This is a topic I’ve thought about writing a guide about for a while now, while Master Drake Morgan writes a very detailed allergy management guide (Feast Allergy Management in the SCA – by Baron Drake Morgan (Craig Jones) ) and Mistress Anne de Tournai has published an exceptional feasting primer (Project managing your feast from concept to success) , I find both of these are aimed at the Feast Steward/Head Chef/Solo cook. In my experience there are a large number or people who want to get involved in helping in kitchens, some because they love cooking at home and want to continue that in an SCA context, others because they find it quieter and less stressful in the kitchen than outside with all the people/action/everything – but in noting that I haven’t been able to find a guide to introduce people to the SCA feast kitchen (if you find one please let me know!)
I am by no means a classically trained Chef and my views are my views – you will undoubtedly find other people who work differently and/or will advise different things. There is no one path to success in the kitchen, however there are generally a few common points that are shared between all cooks.
This is Version 1.0 – Last Updated 10/01/2018. Please contact me with any corrections/suggestions.
I am Lord Amos Ironbeard, current resident of the Barony of Innilgard in the Kingdom of Lochac. I have been cooking for a large portion of my life in an amateur capacity, one of the concepts that originally sold me on the SCA was the concept of Feasts and Historical Cooking. I soon managed to blackmail my local Baronial Council into finding me an Event Steward for my first feast (I threatened to Steward as well as cook) and I’ve been involved in SCA kitchens, serving as Head Cook at least once a year since 2015 and often helping others, assisting in other kitchens or providing advice to new cooks.
Event Steward/Steward – The person running the overall event and is responsible for the Front of House – setup, packdown, officer management, decorations, entertainment, advertisement, bookings, budget – all these things will be handled by the Steward in conjunction with local officers and event staff.
Feast – For the purposes of this guide you can use this to mean any event where there is food being prepared and served to the attendees, but generally speaking a feast is a specific sit down event with a set menu of foods provided.
Feast Steward/Head Cook – I use these terms interchangeably – the Feast Steward is the person responsible for the kitchen and food. They will plan the menu, manage their part of the budget, recruit Kitchen Staff and Servers, develop timetables/running sheets, develop strategies for coping with allergies and generally coordiante kitchen operations.
Kitchen Staff – These people are a key element to any feast. Some kitchen staff may only be involved in pre-prep before the night, some before the event starts and some will be invovled for the whole process. Kitchen Staff also includes those who assist in dishwashing as this is a key component to a well run kitchen team.
Pre-prep – Short for pre-preparation, it is the act of preparing things in advance before the event. This can include pre-making pies/pastries to be baked/heated and served on the night, or it could include long term food items such as pickled vegetables that need to be started weeks/months before the event.
Running Sheet – The timetable developed and set by the Head Cook to determine when certain dishes need to be started, cooked and served – designed to work the with Feast Menu and the resources of the kitchen (stove space, oven space, etc)
Differences between Home Cooking and Feast Cooking
There are a number of critical differences that come into play between Home Cooking and Feast Cooking. Some people interested in cooking will have years, if not decades of experience in Home Cooking, will be able to produce delicious food with minimal stress while others may have little to no experience in cooking and preparing meals and may be keen to learn. However, regardless of past experience in Home Cooking there are a number of differences to be aware of, so they don’t become pitfalls:
– Size and Scope: A typical home cooked meal may be for 1-2 people, it may be for a family of 5. A typical small SCA feast may range between 30-40 people and the larger events only grow from there.
– Modern vs Historical: Most of us are familiar with how modern food is made, even if we can’t quote a recipe off the top of our heads. That’s generally because we’ve been exposed to it, eaten it, may have helped make it – for a significant portion of our lives. Generally speaking (with few exceptions), Historically accurate food comes as a new experience to new cooks in the SCA. Ingredients are different, flavor profiles change, methods change – and these can all vary on the same dish depending on the redaction used.
– Funding and Cost: Generally speaking when we cook for ourselves or family, we personally bear the burden of costs. If we make a mistake, it’s generally ours to make, and if something goes wrong our family will (hopefully) be understanding. When we cook in the SCA we are generally using an advance funded by our local group (this could range from several hundred to thousands of dollars), we are providing goods and service to paying customers (the feast attendees) and we’re doing it as representatives of a private not-for-profit company (SCA Ltd). Practically speaking this places more responsibility on the kitchen staff to not waste material and to account for uses (Generally the Feast Steward/Head Cook will have to present all receipts to the local Reeve/Treasurer as a legal requirement for reimbursement/proof of purchase).
– Efficiency: When we cook at home we generally have the luxury of setting our own timetable and working at our own pace. For an average family meal for 5 people there may be 3-4 dishes, including things like cooked vegetables and dessert. We can usually leave things simmering in the pot or keeping warm in the oven until we need them. In the Feast Kitchen for 35-50 people there could be as many as 10-15 dishes across 3 courses, stove and oven space can be at a premium and there may not be the luxury of being inefficient with resources and time.
– Teamwork: Cooking at home for a lot of us will be a solo experience or with a small amount of help. In most feasts the Head Cook will rely on their Kitchen Staff to make the feast work. Working with other people and coordinating actions – moving around a confined kitchen space with hot liquids, sharp knives and tight schedules can be a daunting experience for the first time but the result is highly rewarding.
– Set Recipe & Menu: I know when I cook at home, I will occasionally adapt dishes on a whim, try new things and play fast and loose with recipes. After all, I’m cooking for myself, with my ingredients and if I make a mistake I’ll learn something. Cooking for a feast with a number of paying attendees and other peoples resources is a whole different matter and a Feast Steward will go to lengths to develop set recipes for the budget they’re given. Using too much of one ingredient can lead to another dish failing, likewise not using enough can lead to wastage – never a good thing.
Adapting from Commercial Kitchen Techniques
There are a number of common techniques in Modern Commercial Kitchens specifically designed to meet the challenges of cooking for large numbers of people with finite resources/time while maintaining safety. I cannot hope to cover enough to offer any kind of professional training in this guide but I do want to touch on a few key concepts.
Safety & Hygiene: Some of the biggest safety issues in a Feast Kitchen revolve around teams and working with others in a safe fashion. In addition, each State/Territory will have specific rules as to Safe Food Handling Laws/Guides that must be followed – your Feast Steward should know these at a minimum. Anyone serious about working in SCA Feast kitchens should look at undertaking SITXFSA001 Use hygienic practices for food safety – it is offered online by a number of providers, generally costs under $50 (which may be able to be covered by your local SCA group – speak to your Local Seneschal/President for more info) and provides a wealth of knowledge of safe food handling, storage and cooking.
When moving through a kitchen with a sharp knife, hold it in a way that won’t cause injury to people if they were to turn and bump into it. When moving behind someone with a sharp item or a hot item, it’s customary to call “Sharp behind” or “Hot behind” – this lets people know not to turn around suddenly. If you hear these calls you should verbally let the person know you hear them. When moving large and heavy amounts of hot liquid like a soup, I like to plan my route from kitchen to serving area and will generally task an offsider to come with me to open doors and help call out to clear the way. It takes an extra minute or two but makes the experience much safer for everyone. Think about your actions before you make them.
Basic Knife Skills: If you’re anything like me, you might not have learnt proper knife skills at home growing up – it was just whatever worked. This is a terrible habit and one that must be broken, not just for personal safety, but to avoid injuries that contaminate food with blood (if this happens, throw the contaminated food out, don’t take chances with peoples health). Usually your Head Cook will arrange kitchen tools for you to use, it is a good idea to make sure they are clean and sharp before you begin. A lot of us in the kitchen will chat, sing and joke as we work, but it is always important to be conscious of your actions and surroundings – what are you and your knife doing that could injure yourself? What are you and your knife doing that could injure another?
Mise en place: Mise en place is a French technique that means “Everything in it’s place”. This refers to the school of thought of preparing all the ingredients necessary for the meal before beginning the ‘cooking’. This is a part of pre-prep. This can involve peeling, chopping and dicing all the vegetables required and storing them back in containers/bowls in the fridge until necessary, it can also involve pre-trimming and cutting meats for roasts/stews. Your Feast Stewards running sheet should account for all this but if you wonder why you’re stuck with carrots and onions and not actually ‘cooking’ for a while – this is it. It’s easier to prepare everything and then cook than try to play catchup all day/night long.
ABC – Always Be Cleaning: Most of us will have heard phrases like ‘If you have time to lean, you have time to clean’. They sound pompous and more than a bit arrogant, but they’re also accurate. Getting into the habit of cleaning as you go will save time and energy over the course of the event and will lead to a safer environment for everyone. You might be lucky to have a dedicated dishwasher – if so, make sure they have the dirty utensils/pots/etc to clean. If you don’t – you will have to handle this. Remember the Feast Kitchen is a team and someone else may need that bowl after you, make sure it’s clean for them.
Practice, Practice, Practice: All acts of cooking are a skill that can be trained. If you want an easier time of working in a Feast Kitchen then begin by practicing good technique at home. Develop good knife skills – carrots are cheap and make a great way to practice everything from peeling to chopping and dicing.
Try in advance: Usually the Head Cook for a Feast will test recipes and make adjustments well before the event itself in order to finalize the menu and work out things like ingredient amounts/scaling/etc. Ask to be involved if only to practice making the dishes in advance. If you know what to do before the night, you will save time for both yourself and your Head Cook.
Hydrate & Eat: One of the biggest pitfalls of the enthusiastic cook is not remembering to eat or drink. If you fail to eat or drink you risk injuring/exhausting yourself. Take the time to drink water, have a bite to eat and keep your energy levels up. If you need to take a short break, let people know and take it.