The first time I roasted a duck was one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. I’d started with something the size of a rugby ball, expecting to feed six people. By the time it was cooked I had a pan-full of duck fat, and I needed to roast a chicken as well. But, having discovered Magret de Canard in France, I was determined to try again.
During 2001 we did a series of dinners at Enoteca (my wine shops), in one of the branches. Entitled Pleasure In Store, they were intended as a means of generating some income and getting feet into the shop without having to splash out on additional wine stocks. More than anything, though, it was probably the beginnings of Andrea’s later catering activities. Duck was on at least two of the menus, which we sourced from a free-range farmer that Andrea still uses. His identity is a closely-guarded secret at Dish.
One does occasionally find people who don’t like duck, but as a menu item it has huge glamour value. People are generally too intimidated to ever cook it for themselves, and usually associate it with smart French restaurants. Simply put, there is an expectation that is an expensive item (partially correct), so the perceived value can sometimes be useful when one is pitching for a job against other caterers. The other benefit of duck is that it is relatively forgiving of caterer-style cooking.
Restaurant chefs have the stress of getting out a la carte orders on time to the correct tables. They are also forced to keep stocks of perishables. But they work in the same controlled environment every single day. On the other hand, caterers are forever schlepping food and equipment around. They prepare as much as possible in their kitchen. Then everything gets packed up, loaded into vehicles, off-loaded at the venue, and unpacked so that the food can be assembled. Often there is no kitchen at the venue. If there is one, it’s fine for a domestic quantity of guests, not the 80 to 200 that usually attend parties. It is not unusual to arrive at a client’s house to find that the designer oven has never actually been connected. For all its usefulness they may as well have installed a flat screen TV.
So, how does one go about cooking a duck breast? Step one is to use a very sharp knife to score the skin on the diagonal, at about 3 mm intervals. The breast is put, skin-side down, into a pan, so that the fat can be cooked. This takes anything up to 10 minutes. I have also done this on the barbecue. The dripping fat results in flames, but the crisping of the skin is actually much better. This part of the process is done in advance of leaving for a function. At the last minute the breasts are put into a hot oven, skin-side up, and roasted for the 10 minutes, or so, it will take for them to reach medium. Depending upon the flow of the meal, they can be rested for a few minutes, before being sliced (again on the diagonal, but about 5mm apart). [One of a caterer’s most important tools is heavy-duty foil. With insufficient oven space, or people making longer speeches than programmed, one is forever needing to keep food warm.]
Duck legs and thighs require slow-roasting. Again, nothing could be easier. We put them in a roasting dish (with high sides to cope with the inevitable rendering of fat) flesh-side down on top of a sprinkling of fresh thyme. We liberally spread Dijon mustard on the skin-side, drizzle a little honey onto this, and then grind black pepper and salt over everything. We cover the dish with foil and put it into a medium oven for 90 to 120 minutes, by which time the meat should just about be falling off the bone. Up to this point can be done in advance of departure. Just before serving, the foil is removed and the dish is put into a hot oven to crisp the skin (if it isn’t already sufficiently crispy).
We also do a variation, following the method for Confit de Canard. This requires that we first brown the flesh side of the legs and thighs. They are then put into a roasting dish with fresh thyme and slivers of garlic (if we have time they spend a night curing on salt and thyme in advance of being browned). We cover the whole lot with duck fat and roast it gently for a couple of hours. It can now be stored in a cool larder almost indefinitely, but we generally use it within day. One of the tastiest ways of warming the legs & thighs is over hot coals. The outside is crispy; the flesh has a slight smoky taste and literally falls off the bone.
There have been times when our fabled supplier has run short. The only solution, under the circumstances, has been to buy whole frozen ducks. These are delivered in cardboard boxes, usually eight to the box. In the beginning refrigerated storage was in very short supply at Dish, so we used to leave them in the original packaging, where they would remain frozen in the store room for at least 24 hours. So it was that when Andrea arrived home one Saturday morning and started quizzing everyone on the progress in each respective job that needed to be done, I could quite truthfully answer that the ducks were swimming. Sure enough, when I led the disbelieving Andrea into the bathroom, the day’s duck requirements were slowly defrosting in a bath of water. All-consuming laughs are never far away in the Dish kitchen.
I sometimes wonder if I’m a closet surgeon, rather than a closet chef. Filleting, cutting and portioning are tasks I happily fulfil for the kitchen. My only requirement is that I have my own, sharp, knives. All those swimming ducks are my responsibility. I can reduce a whole – defrosted – duck into separate piles of wings, breasts, legs and thighs, and carcass in a couple of minutes.
Returning to the house later that day Andrea got into a flat spin wanting to know where the legs and thighs were. Once again I led her to the bathroom, where the dressed duck portions were on roasting trays, ready for the oven, underneath a sheet of cardboard, and resting on a bed of ice. Perfectly good refrigeration!
It’s a wonder, though, that we still offer duck. We had the famous legs and thighs on the menu for a major Cape Town society wedding, for about 170 guests. I personally put six roasting trays, each containing 30 portions, into the ovens. I also took them out of the oven. There were six; I know it for certain.
Because of the size of the main course plates they weren’t all set out at once, so we didn’t have a running tally of how many portions had gone out. There was also a vegetarian option, which would have thrown the numbers out slightly. We were just starting to relax, having plated all the duck in the kitchen (a trying experience to say the least, because the ground in the field kitchen was sloping, with the result that carefully-positioned sauce kept running to one edge of the plate), when waiters started returning to pick up more food. Like a scene from a Hollywood slapstick comedy, the later arrivals were slamming into the backs of the waiters in front.
We had to put something on the plates. More butternut ravioli with burnt sage butter sauce was rapidly knocked together. One guest, who didn’t eat any yellow vegetables, was extremely gracious about having a dinner of rather sweet caramelized onion tarte tatin with sundry mushrooms.
Dead ducks don’t fly (certainly not when they’re crispy). The staffing company insists that the waiters didn’t build up a private stash of plated main courses around the corner. Somehow the equivalent of one entire roasting tray of duck went missing; where to, no-one has ever been able to establish.
During the same wedding I was having some of my own difficulties. The staffing company were responsible for making bonfires in half oil drums around the garden. The boss-man had loaded them up with anthracite, and carefully stacked the logs underneath the drums. I have no idea how he thought he was going to get the coal burning without first having some blazing logs. I dashed around repacking and lighting the fires – not necessarily the caterer’s responsibility, but when things aren’t running smoothly at a function the host generally regards the caterer as the scapegoat.
The host had arranged his own coastal (i.e. not cultivated) oysters, as well as someone to shuck them at an oyster bar where guests would help themselves. The same staffing company were supposed to have a couple of hot-shot shuckers on standby to assist. Coastal oysters are flatter, and don’t have the same uniform shape as cultivated oysters, so opening them takes at least twice as long. So, guess who had to jump in and assist when the standbys weren’t available? After wrestling with oysters for more than an hour my arms were aching. I had lost the use of my hands. The sole consolation was the sparsely dressed women unwittingly exposing their breasts at us as they reached across the trestle table to get to the condiments.
Some months later Andrea was once again doing the same duck at a wedding. Among the guests at this wedding were renowned foodies who had been so blown away by the duck at The Society Wedding (clearly they were among the lucky ones) that they insisted Dish be given the job. Around the same time, Andrea lost a wedding because the mother of the prospective groom had heard about Dish running out of food at The Society Wedding. You win some; you lose some.