You are SO right about the lessons learned. I went into this with fairly high expectations that this would be my best dinner ever, but once again I was humbled by my inability to anticipate EVERY single thing that could go wrong.
First of all, I was the architect of this entire event, and I had three volunteer crews. Set-up/decorating of 14, kitchen staff 7, and clean-up 10, of which I lost one kitchen staff the day before so make that six. I brought the setup and decorators in at noon so that we could get three dozen big parrots and a couple dozen Chinese beach ball lanterns suspended by fishing line from the ceiling before setting up seating for 80. The sign that says "The Clubhouse" on the exterior of the building was covered with a new sign that said "The Parrot Club", and the mens and women's room signs were replaced with Pirates and Wenches. Parrot decals went onto the mirrors. Every table (six tops) would be covered with sand-colored plastic and colorful little sandpails and seashells. Each place setting would be marked by a napkin roll tied with a colorful seashell beaded necklace.
The kitchen crew, only two of whom I've worked with before, showed up at 1:00. Before showing up yesterday morning, I'd already put in a good 60 hour week--and the number's only that low if you don't count the hours I spent awake worrying. I was the first person to arrive at 11:30 a.m. and the last to leave at 9:30. I was able to send my kitchen staff home at 4:30 to change for the main event at 5:00, and I stayed on premises and changed clothes in a broom closet. I not only provided supervision but the hardware too: every single pot, pan, mixing bowl, serving bowl/platter, knife, spoon, spatula, peeler, reamer, strainer etc came from my kitchen. It took my Murano SUV and a pickup truck to move everything over. A good eight hour day had already gone into just writing up the packing list and the sequence of food preparation because, for instance, I only own two large catering sized rectangular mixing vats and each was going to be used at least twice. Same with six trays and two large hotel pans.
The menu had been designed with other limitations in mind: one conventional merely medium sized home refrigerator, one really bad stove, and a pair of wall ovens. Certain things had to come out of the refrigerator so that other things could go in, and of course I could only bake or hold warm x-many items. By the time my kitchen help showed up, I had groceries and utensils grouped into six work stations, four of which were first priority, two of which were second priority after the first priority items were completed, and two more that had to be set up when the first six were out of the way. Oh, and we had to make the punch.
And I have to say, with one exception which I'll get to, I've never done a better job of planning. Everything was done when it needed to be. The cold stuff was chilling and the oven stuff was staying warm so we had a clean, quiet kitchen during the meeting. The grillers worked outside during this time. I couldn't have put one more thing in the fridge, but I had room for everything I needed exactly when I needed it. And leftovers at the end of the night? From 16 pounds of shrimp, six shrimp were left. From 40 pounds of chicken, about two dozen drumsticks. There was also about two-three cups of the lentil-rice dish, maybe two cups of the red cabbage-pea-cashew slaw, about four bites of the melon salad, and zero of everything else--grazers came forward for seconds and cleaned it all out. That's actually a little too close for comfort, but I couldn't have nailed the quantities any closer. We served the 'Cuban Crostadas' as finger food in little white pleated paper pastry cups at the tables when the diners sat down (on plastic plates that look like a pair of flip-flops), and served the key lime pie squares identically at the end of the night. In between, the diners came forward for the buffet where we had servers stationed at the shrimp and chicken platters, and everything else was self-serve. To keep traffic moving but not have any bottlenecks, I had an expediter in the dining room who would send one table at a time. It went like clockwork.
The two best dishes, fortunately, were the crostadas (I used lavosh, by the way, not flour tortillas) and the key lime pie squares which bookended the event. They were perfect bites, and I heard over and over that the key lime squares were the best key lime pie people had ever eaten. I have to admit--I agree! The addition of the cream cheese worked out brilliantly, as did that wonderful graham cracker-almond crust you reccomended. I would never want it any other way again. And they looked so cool in those little paper cups, each adorned with a slice of actual key lime. We found some in town--not juicy enough to make fresh juice from (I used a brand called something like Mel and Nellie's Key West Key Lime Juice), but good enough for a garnish! People thought they came from a bakery.
What went wrong? One minor, and one major. The minor one was that my kitchen staff got mixed up on my instructions on the crostadas--I made a demo and left them to make the rest because I was summoned outside to deal with some people who didn't have tickets but wanted to attend. But where I wanted eight plump rolls to deliver ten slices of each from, because the lavosh packages contained ten (six in one unopened one, and four in the other than I'd made my own test versions from on Thursday), they reversed the numbers and translated that to eight portions from ten crostadas and the filling was shared between too many pieces. I showed them how we'd cut off either end to account for the fact that you can't effectively spread filling all the way to the edge, had explained that we had exactly one heaping cup of filling for each lavosh, and I was sure I mentioned the word 'pinwheel', but I didn't take my demo all the way to the final point of cutting it open and laying a slice cut-side up
before stepping outside to solve an administrative matter. So only the first one was as fat as it should have been, and the last two they made were too skimpy. They'd imagined that we would lay it seam side down, not cut side up, so skimpy didn't really matter. We had to do some patching, but once all that was under a spoonful of the mango salsa, all looked beautiful and the crowd swooned over them. As hard as I worked everything out on paper to anticipate everything including human error, that one escaped me. Next time, I'll...oh wait, there isn't going to be a next time.
The major issue? The chicken. My grillers used too much charcoal and had too hot a fire, which charred the chicken and caused them to pull some of it when underdone, so some was inedible and the rest just had one big charred flavor. I'm on the board so I was in the meeting and couldn't monitor that end of things. I had Bob stationed outside for the purpose, but he evidently balked at telling those guys they didn't know what they were doing (he does precisely that in the management of multi-billion dollar projects, but somehow when it's personal....) I was hoping this would be the one meal I would finally be 100% uniformly proud of, but that's not how it feels today.
Which has a lot to do with why I never want to do this again. No matter how well I plan--and as a former Cost and Schedule Engineer I'm deadly on both estimating and critical path planning--I can't seem to control every single aspect. Something ALWAYS gets away from me, and I can't not take responsibility for what doesn't go right.
Just glad it's over.