By Steve Poses
For many years, Frog Commissary has had both the honor and challenge of catering April’s annual Franklin Institute Awards gala, our most important event. We think of it as our annual reminder to The Franklin Institute as to why they keep us around. We’ll go behind the scenes to show you what it takes to plan for a gala for 750 to 900 people that will be praised year after year.
Thursday, April 19th 2018, 11:30PM
A staff of about 150 chefs, cooks, porters, waiters, supervisors, buffet stylists, supervisors, captains and managers are wrapping up.
Unlike your “typical” dinner in a hotel ballroom or convention center, purposed just for such an occasion, “Awards” takes place throughout The Franklin Institute in spaces designed to demonstrate the wonders of science and not the wonders of the caterer. Our kitchen is nearly a city block away from where we serve guests and, depending on the layout that year, one or two floors below. Every detail down to the last carrot must be planned and that planning starts immediately following the “best ever” accolades.
By morning we’re talking about 2019’s dinner and beginning the planning process anew.
We have both an internal debriefing and a follow-up with The Franklin Institute. What worked well? What could we have done better? We keep detailed notes for the ever-thickening file.
Frog’s planning is currently led by Connie who has been with us for 27 years and worked her first Awards dinner in 1991. Over time she has ascended to catering account manager. Connie’s sudden initiation into Awards planning began on March 30, 2014—a date she remembers well, because the person doing it left on painfully short notice. In addition she had to oversee a wedding that weekend and figure out and place the entire Awards equipment rental order, which included everything we needed from tables and chairs and food warmers to coffee cups, dessert forks and everything in between. Connie worked 24 straight hours but she pulled it off with aplomb.
Connie’s “client/partner” on The Franklin Institute side is Marci, Director of Donor Relations. Marci and Connie plan a myriad of events together over the course of the year—all important but none more so than Awards.
The Planning Cycle
After the post-event debriefing, things remain quiet for a few months. In late summer, Marci tells Connie what museum spaces will be involved for the coming year and how many guests are expected. Connie can start preliminary floor plans.
One of the challenges to the evening is that it consists of several parts across many physical spaces: The Laureates “green room” reception, cocktails, cocktail buffets and hors d’oeuvres in the Atrium; the Awards ceremony in Franklin Hall with refreshments and bar in overflow space (in 2018, that was Franklin Foodworks). Guests move to dinner in typically three or four spaces throughout the Institute—a pre-set first course followed by entrée; and then guests move back to the Atrium for desserts and post-dinner beverages. Finally, they enjoy “To-Go Dessert” and coffee.
Fall marks the start of serious menu planning with the goal of initially presenting lots of options. Menu ideas need to encompass butlered and stationary hors d’oeuvres, cocktail stations, a house cocktail, first courses and entrees. For dessert there are multiple sweets, both butlered and stationary. The food needs to be new and different without being too different. Seasonality is always a planning parameter.
Around this time, a date is set for the Awards Tasting in January or February, and is typically attended by the event chair and co-chair, Institute President Larry Dubinsky and members of his staff. Marci and Beth also attend. A few weeks before the tasting, Connie gets the selections narrowed from our long list. Things that were just chef ideas get kitchen-tested and reworked.
The tasting begins with house cocktail alternatives—helpful in setting the mood. The chair and co-chair are never bashful and always respectful in expressing their opinions. A parade of hors d’oeuvres begins to arrive. No drum roll. Lots of discussion. Size, shape and flavor analyzed. As we transition to the dinner portion, wines are tasted and selected. After many awkward years of presenting a few samples of each course and cutting it up and sharing around the table, we now present a single “presentation plate” and small “salad plate” portions for each. Finally, guests taste the butlered dessert options—bigger than a dessert bite—but small enough that you could have two of them. Every hors d’oeuvres, presentation plate and dessert is carefully photographed for reference.
Annual Question. Annual Answer.
Science is at the core of The Franklin Institute’s mission. The Awards themselves annually celebrate outstanding scientists from around the world. Despite our long history of successfully serving boneless short rib of beef as the entrée protein, we return to the same question annually: Can we serve something different this year? After one year of wildly different filet temperatures for the 800 guests, we are cautious.
One issue is that the call time to begin finishing the entrée in the kitchen is well before the program ends. Entrees—including the protein, vegetable, starch, sauce, garnishes plus, and just in case, fish and vegetarian alternatives—need to be ready to move from a dozen warming cabinets to be plated from nooks and crannies adjacent to the dining rooms throughout The Franklin Institute. Years of experience have taught us how long it takes 800 guests to move to their dining room and after chatting tableside, finally sit to their pre-set first course. We know exactly when we will serve the entrée—well, give or take 15 minutes. So imagine trying to serve a perfectly medium rare beef filet, no less a sirloin with that window. The beauty of a braised hunk of meat is that it thrives in sustained heat. It is inherent in the “science” of the muscle and fiber structure of the short rib. So the annual answer to that annual question: It would be a mistake to serve anything other than the boneless short rib of beef.
The Hardest Thing
When questioned about the hardest thing about Awards menu planning, Connie says it’s coming up with the To-Go sweet. Exemplary hospitality sends guests off sweetly and we added this lovely touch several years ago, at Marci’s request. This began as relatively simple “caramel popcorn” and, in the spirit of “now top this,” has become the annual Olympics of menu planning with a packaging twist. This year, we offer a pair of dessert bars—Raspberry Granola and Chocolate Nutella—carefully and snuggly placed in clear plastic containers, demarcated by Frog Commissary labels and festive ribbons. The bars have a good shelf life so we are able to complete this task the day before. A major plus.
We nearly always leave the tasting with 90 percent of the menu finalized. Further discussion between Marci, the committee chair and co-chair, Connie and our kitchen resolve the cocktail stations and miscellaneous desserts. We are now ready to move to the actual production planning stage. That means time at the computer inputting the hundreds of details that go into producing an event like this. Imagine the Eagles planning for game day, except much more complicated. You see, a football game is 60 minutes. This event lasts more than five hours.
Thursday, April 11, 2019 – The Franklin Institute Awards
The Eagles get to plan each week with a singular focus on a 60-minute game. We plan for our own Super Bowl-level challenge as we manage all the unending components of providing food services for The Franklin Institute and its visitors. This year, as an added bonus, we have the preview opening of the Marvel exhibit the day after the Awards Dinner. And a wedding for 250 on Saturday. Oh, and the Marvel exhibit opens to the public on Saturday. Of course, we are open on Sunday.
Food prep begins about three days out and intensifies as we approach Thursday. As testament to the importance of the annual Awards Dinner, The Franklin Institute is closed to the public the day of Awards. This is a blessing as it enables us to focus primarily on Awards—except for all the other things we need to be ready for. This is event planning and production at its highest level executed by a team of remarkably experienced, organized and hard-working pros.
Moving into High Gear
Our leadership is executing its pre-game and game-day plan. Dining rooms are set Wednesday evening into the night. Of course, every table, tablecloth, chair, glass, plate, knife, fork and spoon must find its way to each area in the exact number needed. Because the Institute is open, these supplies are stashed out of site. Bars are staged. Cocktail stations platters and props are put in place.
By 8AM Thursday, the kitchen is in full production mode. Many people who arrive at 8AM will be here at 11:30 PM. And yikes, back Friday morning.
An early service staff arrives to check tables—most importantly, to make sure all glassware is polished. Flatware soldier straight. More waves of staff arrive as the afternoon wanes. It’s all synchronized. By 4PM, all 150 staff are busy with planned tasks. By 4:00PM, cold hors d’oeuvres and cocktail stations have been moved from the kitchen to a draped area in the Atrium. Hot hors d’oeuvres follow by 5PM. The formal event begins at 5:30 so everything is ready to go by 5:15. Bartenders in place. Drink butlers at the ready. All buffets set up, including hot components.
The Game Begins
As guests arrive, first course mise en place begins moving to the plating areas—hopefully near their respective dining rooms. First course, for reasons of sanity, are always pre-set and room temperature. Teams in each area begin the elaborate plating in accord with the tasting photo. (See photo.) All busing areas have been set up. At 6:30, we see the first call of guests file into Franklin Hall for the 7PM awards presentations. This is simulcast in an overflow area where we will maintain a bar and cocktail fare.
One hundred and fifty staff need to know what they are doing during each phase of the evening. While guests are in Franklin Hall, the Atrium cocktail break-down starts and we re-set for post-dinner festivities including dessert stations, butlered desserts, bars. Dessert To-Go is staged in Jordon Lobby. Most staff who worked cocktails move to dining rooms to finish getting first courses to tables and pour water. Some remain to handle the transition. In the kitchen, sauce is finished, vegetables set at the ready, starch distributed to hotel pans. Vegan entrees fired. Thankfully, by virtue of the science of short ribs, our primary entrée protein is sitting happily in its warmers. Approximately a half-hour before our best-guess serving time, all this needs to move in just the right quantities to just the right locations. Thank God for wheels.
As 800 or so guests take their seats, servers pour wine. Entrée service lines set up, including damp coffee filters at the ready to wipe away any stray drops of sauce. As first courses are cleared, food is moved to entrée service lines where staff has been assigned to each discrete step of plating. A service line can quickly produce up to about 100 guests. A typical Awards dinner for 800 takes eight lines. Assuming a line takes six staff, that’s 48 staff needed to plate. Once the entrée is served, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Since desserts take place back in the Atrium, there is no dessert to plate individually. So, all that’s left is moving everything back out.
Back in the Atrium, kitchen and service staff is at the ready. Dessert stations set. Butlered dessert production in place. Coffee piping hot in samovars. Flutes at attention on trays ready for their pour of sparkling wine. Cue the music. Behind the scenes throughout The Franklin Institute staff is breaking down the event. By 11:30, nearly all guests have gone. The Institute’s development department is breathing their own sigh of relief—topped off with a little sparkling wine.
At night’s end, there’s a mix of joy and exhaustion. The Franklin Institute has a remarkable mission. The Franklin Institute Awards is the annual homage to that mission. Frog Commissary is proud to play our part, year after year. We bask in the glow of praise and the satisfaction of a job well done—until it begins yet again.