I enjoy cooking a lot a lot. Which is to say I enjoy cooking lots of food for lots of people. I’m told I do pretty well cooking for large groups, but that’s not always been the case.
Mid way into adulthood, I’d never cooked at all. I was a wood worker and loved spending time in my shop. When in the mid 1970’s my first wife and I split up, I moved into a small apartment and lost access to a wood shop for a time. Quickly growing restless with no way to create with my hands, I turned to my apartment’s kitchen and learned to cook. Luckily for my friends and family, I mostly cooked for myself in the early, experimental days.
I was put off by cookbooks in much the same way I’d steered clear of plans and blueprints in my shop. I would eat something in a restaurant and then go home and experiment over and over and over again until it tasted good….not necessarily like the restaurant food, but good. This was not exactly a quick way to learn to cook, and there were some pretty ugly meals strewn along the road to culinary success, but eventually this trial and error process worked—people began liking my cooking. The more I cooked, the more people I cooked for, the more positive feedback I got. (I’ve been told by a psychologist friend of mine that my primary, de-fault motivator is pleasing those around me. Try convincing my wife of that.)
In late summer, 1980, my first real chance to do something really big cooking-wise came up. I’d had a jam at my house (by then I was out of the apartment and had a shop again, but cooking was now my number one avocation) and I prepared a sit down meal for the whole lot of us. Cajun cooking….jambalaya, dirty rice, ribs. It was a feast. A couple folks attended who happened to be officers of the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society and, after dinner, I approached them with a proposal—how about instead of doing the traditional potluck at the SCBS annual Fall Campout, I cook a Cajun meal for everyone. Each person would pay a few bucks to cover costs, the food would be great and folks could avoid the hassle of bringing the usual potatoes salad and baked beans to the potluck. “But can you cook for that many people,” one of them asked? “Sure I can,” I said without hesitation, “no problem.” They said yes.
There’s not much I’ve learned well enough in life that qualifies me to give advice, but here’s one piece I feel confident sharing: If you’re just starting out as a cook, don’t make your first large meal a dinner for 300 people. Start smaller and build up to it. We started food prep the day before—there were five of us—I was in charge and I had four helpers, none who knew anything about cooking for large numbers, all who thought I was nuts. For my part, I was the picture of confidence. The meal would be simple—a wonderful, spicy sausage and shrimp and chicken Jambalaya, crusty sour dough rolls and a nice, healthy green salad. I’d served that same meal to as many as 10 people before. What could go wrong?
Okay, so here’s what could and did go wrong. Because I was an inexperienced cook and relied on intuition alone, I intuited that the way to make Jambalaya for 300 people instead of 10 people was to just multiply all the ingredients times thirty. This, I learned, was only partly true. Yes, you need 30 times more sausage, shrimp, chicken, tomatoes, etc., but you most certainly don’t need 30 times more cayenne pepper and Tabasco sauce. That’s just not how it works.
By late in the afternoon of the day of the event we were busy filling huge aluminum serving pans with the jambalaya when one of the workers tasted it. It was my friend, Bill Schneiderman.
“Holy Cow,” he winced, “did you taste this,” Bill was fanning his mouth.
“Of course I tasted it,” I lied. Once I got a recipe down, I never tasted as I went….it just seemed like bad luck to me. “It’s supposed to be spicy. It’s Cajun food. Remember? Cajun!” I told Bill not to worry and, to be honest, I wasn’t worried. Billy didn’t have a tolerance for spicy hot food, and besides, I’d followed my own recipe to the letter. Thirty times everything. What could go wrong?
It was two years before I attended another SCBS event. It’s not that I was afraid to….after all, it wasn’t like I’d done anything malicious or on purpose. And I took the entire financial loss myself. And several people told me the salad and rolls were delicious, though not exactly filling. And late that night of the campout, a swarm of perhaps thirty raccoons descended on the Jambalaya, which had been left out on a picnic table, and in twenty minutes it was completely gone (they even ate two pot holders)—so really, no food went to waste. No, I certainly wasn’t afraid to show my face to the South Bay bluegrass community…I just felt I needed to let things, well, cool off a bit.
By 1982, with two more years of cooking under my belt and memories of the Jambalaya gone wrong fading, I felt it was time to take back my reputation. I hatched another, and ultimately much more dangerous, scheme. I’d become good friends with Paul Lampert, owner of Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco’s Marina District. From the 70’s to the 90’s Paul’s Saloon was without question the number one bluegrass venue on the West Coast—everyone from Monroe to the Osborn’s to Stanley to Skaggs and Rice had played on Paul’s stage. One Saturday night during a Grass Menagerie break, Paul and I sat sipping beers at the bar. As was frequently the case, Paul was grousing about how terrible business was, how people just didn’t appreciate good bluegrass music, didn’t appreciate him, etc.
“Dammit, whaddah they want from me….do they want my blood? Do they want my bones and my blood?”
“You know what this place needs,” I suddenly asked on impulse, without thinking a moment of what I was saying, “it needs AN EVENT. Paul’s Saloon needs an annual event, something to get people excited…..to look forward to all year long.”
“No,” Paul snapped. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but no.” Imagine the meanest, most ill tempered, crankiest, cross, sarcastic, Bluto-like person you’ve ever known in your life. Now imagine ten of those people kneaded and molded together and then rolled out into a single, frightening human form, huge, overalls-clad, ghostly white beard, sulky eyes behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, loud and perpetually angry voice….that was Paul Lampert. And in 1982 I was proud to call him my friend.
“No, really”, I said a bit unsteadily, “what we need to do is throw a First Annual Paul’s Saloon Barbeque and Bluegrass Blowout.”
“WE?”, he nearly screamed, “WE! You got a mouse in your pocket? This is my bar and I make the decisions!” And then he did scream—“NO! ”
And so that night, after several more beers and some Sake at the Sushi place around the corner from the Saloon, we began planning the first ever Paul’s Saloon Barbeque and Bluegrass Blowout. By now I was an expert when it came to making Cajun-style chicken gumbo, so we’d serve that, along with Cajun-style potato salad, Cajun hot links and sour dough sandwich rolls. I would front the money and get paid back when the receipts came in on the day of the event, we’d charge seven bucks a meal and split the profit. I would do all of the food prep, grilling and serving. The big event would take place on a Sunday afternoon two months hence—that would give us time to publicize it. Paul would hire High Country, more or less the house band, and my group, the Grass Menagerie, would open for Butch and the boys. Even Paul, the crankiest, most pessimistic human being in the history of mankind, was a little excited, though he made every effort to hide it. And why wouldn’t he be excited? We had a good plan. What could go wrong?
The next morning when I told my wife Lynn about the scheme (we’d been married only a short time at that point and she was not yet able to read my mind) she had a few questions: What if instead of a profit, there was a loss? Why would I want to work so hard to help such an unpleasant man? How would I know how many people to cook for? Who was I going to get to help me do all the work—not her? Where was I going to prepare all this food—not her kitchen? And finally, was I completely, totally out of my mind?
Of all the memories I have of the two days leading up to the First Annual Paul’s Saloon Barbeque and Bluegrass Blowout—running over Lynn’s planter of daisies as I backed my truck up the driveway to off load the boxes and boxes of food into the kitchen, my friend, Marilyn the Nurse, slicing her finger open as she cleaned and chopped up fifty pounds of chicken, blowing out the garbage disposal mid way through the operation, completely destroying our refrigerator–the one that stands out the most is the last bit of food prep done in the wee hours the night before the event. By then my four helpers had drifted off home, Lynn had gone to bed and there I was mixing up the last of the Cajun potato salad in the kitchen sink. Yes, an entire sink full of potato salad, and I was mixing it with my hands, my arms buried up past my elbows, when suddenly the cayenne pepper that had floated thickly in the air all day long got to me. I had to sneeze. There, at that critical moment, when so much hung in the balance, I too wondered—was I completely, totally out of my mind?
By noon the next day things were looking a lot better. We’d transported all the food—dozens of half-gallon milk cartons full of gumbo and potato salad—all the equipment–grills, utensils, paper plates–everything to San Francisco from San Jose. All my helpers had arrived and we were set up with serving tables and two big grills on the sidewalk in front of the saloon. Paul was in great spirits, barely screaming at anyone, and had even put on a Hawaiian shirt under his overalls. And Lynn was gradually getting into the spirit of the event—on the drive up I’d promised to replace our refrigerator the very next day. Yes, all was right with the world…the fog and clouds were beginning to burn off the Marina….customers were actually beginning to show up…..we’d begin serving in an hour and I was all ready to light off the charcoal. And that’s when a black and white pulled up to the curb.
“What are you doing?” asked the patrolman as he got out of his cruiser.
“What am I doing?” It was pretty obvious what I was doing since I held a lit match over a big mound of lighter fluid-soaked charcoal.
“Yes, what are you doing?” I could tell he didn’t like having to ask twice.
“Well, ah, we’re about ready to have a barbeque, officer.”
“Not on this sidewalk you aren’t,” the policeman said as he approached. I whispered to Bill, who was loading the second grill with charcoal, to go inside and keep Paul busy. “Do not let him come out here.” (If Paul came out onto the sidewalk, the situation would deteriorate very, very quickly.)
“So officer, what seems to be the problem?”
Patrolman McCarty, one of San Francisco’s finest I was to learn, read through the six city code sections that applied directly to the situation, and then just summarized two others that had peripheral relevance. In addition to cooking on San Francisco sidewalks, it was also against the law to start fires of any kind on them, to serve food on them, even to form lines of people waiting to be served on them. Walking, I gathered, was pretty much the extent of what San Francisco sidewalks were to be used for.
“Officer, tell me, do you like bluegrass music?”
The First Annual Paul’s Saloon BBQ and Bluegrass Blowout was hugely successful. We served 275 Cajun meals, Paul did the biggest bar in the history of the Saloon, bigger even than when Bill Monroe played there, and High Country was absolutely incredible—best I’ve ever heard them. It turned out that Patrolman McCarty was a Virginia boy and surely did like his bluegrass music. I told him about the band I was in, that we were going to play that night. He told me he was a dobro player and a singer but didn’t get to play with folks much since he’d moved out from Norfolk.
We talked for a few minutes and then he said, “Well, I’ll tell ya Rick. You can’t be cookin’ or servin’ food out here on the sidewalk. I won’t have a chance to get back by here before my shift ends in three hours,” he paused and looked directly into my eyes, “so, you’ve been warned. You understand what I’m sayin’?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Yeah, you understand. Now how’s about after work I go by the house and pick up my axe. You reckon I could sit in a spell with the, ah, whadya call it, the Glass Menagerie?”
“Right, right. You reckon?”
“We’d be honored,” I said.
“Okay then, I’ll see you later. And no barbequing….I don’t expect to see any of this stuff when I come back in three hours. We’re on the honor system. You hear?”
We had three more Blowouts after that first year, each better than the one before. We stopped only because Paul called it quits and sold out to a corporation that wanted to open a fern bar at 2513 Chestnut. I’ve gone on to bigger events, even more dinners, but never, ever, anything like the First Annual Paul’s Saloon BBQ and Bluegrass Blowout. Oh, and in 1995, the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society let me cook for them at one of their campouts. Excellent meal.