Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dinner Impossible Day (D-Day)

The day started out at Lilit Café in Bethesda. Veggie omelets with feta cheese, croissants, and coffee. (side note: the feta they use is incredible. It comes from Bulgaria)

I called...

For what? Earlier that morning, I had been invited by Chef Irvine to come and be his guest on the set of a Dinner: Impossible taping.

For those who aren’t familiar, Dinner: Impossible is a Food Network show starring Chef Robert Irvine. What is the premise? From Wiki: ‘With its name and other elements suggesting the 1960s television series Mission: Impossible, the program explores whether a multi-course meal for a large group can be prepared by the chef and his team with limited resources, no advance planning and in a fixed period of time.

So I was given a number and  told to call later for information regarding the taping.  Even a few hours before a taping, Chef Irvine has no information regarding the mission at hand (I mean none!) I called @ 10:45 and spoke with one of the producers who told me that the mission was underway and it would be best for us to arrive after 2pm.  In regards to location...I was given a cross street.


Shortly after 2pm, Gabi and I arrived to corner of 6th and C in Washington DC, where we anxiously waited to be greeted.  At this point we assumed that the taping had to be at the Newseum, considering that we were standing right next to it. Soon after we were met by Chef Irvine’s business partner Randall who confirmed our assumptions and led us into the Newseum.  After signing in and receiving our visitor’s badges we were led to the (makeshift) production room. Immediately Gabi tapped my shoulder and whispered “See who that is?” I had to been too busy looking at everything else that I hadn’t noticed that Marc Summers was sitting right there. In addition to the shows he’s produced on the Food Network we’d both grown up watching him on Double Dare. It just added to the feeling of surrealism. I kept thinking ‘This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life.’

We took a seat and began watching the action. Having just returned from the grocery store run, Chef Irvine and his team had just begun the prep work. We soon picked up on the “mission” they were working on - 300 VIP guests, 7pm deadline. Yep, that’s right. We got there at 2:15 and they had only just started prep work. No cooking. Just cleaning, chopping, and seasoning.

Ok. So he’s got about 5 hours left. He has 2 of his experienced sous chefs, 2 other helpers, and a few of the staff from the Newseum. A staff of 8 cooking for 300, not that bad, right? I mean, it seems doable, as 5 hours is a lot of time (I’m being facetious). While there were lulls in talking, the pace never slackened. It was a logistical nightmare. The prep area was separated from the actual kitchen and once you throw the camera men and production team into the mix it was a lot of people to work around. I don’t mean ‘a lot of people to have watching you’ either. I mean ‘hey this is a tight little space and I have got to find a way to squeeze through while holding ridiculous amounts of hot food’.

Keep in mind that while cooking, Chef Irvine has to keep tabs on everything. Literally. With his name on the line, there is really nothing that can elude his attention. How exactly does he manage to chop through a few large boxes of mushrooms and onions while making sure that the roux being made is up to his expectations, or that the cake being made is cooking evenly? Having witnessed it, we are still not sure. This is without considering the instruction that he has to give the one off amateur helpers on an ongoing basis. Thank God he is given a couple of great sous-chefs.

Now, I’ll admit to being a little naïve. From the first time I saw the show in 2007 it never occurred to me that the show was not what it presented itself as. I’ve heard (and read) many people say “It’s not real…” and things to that effect. However, I am amazed to say that every bit you see on TV is real. Robert walks in there not knowing a thing and it goes 1 of 2 ways: success or failure.

Is it really that clear cut? Yes. The pace is frenetic and the energy does not ebb. Having witnessed it myself, I am still unclear on how exactly Chef Irvine is able to wrap his head around all of it. Simply between the time limit and the number of people, I get lost. Not to mention the further restrictions (make shift kitchens, inexperienced kitchen staff, having to work around the camera and production crew) and the actual on the spot menu planning. And as crazy as the situation sounds, one has to realize that though he could just attempt to make a handful of dishes (and in doing so make his life a lot easier), he chooses to go all out and attempt to make over 20! I’m getting a little dizzy just thinking about it. It was evident that from the moment he arrives on location, he is behind the eight ball.

Some people mistake his demeanor for being rude, but let me tell you, this is a guy who knows what is on the line. Not just his name and reputation, but the stomachs of hundreds of guests. A party without food is not a party. It is with great seriousness that Chef Irvine and his team approaches these missions. He was never looking for shock value or to be entertaining by being cruel. He could care less about needlessly putting someone down. He had a mission to complete and a team to lead. So if you’re not helping, then get the hell out of the way.

The stress level is high the entire time, but with each passing hour it became more tangible. The movements became faster as the voices got louder and more desperate.

Forty-five minutes from the deadline and there was nothing finished. Of 20 some actual dishes there were NONE that had been completed. From what I understand this is completely common place.

So what happened? Did he finish in time? I can’t say. You’ll have to watch the Nov. 18th episode to find out, but I can tell you this: Seeing everything unfold with my own eyes is not something that I’ll soon forget. Is it fast paced? Yes. Exciting? Oh yeah. Impressive? Undoubtedly.

In conversation with someone else there, it was put perfectly: “Robert doesn’t focus on the cameras. He focuses on the food…TV is what is happening around him.” It rings true. An artist’s passion for his work allows Chef Irvine to focus on creating while captivating those watching.

(Gabi's turn to write)
Having been invited out as Chef Irvine’s guests, we waited around to introduce ourselves. He and Jonathan had been emailing back and forth for the previous year but had never had a chance to catch up. So, we hung out in the cafeteria serving section which had become a make-shift cooking area where Chef Irvine was currently finishing up some post-production tasks (that’s right, the show is not over just because the cameras turn off). We chatted with Marc Summers, the executive producer, and Tony Powell, the former White House Deputy Director of Presidential Food Services. Neither of them could stop talking about how much they love Chef Irvine and how thrilled they were that he was back on the show. Tony was also sure to tell us about all the Presidents Chef Irvine had cooked for and how much he appreciates him as a friend.

After everyone said their goodbyes and pictures were taken, Chef Irvine asked that we meet him at the District Chophouse for a round on him. We met up around 10pm had a drink, a toast and few laughs. Apparently Chef Irvine and the rest of his crew (David, Lee, and so on…) were very hungry. It was really no surprise, considering they had eaten nearly nothing since morning (seriously!). Jon and I suggested Founding Farmers, which has become one our favorite places in the DC area. (side note: we have had a very interesting history with Founding Farmers. In a later blog, we’ll give you the whole story) I called the General Manager, Christian (who we have become close with) to let him know that we were on our way.

At FF (Founding Farmers) we had some great drinks, delicious food and better yet, some awesome conversations. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the star mentality and not realize that these are real people with real lives who deal with the same struggles and fears that we do. I can’t tell how great it was to sit with a chef who I respect and hear about his life. There was nothing fake or showy about anyone’s conversation. It was simply a group of guys, who happen to love food, hanging out and having a great time.

So after desert (Robert, I hate to say I told you so, but now you know that the carrot cake is definitely the way to go for dessert at FF) we finished up our drinks (mmm…absinthe!) said our goodbyes and the long adventure was finally over.

Looking Back.
It was truly an amazing day to say the least. There is no way to walk away unimpressed after seeing that level of talent at work in such impossible circumstances. Also, there is no way to walk away without respect after a renowned chef is willing and wanting to sit with you and have a beer and meal. Chef: Jonathan and I have more respect for you and your team than ever and we only hope for continued success in everything you do.

I would encourage everyone in this: if you have yet to tune in, start watching! The show could not be more authentic. The people are real, the circumstances are real. It is definitely Dinner: Impossible!


Anonymous said...

yay! u guys made a blog! and it's about food! which means i'm happy twice!

Anonymous said...

oh and i put a link to your blog in my blog...not that that will generate a bunch of traffic cuz like 3 people visit everyday :)

monji said...

you guys are awesome!!

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