make like 500 corn cakes. You think like, “oh, okay, these are just corn cakes and they’re simple. They only take minute to make one.” But 500 minutes is a long time. I’ve caught myself thinking I’m going to get a lot of stuff done in a day, and then it’s like “wow, I got one thing done today.”
My business is all about customization. We don’t have a set menu. We listen and enable each client’s vision. But we also know not to promise something we can’t deliver. We never say, “we can do anything,” knowing there are very real limitations in the catering world. Maybe a client doesn’t have the budget for the event they pictured, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give-and-take to create some amazing aspect for them.
The customer may be expecting the same exact food they’ve eaten in your restaurant. But it may be impossible to execute those things or maintain the same kind of quality outside of a fully equipped commercial kitchen. When you’re accustomed to cooking in a restaurant, things can get hairy when you take the show on the road. With catering it’s so easy to think that it’s just about the food, because that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s the part the client is enjoying and experiencing. But really, the food is maybe just a third of it. There is also transporting it, and then executing it onsite. When you’re planning the menu, it needs to be comprised of foods that hold nicely, or things that don’t need to be served piping hot. And you don’t want to have a chaffing dish that is roasting the hell out of everything and destroying its integrity. That’s the challenge that we are so integrated to do, but it is a challenge nonetheless.
ANY FUN HACKS FOR DEALING WITH THESE CHALLENGES?
If the budget seems a little low, buffets are always easier to execute. I’ve heard of people say, “buffets are more expensive, because people eat more.” And to me, that is almost like saying that “when you were going to plate it, you weren’t going to give them enough food.” People eat as much as they want. The more people there are, the more you can count on an average consumption on a buffet. Plan the menu with items that can be served in nice, beautiful, regular service ware: casseroles and platters and stuff like that--that allows the buffet to feel more like a feast and less sterile.
IS THERE AN EVENT YOU AND YOUR PARTNER ARE MOST PROUD OF?
There is longtime client of ours who has four daughters. Buddy likes to joke that’s an annuity for a caterer. They’ve called twice, and now their third is getting married. Anyway, they’ve built a working farm. It’s been their dream, to be on the farm, with pigs, some crops, and this picturesque piece of land. And that’s where we’ve done these beautiful, awesome weddings. We’re in their barn, and we have the cooking trailer out back, and it almost feels like we’re camping, as far as what we have access to. There is no kitchen, we built everything. We have these warmers, we the stove, we have the oven in the trailer. And it was completely plated, you know, multiple hors d'oeuvres, huge wedding cake… ridiculous flowers. The photos are amazing…it looks like fairy tale stuff. It is almost magic. All these people are there, and they’re on a farm, and they’re getting this immaculately plated food, champagne, perfect hors d’oeuvres, all that sort of stuff. And we are cooking out of a barn, it’s neat, it’s really neat. We’re not just cooking. We’re creating a whole experience for people with our business.
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