In our early catering days, we were lucky enough to land a 1000-person casual buffet dinner event for our municipality’s city council. At that time, we were catering out of a diner-style restaurant that lacked convection ovens. Since most of our events were summer picnics and tailgate parties where we cooked much of the food on a grill at the site, the fact that we didn’t have a lot of oven space didn’t usually bother us--except this time.
Our client loved our vegetable lasagna--I should say Stouffer’s Vegetable Lasagna--and wanted us to serve it to the 1000 guests. I knew two critical things about this product because we had used it many times:
- It would stay frozen for a long time even at room temperature.
- Conversely, it would stay hot for hours if stored in the original cardboard cases after cooking.
It was available at Sam’s Club, so the plan was to pick it up there, take it home to cook it in two shots--we had two ovens at our house--quickly put it back in the cases, take it to the event and load it into wire rack chafers as needed.
We had a picnic booked earlier in the day and we had one truck.
Further details were: set up the picnic, leave staff there, go pick up the lasagna at Sam’s Club, return to the picnic to break down and clean up, travel to my house, cook the lasagna, and take it to the council event site where our additional staff was setting up and cooking the other menu items.
The picnic was no problem, plenty of lasagna was available at Sam’s, and when the time came to break down the picnic, I headed to the completed event with 20 cases of Stouffer’s Vegetable Lasagna in the back of the truck. In our early days, we counted on picnic sites that offered a large barrel or designated area where still-hot charcoal could be dumped. Unfortunately, this picnic had been held at an office building and while there were dumpsters galore, there was no safe place to dispose of the charcoal. We did the next best thing and put the dying and almost extinguished coals in covered aluminum pans, placed them on the truck with the rest of the stuff, and got on the freeway.
I don’t want to tell you all of the catering items that have flown off our uncovered pick-up truck over the years, but I will mention that when I saw the aluminum pan covers become airborne, I began to worry because the nice breeze that was created as we travelled 60 miles per hour on the freeway conveniently woke up the dead charcoal and sparks began to fly. I made it to the freeway exit ramp near my house, but when I looked in the rear view mirror, the back of the pick-up was engulfed in flames. The sparks from the rejuvenated charcoal had lit the lasagna cases on fire.
Other drivers were pointing at me while they frantically beeped their horns, and I was worried that the fire department would be called, turn their hoses on my truck and ruin my frozen lasagna. I quickly pulled over on a busy street and did a dance in the pick-up bed as I stamped out the fire. But as soon as I started for home—a mere five blocked away—the fire reignited. Now I was driving down a residential street with a cargo of fire. I made it to my house, got the garden hose, and put out the fire. My plastic bedliner was partially melted, but the lasagna was OK!
I acted like nothing happened, salvaged whatever cardboard lasagna cases I could--I still needed to keep the product hot after cooking--and proceeded to load the lasagna into my home ovens. Nothing else bad happened that day and the big event was a success.
I never did get the truck’s bedliner repaired, however, because the melted spots were always a reminder to me that especially in the catering business, if something can go wrong, it might!
Have any similar stories? We would love to hear them along with your thoughts.
Email me anytime.