It's your worst nightmare: intimate dinner or big splashy event, and something goes horribly wrong. The causes can be legion. The only known antidote: humor & quick thinking. By: As told to Kate Meyers
Result: Flame throwing oven.
As a young chef, I was asked to do a series of dinners in a program called Great Chefs in Great Homes. This one was a 10,000-square-foot home overlooking San Francisco Bay. I was cooking a slow-roasted suckling pig that didn’t quite fit in the roasting pan—its nose was sticking over the edge.
Many hours into the cooking, just prior to serving, we looked through the oven window and saw fat dripping off the nose onto the floor of the oven and flaming up. When we opened the oven door, oxygen rushed in and hit the fire, and a 4-foot flame came ripping out of the oven! (continued on next slide)
What now? The host gave the toast, the guests began to clap, and we opened the oven, threw a sheet over the pig, and wrestled the pan safely out. Then we sprayed the oven with the extinguisher. We saved the pig and the dinner, but my crew and I worked until sunrise cleaning all of the extinguisher soot off the walls of this brand-new home.
Result: Creepy crawlies on the cake
Someone made a cake with white frosting and thought to decorate it with flowers from their garden. Once the candles were lit, we watched the inchworms that had been on the flowers stand up and dance because of the heat from the candles!
What now? Perhaps fresher isn’t always better. When in doubt, stick with decorations not found in the garden.
Result: Burnt chicken and years of laughs.
When my wife and I were first dating, I invited her over to my apartment to cook dinner for her for the first time. I had planned a very simple dinner, but I was still very nervous. The chicken was nearly done roasting when she arrived, so we sat down and started to drink wine… and later, I smelled the chicken’s burning skin.
What now? Needless to say, we ended up going out for Chinese food instead.
Result: Big kitchen, thick smoke, poor visibility.
The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in our first house, my mom and dad insisted on bringing a turkey. I’d celebrated the holiday with them for 30 years by then, but I had forgotten about my mom’s rule of turkey-to-person ratio: The turkey should always be twice the size of the largest child. That year, feeding six, they showed up with a turkey that weighed more than 21 pounds. I didn’t own a big roasting pan. We’d bought one of those ordinary flimsy tin pans from the grocery store, but this turkey was so huge that when we put it in the pan, it looked like an SUV parked on a coaster. (continued on next slide)
What now? Fat was dripping onto the floor of the oven. So, my husband took the thing out and wrestled the very heavy, very slippery, and now very hot turkey up high enough so that my sister and I could insert a collar made of tin foil around the edge of the pan. I’m happy to say it worked like a charm.
I was testing recipes for my book, working out the Winter Squash and Date Cake, which is a big, moist cake that I had planned to serve that night for company. I used a new pan, and the cake stuck to it. I had no choice but to pry it out.
What now? I broke up the pieces and made a “bread” pudding with it. It was delicious that way—soft and succulent with bits of dates here and there. It was, in the end, a very successful dessert. But I’d never make that cake in order to make that dish.
Result: Ice cream gets the cold shoulder
One summer evening during my graduate school years, I threw an impromptu dinner party. My guests included a couple of professors I wanted to impress. When it was time to move on to dessert, I invited everyone into the kitchen to scoop and assemble bowls of blueberry crisp and ice cream. My beloved dog, Feck, who had been on his best behavior all night, trotted into the kitchen with us. He settled away from the action. What a good boy! I was on scoop duty but missed an outstretched bowl and dropped a perfectly round ball of ice cream on the floor. Feck swooped in and vacuumed that ice cream ball right up. (continued on next slide)
What now? To this day, when food is being served, the pups are out of the house.
Result: Gobs of unservable dumplings.
At the Aspen Food & Wine festival in 2009, I was the chef picked to do an hors d’oeuvres party for about 150 at a gigantic mansion up in the hills. One of my seven recipes was a shrimp shumai, which is a foolproof dish of steamed dumplings stuffed with shrimp mousse and served with a citrus truffle oil. I had cooked in Aspen many times, but I had never steamed something at that altitude before. Well, I saw that the water wasn’t boiling hot enough. It came to a simmer, but not a rolling boil—a disaster for shumai. (continued on next slide)
What now? I saw this huge paella pan on the wall and thought, “We have this big grill here inside …” I cleaned off the pan, coated it with oil, added a bunch of minced scallions and ginger, and started heating it on the grill. I took my hundreds of shumai, and with two wet hands, smashed them thin. I covered the whole paella pan with them, and they crisped up beautifully. Then I flipped them and crisped them on the other side. I garnished with scallions, put the citrus truffle vinaigrette on the whole pan, and set it up on bricks at the buffet. I now serve “smashed shumai” in my restaurant.
Result: Two undercooked birds.
Dark meat has always been a premium at my house. There never seems to be enough. So last year, I decided to roast two smaller turkeys instead of one big one. What I didn’t think about was what happens to the cooking time with two birds crowded into one oven. The buzzer went off, I pulled them out, and they were a delicious looking golden brown. Four slices into the first bird, though, I noticed that it wasn’t cooked.
What now? About 55 minutes later, both birds finally were done to perfection, but I couldn’t help noticing that everyone kept checking their meat.
Result: Exploding ravioli
My contribution to a double birthday party for my now ex-husband and a friend’s husband was going to be a pumpkin Parmesan ravioli appetizer with handmade pasta. I wanted to do something over-the-top and really spectacular. I had never made the dish before and I knew you weren’t supposed to guinea pig people, but I had tried new recipes other times, and those had turned out fine. (continued on next slide)
What now? I had to recruit friends to pat the ravioli down in an assembly line and toss them in butter sauce. In the end, the flavors were good, but the texture was gooey.
Result: Omelet madness
After claiming for years that I wanted a second career as a short-order breakfast cook, I finally had a chance to showcase my mad skills on my daughter’s bat mitzvah weekend. Me cranking out omelets for 25 at Sunday brunch. How hard could it be? Years earlier, my mother had bought me an omelet pan with hinges in the middle to facilitate risk-free flipping. The pan was, in fact, nearly foolproof, so I figured four of these pans would be four times as foolproof. (continued on next slide)
What now? Still, to my knowledge, my pride and culinary dreams were the only real casualties of the day.
Result: Shells—sans shrimp.
I was cooking a dinner party for very much an A-list group of about 20 people in my New York City loft. I had 25 pounds of fabulous fresh shrimp, and I was doing a recipe that I was going to run in The Times. I juiced a little pineapple with some chiles and lime for a hot-and-sour marinade. Then, I grilled the marinated shrimp in their shells. As they were grilling, the shrimp themselves disappeared. They just shriveled away to nothing. All I had left were empty shells! (continued on next slide)
What now? On a dime, I had to replan the entire meal. But I dined out on the story for years.
Result: Candy coated chaos
One of my best friends is an actor named Karri Turner. She and I worked together on the set of JAG, and she’s a good old Southern gal like me. Living in L.A., she craves comfort food, so every year on her birthday, she comes through Oklahoma and I make her favorite dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, and pecan pie instead of birthday cake. I usually make the pies the night before, but one year I didn’t have time, so I did it all in one day. I’m used to a hectic kitchen, but when you have that much stuff going on, sometimes things go awry. (continued on next slide)
What now? We still laugh about that pie.
Result: A miniature-sized meal
This year’s Passover dinner was one of many that we’ve had in our home over the 18 years I’ve been with my husband, who understands that I grew up in a Spanish/Cuban family where it’s mandatory to serve more than is ever possible to consume in a sitting–mandatory! And to have tons of leftovers.
I was closing a deal at work, so we agreed that he would do the dinner: brisket and asparagus. We didn’t talk about the amounts, or about the other sides. I’m a micromanager, but I left it up to him. That night I walked in to dinner at the same time that the guests arrived, and he pulls out the brisket. There was maybe enough meat for the Olsen twins: It was one-fourth of what we needed to serve eight people! Then he put out like 24 pieces of asparagus. No roasted potatoes, no salad.
What now? At that point we were counting off the asparagus. I’ve never in my life had a dinner where the plate in front of you is empty before the meal!
Result: A not so sweet ending
How about the New Year’s Eve I made this awesome new punch recipe that called for powdered sugar? I could not figure out why the sugar kept settling on the bottom of the punch bowl. Turns out I had put in cornstarch instead of powdered sugar.
What now? Check the labels next time!
Result: Food comas, all around
This was before I went to culinary school and before I realized I had no idea what I was doing in the kitchen. I invited a couple of friends to join me and my boyfriend for dinner. I was in the nesting phase, when you’re kind of just figuring stuff out. I was like, “I’m going to make osso buco! And I will make a saffron risotto! And I will have a cheese board!” I’m not sure if I finished with a flourless chocolate cake or some sort of dense custard. Dinner was an endless parade of all this heavy, hypercaloric food. I don’t remember when we all passed out—I just remember waking up on the couch. We were all in food comas. I had absolutely no sense of how to put a meal together.
What now? Take inspiration from our entertaining menus.
Result: Stuck between a rock and a chocolate cake.
When I was the food editor of The New York Times Magazine many moons ago, I was invited to a dinner where I knew the hosts but none of the other guests. I volunteered to bring dessert: I was eager to make a recipe Craig Claiborne gave me for a lemon tart with a sheet of chocolate between the lemon and the pastry. Craig was peerless, but the recipe hadn’t been tested. That didn’t stop me for a second, but when I made the tart, the proportions seemed off: I thought there was too much chocolate. (continued on next slide)
What now? I ended up dishing out ice cream—and apologies.
Result: Pine-fresh cookies.
I wanted to impress the family with my homemade sugar cookies at our regular Sunday dinner. When my brother-in-law said, “Susie, these cookies taste like soap,” I thought he was teasing me. But I had wiped the kitchen counter with a pine cleaner and then put down a tea towel to lay out the cookies to decorate them.
What now? Next time, choose decorating surfaces carefully.
Result: Spitting peas
I invited company over once for Hamburger Helper. That might not seem like the kind of thing you’d feed company, but setting the bar low has been my culinary strategy for a very long time. I had a skillet. I had a spoon. I had hamburger, and I had Hamburger Helper. Everything was going right until I decided I needed a green vegetable. So I went and got a can of Le Sueur peas and got to thinking, “If you just opened the can and set it on the stove, would the peas not heat?” Bad things happen when you do that. First, the paper label caught on fire. I’m not altogether clear on what happened next—whether the seam opened or the peas just boiled out. But peas and pea juice ran down into the electric eye and began to spit at me.
What now: To turn the burner off on the stove, I had to reach over spitting peas. I didn’t impress anybody that day.
When my wife and I lived in San Francisco, we were good friends with neighbors in the apartment upstairs. Bill was a fantastic cook, and we ended up at their place most Sunday evenings for his amazing chateaubriand. We wanted to return the favor, and all was going well as we cooked Mark Bittman’s salmon with pinot noir sauce. Then everything unraveled when we got to dessert—poached pears with Marsala. A pint of Marsala seemed like a lot because when we went to the supermarket, all of the packages were very small. But we rechecked the recipe and forged ahead. When it came time to serve dessert, our friends looked at the dish, a little surprised, and asked what we’d cooked. We explained the recipe, and the difficulty we had had finding enough garam masala in the spice aisle. As we explained our attempts to make the dish a bit less dry, Bill, with some amusement, explained what the recipe had actually called for. Neither of us had heard of Marsala wine before that night.
What now? Google.com