Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part One

I wonder if anyone at the New York Botanical Garden could tell that I had never done a live cooking demo before?

The week leading up to the point where I would take the stage as part of the Edible Garden series went by like a blur – five days that were filled with a sense of excitement tinged with a moderate degree of anxiety.  Was I excited to have the opportunity to cook in front of a live audience?  Absolutely.  Did I have any notion of how one goes about preparing for a live demo?  Not really.  My greatest fear was that of the unknown – I had never been to the New York Botanical Garden before, had never seen the Kitchen Conservatory Stage, and could not, therefore, envision any of the setup in my head.

My wife encouraged me to practice, and I’m glad that she did.  I ran through the recipes at home, having selected a roasted garlic soup for one dish, and a caramelized onion bread pudding for the other.  Both were easy to prepare in a home kitchen, and readily lent themselves to being a showcase starter or accompaniment for a dinner party.  Each preparation contained steps that could be performed ahead of time, which was critical to a successful demo, and steps that could be shown to an audience to teach technique.  The only missing components were the words that were supposed to come out of my mouth while I was doing the cooking.  The cooking would be the easiest part.

I tried to do a dry run at home, recording myself with a camcorder.  It went fairly well, but  too much of it felt forced – I just can’t have a conversation with thin air, and the notion of practicing in front of friends and neighbors gave me more anxiety than the thought of doing it in front of strangers.  I came up with a basic outline of what I wanted to say, but I knew that at least half of my presentation was going to be extemporaneous.  Again, that darkness of the unknown reared its head, and I was stuck in limbo – both prepared and unprepared at the same time.

We stayed in a hotel the evening before the demo, just to minimize the potential for traffic delays.  Having reviewed the route to the New York Botanical Garden, and in consideration of the ingredients and equipment that I had brought with me, I decided that it would be quicker and less unwieldy if we drove from the hotel to the site instead of taking the subway or a cab.  Since we were staying in Jersey City, it looked like a quick hop up Interstate 95, a crossing of the George Washington Bridge, a twist here, a turn there, and we’re at the Garden.

As it turns out, it really, really, really isn’t that simple.

Checking out of the hotel reasonably on schedule, we packed up the car and headed out with plenty of time before the first demo was to start at 1pm.  New Jersey Turnpike traffic was light on Saturday morning, and we were cruising along.  I had already expected to hit a slowdown on the George Washington Bridge, but how bad could it be at 10am on a Saturday?

Would you believe incredibly, stupendously, horrifically BAD?

Four lanes shrank to two lanes in concurrent merges on the left and right, cramming the scrum of hot metal together into a soup of exhaust and frustration, with mere inches separating bumpers.  We crawled through the tolls at a pace that was so slow, I could have paid the $6.00 in pennies, with change to spare.  Our Civic fought its way through the traffic, inching along the upper deck as the minutes ticked away.  Thankfully, our GPS instructed us to take the exit immediately following the bridge crossing…right into the heart of the Bronx.

As anyone with a GPS can attest, the device has no independent judgment of its own.  It operates purely on logic and algorithms and programming routines that dictate that the best route is always the shortest, even if it’s only shorter by an eighth or quarter of a mile.  So, instead of channeling us to the New York Botanical Garden via the Henry Hudson Parkway, a pretty drive accentuated by views of the river and trees and a speed limit of 50 MPH, the GPS took us through the Bronx, which features traffic lights every quarter mile, double-parked cars, jaywalking pedestrians, and trucks in assorted states of loading and unloading.  And time continued to drip away from us.

We finally arrived at the New York Botanical Garden shortly after 11am.  I rushed to the stage, carrying my canvas bag filled with garlic and onions that I had prepared previously, my Santoku knife, and my mandoline.  As we approached the stage, the magnitude of the afternoon’s events started to dawn on me as I saw, for the first time, row after row of empty chairs, arranged in front of an elevated stage.  There was no time to let it sink in – I had to start my prep work immediately if I was to be ready for a 1pm showtime.

After a few minutes, my nerves settled and my heart rate eased.  I familiarized myself with the location and operation of the stove, the oven, and the sink, and took inventory of the four large bags of ingredients provided to me by Whole Foods.  I checked my watch, took out a cutting board, removed my knife from its holder, and started cooking with an hour and fifteen minutes to prepare.

To Be Continued…