Morocco: lunch is served!
It’s 6pm on Friday night. On the stove, there is a large orange oval Le Creuset and a 15-quart spun aluminum pot, both straddling two burners each. Five feet away, on the work table, the propane camp stove is perched, with two more of those aluminum pots, filled with a special blend of oil. Kitty-cornered on long leg of the work triangle is a bin of seasoned flour, and another of marinated chicken. For the next four hours, it will be dip in flour, shake off excess, gently place in fat, cook until browned and crispy, remove to rack. Dip, shake, fry, rack. Dip, shake, fry, rack. As the evening deepens, it becomes dip, shake, pirouette, fry, curtsy, rack. Dip, shake, pirouette, fry, curtsy, rack. Until there are 300 pieces of mahogany crusted bird. Eight pieces can fit in each pot at a time; cook time is about 20 minutes – but each piece will be checked with an instant read thermometer for doneness. I test a few bites and a my heart just sinks. This is not America, land of plenty and birds bred for tenderness… this is Morocco, where chickens roam freely and develop muscles. These yard birds could enter a CrossFit competition – they are tough as shoe leather, and taste really “chicken-y,” which is not necessarily a bad thing, but not what I was shooting for.
There is no time for ego, nor for an alternative. One hundred guests, actors, dancers and my director will be expecting lunch tomorrow afternoon. It’s time to make it work. I keep cooking until the chicken is done. Once the trays are full, I turn the burners off and start cleaning. An hour later, with the exception of the lingering perfume of Old Bay fried in sunflower oil in the air and in my hair, the kitchen is spotless and ready for breakfast tomorrow. I text KR and ask him to please put the chicken in the refrigerator when he gets back from dinner. I am done and cooked and fall into my single bed in a deep sleep.
I wake determined to make the best of what will be a glorious, but deliriously long, day. RA meets me in the kitchen at the break of dawn. We pack the coolers with the salads, while I preheat the oven upstairs to bake the biscuits. We pull together the napkins, flatware, cups, garbage bags, printed menus, chair cushions, straw hats to shield the sun for all the guests, tablecloths and beverages. Meanwhile, those biscuits are taking their sweet time baking. I run up and down from kitchen to kitchen every couple minutes, checking on their progress and wondering what the heck is going on. RA and I are trying, meanwhile, to figure out how to pack the chicken for the ATV journey from the top of the Old Mountain down to the McBey Sea House. We have run out of bins, and the sheet pans where the breasts and thighs are currently residing will neither fit in the vehicle nor keep them from flying out the window on the hairpin turns. RA, brilliant as always, pull a wicker hamper from his boudoir, which we line with greaseproof paper. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a GIANT basket of chicken ready to roll. The waiters and I will place two pieces in individual waxed paper bags once we are on site. So, here we are. The ATV is packed, and we are ready to go, with the exception of the biscuits. I am truly scratching my head with puzzlement when Fatiah looks at me. snaps her fingers and runs out of the kitchen into the adjoining storeroom. She comes back apologizing profusely; apparently, the propane tank for the oven has run out. NO wonder my biscuits aren’t baking properly. There was enough residual heat left before the flame sputtered out to get them started, but not enough to reach baking powder nirvana. With the oven restarted, we are 20 minutes from leaving, so I run back to my room for another quick scrub and a slash of mascara.
With the vehicle loaded, we start down the side of the mountain. Sheep amble alongside us, and clouds obscure an otherwise relentless sun. We bump and hump down the goat track, and with a final lurch, arrive at our destination.
Marguerite McBey and her husband, James, built the Sea House in return for allowing the Moroccan government to blast away the side of a mountain on their property. The rubble was used to build the port in Tangier, and the two room aedifice served as a picnic spot for the McBeys and their guests, including Tennessee Williams, who was inspired to pen “Suddenly, Last Summer” while gazing upon the young Moroccan boys who bathed in the sea alongside the cottage. Thus, the setting for our picnic in honour of the author of the play to be performed this evening. Talk about setting the scene – this is art and theatre at it’s best and finest.
There is an empty room in the cottage that we use to set up the gable boxes which will hold each individual picnic; however, there are no helpful waiters to be found. It seems they have gotten lost on their way to the top of the mountain; why am I not in shock? A dear old friend of KR & former associate of Monsieur Yves St. Laurent, however, is able and willing, if somewhat talkative. No matter, the chatter keeps my panic at bay and my breathing consistent, if shallow. ONE HUNDRED BOXES to be filled and closed before the guests arrive. Two hundred pieces of chicken to be packaged. Count & recount & recount, just to make sure. I repeat to my helper C what a Chef once said to me about mise en place for dinner service – “Don’t think you have enough, MAKE SURE.” We make sure about 3 times before the waiters arrive and if nothing else, we at least have enough picnics for the guests.
For good, bad or ugly, it’s done. All is left is for the guests to arrive, eat their lunch, and hopefully survive until dinner. And they seem to actually enjoy their “low brow” lap meal – it’s a novelty, but one that comes with the cachet of being bespoke “American.” Once they sit down with their boxes, the sun breaks through the clouds and I. of course, take it as a sign that all will be well. Surprisingly, the homemade lemonade is a huge hit – and we run out of it quickly – oops.
And then it’s over. A few brave souls jump off the rocky ledge into the roiling sea; the rest start a leisurely climb back up the mountain. It’s time to change and head over to the Villa Leon l’Africaine for the main event – a staged reading of “Suddenly, Last Summer.” It is, by all accounts, a brilliant success, as is the evening soiree at Villa Mabrouka. There is a lavish Moroccan buffet, an abundance of cocktails, an over-the-top dance performance on the lawn, during which the venerable and revered Pierre Berge fondles my ankle (thank the Lord I found time to shave my legs between the picnic and the performance – although, come to think of it, he probably prefers a rather more masculine approach?)
That’s the thing about cooking for people. It takes days/weeks/months of preparation, and then, if you have done your job properly, it’s over in a matter of hours. And there is nothing left to obsess over the next day, except the memory. Unlike painting or sculpture or architecture, the nagging bits are only in your heart and soul, not on paper or canvas or marble, not etched in forever, except in your mind. And therein lies the rub.
Anyway, all that’s left is to jump in the pool with the Speedo-clad god-they-are-beautiful specimens. And then it happens. A bucket list item checked off. Because those dear, dear boys do this little old lady a proper. They allow me to live out a fantasy, and play out the Dirty Dancing lift scene. Not only do they lift this ancient, exhausted but exhilarated chef up in a gracious, balletic pose, they make sure the DJ is playing “I Had The Time of My Life.” Man, oh man, I had the time of my life.
And I never need to cook fried chicken on a camp stove for a hundred people EVER again.