The idea of being a Hobby Chef at a Social Bites dinner is one that has been developing in my brain for awhile. The seed was originally planted back in April, when we attended our first Social Bites dinner, and I thought to myself “Hmmm, I think I could do this”. At our second dinner, the seed was given some extra fertilizer in the way of gentle coaxing from Social Bites Coordinator, Annika. I’d been mulling over the thought for a few months so when I found out that there was to be a dinner held in the West End, my suburb, I decided to take the plunge and volunteered to open my apartment and, evidently, my kitchen, to eight strangers. After a few weeks of organizing, the night finally arrived and here is my take on Saturday night’s event from the view of a Hobby Chef this time, rather than as a guest. I’ve also included some tips that might be useful for other aspiring Hobby Chef’s.
Tip #1: Prepare something that you enjoy eating. This way you will enjoy cooking the dish and testing it out a few times.
Very early on I had decided to make a Southern Delights Tasting Plate. Don’t ask me why I decided on this combination of food – I’d never made any of the dishes before starting the whole Hobby Chef thing so it wasn’t as if I was an expert in making any of these dishes. I just found that I had a really strong urge to make them, most likely because I really, really enjoy eating comfort food. Below is the menu that we prepared for the night:
Home-baked cornbread made with cheddar, corn meal and real corn kernels. Oh, it’s corny alright!
Panko-crusted baked Southern chicken. Soaked overnight in a bath of buttermilk and not quite 11, and not quite secret, herbs and spices.
Slow cooked pulled pork sliders. Served on a soft bread roll and dripping with mouth-watering BBQ sauce. Go on, make a pig of yourself!
Cheesy, cheesy macaroni bake. Made with a variety of cheeses to add that extra oomph.
Tip #2: Do a “Guinea Pig Dinner” (also known as a trial run dinner). This way you can try the meal for yourself and make changes, if needed. This is particularly helpful if you are attempting to make a dish that you aren’t familiar with.
For the two weeks leading up to the dinner, I attempted to make the chicken and the cornbread a few times each so that I could adjust the recipes as I became more comfortable. By the end, I’d made the chicken twice and the cornbread four times (one was a complete throw-in-the-bin failure). We also held a full “Guinea Pig Dinner”, where we had my sister and a friend sample the dishes and give us feedback. I am so grateful that we decided to do this as we were able to critique each dish and I made mental notes on how each dish could be made better. We had limited time to prepare for our trial dinner, due to work, and so we had cooked the pork at a higher temperature and although the outside was tender and juicy, the inside had started to cook more like a roast. We determined that it really was best to cook it at a lower heat, for as long as possible, to get the best results. I had also over-seasoned the panko for the chicken and so the crust was waaay too salty. A similar problem had happened with the cornbread so that, too, would need to be rectified. And, we had slightly over-baked the mac and cheese bake so it wasn’t as gooey as it should have been. Phew! See why we were so grateful of the trial run?!
Tip #3: Be prepared. Really prepared! And ask for help, if you need it.
Preparation really is the key and because I had a few dishes that needed preparation in advance, I made myself up a schedule of everything that I needed to do and followed it religiously. This was probably over-kill but the organizational freak in me loved it! I tried to ensure that I had bought most of the ingredients a few days prior to the day so that I wasn’t left scrambling and I tried to think of everything that I would need, or could possibly need, ahead of time. I also had help from my sister, who was a complete angel. She managed to pick me up a few things from stores that I didn’t have time to get to and she also gave great feedback on some of the dishes – she just hates having to try my cooking . We also prepared a lot of the last minute additions (like grating cheese and slicing onions) prior to the guests arriving so that we wouldn’t be trying to do that whilst also trying to entertain. I found that helped us out a lot.
Tip #4: Have fun with it and try not to take the competition side of it too seriously.
It sounds really corny but we had a lot of fun being Hobby Chef’s. Friends of mine kept saying that we were brave having random strangers come over to our apartment to have our food critiqued and in a way, I guess it is brave. You definitely have to step outside of your comfort zone a bit but it was an enjoyable challenge.
Thankfully, our night went off without a hitch – the pulled pork was (in our extremely biased opinions) simply delicious. It was slow-cooked in the oven for about 5 hours, ensuring that it was melt-in-your-mouth tender. The only down-side to cooking the pork in the oven is that it doesn’t get that smoky taste that a BBQ would deliver. Nonetheless, I was pretty proud of the pork. I had made the cornbread the night before so it just a matter of popping it back in the oven to warm it up just prior to serving. B was in charge of the mac and cheese bake as it is his speciality. He spruced it up a bit by adding three different cheeses; a 5 year old cheddar, a cave-aged gruyere and an asiago, and it was all topped with a panko/cheese mix and spring onions. Gooey, gooey cheesiness! The chicken was our take on fried chicken. We soaked the chicken in buttermilk and mixed herbs overnight and then we coated it in seasoned panko and baked it in the oven.
We served all of the dishes on a tasting plate and our guests ate to the sound of blues music, whilst watching the sunset over English Bay. I tried to include a few small touches to go along with the Southern theme; a centre-piece made from corn on the cob, a bunch of rustic sunflowers, some napkins with cute little pigs on them (to tie in with the pulled pork) and we also included some fun facts about food from the South for reading.
Our guests were all extremely polite and friendly, which helped to make us more comfortable. Switching from one group to the other wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be, mostly because all we had to do between groups was wash some dishes and re-set the table. After the second seating, we all made our way down to Qoola on Denman Street for dessert and the formalities of the evening. Qoola is great spot tucked away on Denman, dishing up servings of yummy, and relatively healthy, frozen yogurt. We were able to try tastings of four flavours; original, chocolate, green tea and blackberry, before choosing our favourite which they then served with a surprise topping. I was the lucky recipient of a large serving of chocolate topped with caramel and pecans. Luckily I could justify it by telling myself that I was getting a good dose of friendly bacteria.
The winner of the night was Hobby Chef, Katie, who went above and beyond everyone’s expectations with a multi-course meal, including a cocktail, dessert and a take-away treat. Yes, a very tough competitor indeed! All in all, we are both glad that we finally tried our hand at being Hobby Chef’s. I always enjoy cooking and this pushed me to try new recipes, helped us to step out of our comfort zone and we thoroughly enjoyed the friendly competition, whilst being creative.
Keep an eye out over the next few days as I will be posting the recipes for some of the dishes that we cooked. They are all relatively easy and are real crowd pleasers. Perfect for the cold months that are coming.