Meal From The Masters

Chefs' seven-course feast celebrates 16th anniversary of Rudys' 2900 restaurant

September 29, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Like a crystal-clear tomato consomme reduced to its summery essence, preparing a virtuoso, seven-course feast for 157 guests boils down to one vital principle: mise en place. It's a French phrase that means having all the ingredients for a dish prepared and ready to combine up to the point of cooking.

Sounds simple enough. But consider the mise en place required for creating such a meal, as seven certified master chefs from around the country did on Sept. 13 to celebrate the 16th anniversary of Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg.

The mise en place for the wild mushroom mousse alone -- just one component of one of those seven courses -- will take at least 12 hours, counting the veal stock, to prepare. The mousse, to be served with pan-seared marinated quail, braised red cabbage and sweet potato hay, is composed of many parts, each requiring its own painstaking mise en place.

And each course of the gala dinner will include as many as eight components, most of them demanding equally labor-intensive mise en place. If you pay $160 for dinner, you expect culinary pyrotechnics: vegetable medleys, savory pouches, bouquets spun from sugar. Spectacular special effects, wonderful flavors -- and no shortcuts.

"Without the proper mise en place, you're dead," says Rudy Speckamp, presiding nervously but happily over his kitchen on the day before the feast. Around him, chefs and a small army of assistants brandish knives, stem fresh herbs, strain stock, crack eggs with a one-handed flourish, all in pursuit of mise en place.

"Behind you!" someone shouts. "Coming through!" Even though the kitchen comfortably holds only eight, 16 people in snow-white chef's togs avoid colliding in a practiced ballet.

Gathering from around the country to fix sumptuous dinners is a way to socialize and share tales and techniques among this elite group, who have passed the grueling 10-day test administered by the American Culinary Federation that accredits them as "master chefs."

It's a "friendship thing," says James Hanyzeski, executive chef at the Houston Country Club, who will prepare the first course, a chilled tomato consomme with Maryland crab meat and cucumber ice. It's "good to get together with people that have been through it."

Like Hanyzeski, some of the master chefs here still cook. But there are those like Tony Seta, vice president of menu and product development for a restaurant franchiser based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who welcome the opportunity to perform again in the kitchen. Seta's course for the evening is a salad of baby frisee, mache and radicchio, served with port wine and dried fig vinaigrette and a Gorgonzola torte.

Since 1981, only 54 chefs, Speckamp included, have survived the punishing master chef test, which measures the highest level of achievement in the Culinary Federation's system of providing standards for food-service industry employers.

A chef may ace the exam's charcuterie prep portion with unsurpassed pates and other meat specialties, fly through terrines and plated desserts, but after too many 18-hour days, freeze while concocting a repast from a "mystery basket" of ingredients.

Even those who pass -- the most resilient and best-prepared -- leave in sore need of sleep and solace. "You can't study enough for it," Hanyzeski says.

Culinary iron men, like Speckamp and his brethren toiling in the kitchen, not only thrive under pressure, but welcome it as participants and coaches in events like the Culinary Olympics, the Escoffier competition in Nice, France, and the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie. Master chefs aren't necessarily the best in the country, Speckamp says, but they are among the most disciplined.

Judging by the scene at Rudys' 2900, they are also among the most good-natured. As they chop, butcher and trim, moving through stage after stage of mise en place, the chefs indulge in a little horseplay, gossip and song. "Tomorrow is the crunch day," explains Kevin Gawronski, director of culinary arts at Schoolcraft College in Michigan, who flew to Maryland with two smoked salmon fillets in an ice-pack-chilled duffel bag on his lap.

Nearby stands Tanya Speckamp, the chef's knowledgeable 12-year-old daughter (her favorite food is foie gras), watching her father's friends at work. "My dad has been hyper for the last week and a half," she says. "This is really important to him. [He worries that] something could happen at the last minute, like a spill. Then, what are they supposed to do?"

Rudi Paul, who runs the restaurant's dining room, arrives. "Oh my god, I've never seen so many people in this kitchen!" he exclaims. Within minutes, Paul is sweating over the guest list, determined that his well-heeled clientele will get along at their assigned tables. Then, he'll supervise the folding of 157 "bishop hat" napkins, a marathon that will take two people four hours to complete.

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