I have always considered myself quite a nice person. I like food of all shapes, flavours and colours. From every country and continent. I don’t discriminate, I am an equal opportunity eater. It’s only the doctors who say I’m intolerant. And certain foods who refuse to tolerate me. They certainly refuse to recognise and respect my right to eat them without major physical discomfort and distress.

Gluten and lactose are not my friends.

Despite the negative attitudes surrounding me from many of those I love best, (cakes, ice cream, hot toast) I decided to become a chef. Not always easy when you live in a bread and milk filled world. I like to think that this has helped me become a better person as I embrace my differences and refuse to let the gluten get me down. I believe InTolerance. I am the InTolerant Chef.

Food should not be about what you can’t eat, but what you can and what you enjoy eating. This blog is about my journey of cooking and eating and discovery. It’s not a definitive guide to allergy awareness nor do my intolerances make me an expert. Your body is your responsibility, not mine. I only know what works for me.

I can tell you this..... No glutens were harmed in the making of this website.

April 2, 2011

Cooking En Masse

Not for the faint hearted.

This post is about corporate catering. At one of my places of employment we cater for HUGE amounts of people at a time.
This poses unique challenges like: Is pre cooked food really any good? How can something maintain it's structural and flavour integrity if it has to plonked in a bain marie for an hour? How can I stir 75 kilos of meat plus veggies and liquid in a vat the size of a single bed when I'm only 5'1" and have girly muscles and not quite optimum physical fitness levels? All will be revealed.....

Just so you understand, the photos for this post won't be too terrific. I had to shoot them under harsh fluro lights with my phone camera, dodging steam and grease. I figure as most of you would like a look behind the curtain, you'd probably forgive me.

Today I'm making Sweet and Sour Pork.

So as not to scare you too much, this is a SMALL example of my daily work. There's only 45kgs of meat this time. I know some chefs who hate cooking like this, but I really do enjoy it, I like to think that the dish still deserves the very best I can give it, and as much flavour as I get in! It's all about the love.

I won't give quantities for obvious reasons. Adjust the amounts to suit your individual needs, not all families have such voracious appetites. Here's another secret, I make it up as I go along. I have a vague outline of what to include, but I can pretty much use what I can find. This is not, repeat not, haute cuisine. I don't have access to fancy pantsy ingredients, just good honest basics and a few extras.

This is the meat I'm using today, as I said, it's only 45 kilos this time, lovely cubed pork shoulder at 92% lean. To get the most flavour in I'm going to marinate the meat overnight in a mixture of minced ginger, bashed up garlic cloves and some sesame oil. Massage it in (a good arm work out) and wheel back into the coolroom overnight.

I'm not going to deep fry the pork for this, as it has to be reheated the batter would go soggy anyway, and this way it's a bit more healthy. So, to cook this I'm going to steam it. I like this method as it's a good way to keep the juices in and tenderise the meat without overcooking it or drying it out. I put the meat on perforated trays to stop it stewing but over deeper containers to catch the juices so I can use them in the sauce later.

 What do you think of our big combi oven? This can do the lot, steam, conventional heating, or any combination in between. Fantastic, don't you wish you had one- maybe just a bit smaller perhaps. I pop the trays in for just long enough for the meat to be cooked through, but juicy, and nice and soft still.

The trays go onto a trolley, and then into the blast chiller. We need to get the temperature of the meat down quickly to keep it in appropriate safe zones. The standard guide is above 65* or below 5*, the middle zone is the perfect environment for breeding nasties that could make you sick. I could just put the meat in the hot sauce, but because the food won't be served for a day or so, I want to keep it separate and maintain the structural integrity of both meat and veggies, and it's easier to do if they're apart.

 Now to the sauce.

For economy I'm using a mixture of fresh and tinned pineapple. Of course if this was for home it would be all lovely Queensland beauties, but at least this way I can use the juice from the tins in the sauce. The amount shown in the photos is just a token amount, I used a LOT more than this I can assure you.

I start off making a syrup with drained pineapple juice, castor sugar, white vinegar and some ginger and garlic. I boil this down until it's reduced and add some tomato paste and a little bit of salt as well- in this case I add it by the handful, not pinch. I also add in a lot of the liquid that came off the pork, this way I have the best flavour and I'm not diluting it.

 Once I'm happy with the way it's going, I throw in a couple of buckets of onion pieces. I never want to hear you whining about peeling a few onions again Readers, just try doing this for an hour or so at a time, peeling then slicing, with acid stinging your eyes and tears running down your cheeks. Suck it up Princess.

 Once these have softened down a little, I add the carrots and let them cook off for about 10 minutes or so. I turn the heat off, then add the pineapple and once it's cooled a little, the capsicums. It's a constant juggling act to get the flavors mingling happily without turning everything to mush. Remember this meal will get reheated in a day, then popped in a hot box for delivery to the customers, then placed in a chafing dish to stay hot until the customers get around to eating it. That's a lot to expect from my poor little sweet and sour porky!

Now I scoop out the veggies and put them in vats for cooling down. I leave the sauce as I want to thicken it a little. I know that more liquid will seep from the pineapple over time, so a bit of thickening is definitely called for. My favourite way to do this is with an Arrowroot powder. I make a slurry with a small amount of water bring the sauce to the boil and mix it in. Arrowroot doesn't have any colour or flavour and doesn't cloud the mix either. It's also gluten free! In fact the whole dish is, this means it's easier for me to taste as I go, and sample some for lunch- I mean for 'quality control'.

Now I cool the sauce, and put everything in the great big walk in coolrooms until tomorrow.

Ok, now to bring it all together.
 I've got to mix the meat, the veggies and the sauce into one mass of yumminess. I had to split it into 2 lots and then glove up to mix, mix, mix! Once again a terrific upperbody workout. I like to leave the boxes on trolleys as it's easier on my back that way then bending over the floor, but it would be soooo much easier if I was just a bit taller.

The meal now has to get split into the right size bain marie containers. It all depends on what function it's going to and how many each is catering for. The dishes are then double wrapped with cling film, overlapping so nothing can get in or out. The steam oven generates a fair bit of condensation and I don't want it diluting the meal.

 Back into the coolroom again, and just a little while to showtime. This all needs to be done quickly, every step is more time out of the coolroom and we need to keep the temperature in that safe zone remember.

 Action stations everyone!
The baines go into the steam oven for about 2 hours to heat up thoroughly. Before pulling them out of the oven, I use this nifty little instant read probe to check temperatures again- after all, I don't want anyone getting sick on my watch, and if all is well, they go into the hot box.

The hot box keeps the food at a constant safe temperature so we can deliver it where it needs to go. As you can see, it's bigger than me as well, and it's very, very heavy. This needs to be pushed miles along carpeted floors... another good workout. The dishes then get taken out and put into the chafing dishes at the various functions. The box sides are really, really hot and if you accidentally brush your hand against them the skin will either blister or be seared right off leaving a painful burn for more than a week. Good news for the food, not so much for me.

Ok, by my reckoning, I have taken the meat from the coolroom, lifted into the vats, lifted onto steam trays, trays into steamer, from steamer onto trolley, from trolley into vats, then sauce onto meat, then meat into bain trays, then back onto trolley, then into steamer again, then out of steamer into hot box, then hot box to chafing dishes. Is that 11 times? So 11 x 45kgs, well more than that with the sauce and the veggies and stuff, 495kgs, no wonder I'm so tired every night! Why aren't I stick thin? It must be all the muscles I'm building, yeah, that's right, muscles.

Have you ever waved a loved one off at the airport, never expecting to see them again?
It would be a lot like this.
The food is now out of my control. I have taken it from it's very basic existence, nurtured it, given it a healthy environment, kept it warm and tucked in carefully, helped it mature with a bit of exotic culture, and added a lot of love.
Now it heads off into the big wide world to be investigated, judged and criticized. It's upbringing and parentage perhaps called into question as well. I've done my best, now I just have to trust in the strength and integrity I've built into it's character.
The only difference between this and a loved one, is in this case, I am happy for it to be attacked and devoured by strangers- for money.

Well Readers, have you enjoyed this voyeuristic foray into corporate catering?
I trust you will never again eat these type of mass function foods without a little thought for us behind the scenes, and a new appreciation for the effort that goes into it.


  1. Oh my goodness, look at those boxes and trays of pork! Thanks for taking us for a peep inside the catering kitchen :) Very interesting.

  2. thats incredible.....just so much involved to cook on a huge scale.

  3. Chef - hats off to you girlfriend, you brought me down memory lane as I did my entire apprenticeship with the National Convention Centre & I'm with you on this one., I love cooking for big numbers & your so absolutely right, its ALL about the love you give your dishes. When I left there I had such great muscle definition in my upper body (in fact I was pretty darn fit because of the sheer hard work involved in catering), but like you I loved it & have never been daunted by numbers at an event or restaurant since. When you cut your teeth on cooking for 1,000 you hardly get worked up over turning a restaurant of 80 over a couple of times in a night huh.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, gotta love those combi ovens huh :)

  4. I AM SUPER AMAZED! Thanks for letting us in on the behind-the-scenes action. It's really an eye opener. Must be so tiring stirring all that meat; great arms you must have!

  5. Great article Rebecca! It's the kind of thing that we just don't quite understand until we see it in images and words. I remember being amazed when I went backstage at Emirates catering in Dubai. I guess we never really think beyond our individual plates or serves or at least I didn't :)

  6. That is insane!! I've never even thought about the scale of such large-scale cooking, but serious hats off to you for being able to do this! :D

  7. Wow I actually really enjoy reading this! It's really insightful but good to know what went behind all those catering food :) Builds muscle eh :P And the oven, another wow!

  8. wow - what an interesting insight into the world of mass catering!!!

  9. you are AMAZING- this was an awesome post! please do more- I love learning about this stuff. I always used to complain about the catering at my boarding school (it was pretty dire- and they didn't put any love in, like you do) but I feel a little bit sorry for all the hard work caterers have to put in!

  10. Oh. My. Goodness. I've watched large scale cooking before, but it was great to be talked through it step by step. And all the way through, I kept wondering...please tell me you had someone else to do all the prep for you? ;-)

  11. This is extremely interesting! I love to see how people make HUGE batches of food......in your opinion, do you think it takes away some of the flavor or do you think it has just as much?

  12. Wow! That seems to be such a lot of work preparing those catering meals...! Thank you for sharing this very informative article :).

  13. holy cow!!!!!
    thanks for the inside look, i never realized just how largely scaled the food is for catering!!
    super crazy!!
    you're awesome for doing that!

  14. When I studied at Culinar school, We also cooked & baked in these large quantities! That's a lot different in what you are used too at home!

    Thanks for posting this for us!

    Kisses from Brussels to you!! xxx

  15. Holy moley that's a lot of food! I never really thought about the work that goes behind catering.

    That oven is amazing.

  16. Wow that was so interesting. Thanks for sharing that with us. I didn't realise it was quite so much "physical" work. Always assumed big gadgets would do the 'heavy lifting'. But it sounds like small chefs with girly muscles have to do it for themselves! Fascinating. And yes, I do want one of those combi ovens!!

  17. Hello Lovlies! Glad you enjoyed this little look behind the scenes. It's not always as glamorous back there as it is in the front of the restaurant. The work can be tough, as a matter of fact I'm in bed today with a concussion from a bad slip and fall on those tiles. You certainly need your wits about you in this sort of environment, so I need to clear the cobwebs today.

    Spiceandmore- the bigest gadgets I have for lifting are the boys in the loading dock, and only if they're not busy! Not to worry though, 'My strength is the strength of 10 because my heart is pure!'
    JasmyneTea- it sure is an eye opener!
    Sophie- kisses back to Brussels too!
    Katie- and this is a SMALL dish!
    Cookinggallery- glad you enjoyed it
    Alex- it's a tricky thing, large scale will never equal al a carte cooking. I think you just can't be lazy, use tricks like marinating and making your own pastes and sauces and you will certainly taste the love.
    Celia- Yes, me! Sometimes we will all chip in and peel the veg or onions together, but usually you do your own. My favorite job is slicing boxes of mushrooms and chopping the herbs, I like the smell!
    GastronomyGal- it's all about the love!
    Lisa- it can be lots of fun too
    Min- the oven is GREAT, imagine 80%heat 20%steam= the perfect scone
    Ellie- it's certainly a change from cooking just for the family!
    Lorraine- I loved that article, and it was about humongous scale, not just kinda large scale. I bet those guys think my work is childs play!
    Vickys- it can certainly be tiring, I need to build some more muscles!
    Anna- yeah, it sure puts numbers into perspective. I'm putting one in our next kitchen
    Muppy- It sure is a bit different to a home size kitchen!
    Tigerfish- this is a small amount! You should see us on a busy day!

    Thanks for all your fun comments, and I hope you have a restful day too everyone!

  18. Whee, bathtub cooking! :O I've always thought that this must be one of the most difficult things as a chef - getting hte proportions of ingredients and the seasoning (just think of salt alone!) right when cooking such amounts at a time. Hats off!

  19. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

    Blast Chillers