Starweek Magazine

The Hills Were Alive

- Vicky Rose Pacheco -

When I was told that Julia was getting married in Batanes and that she wanted Chateau to cater, I tried hard not to over-react: “You must be kidding!” But I had to admit I was excited. Finally, I would go Batanes after hearing so much about it. But it was a HUGE event that even my partner Ricky kept asking me if I was sure; he said that if Butch (the father of the bride) wasn’t his friend, he wouldn’t do it. Actually, they did not ask us if we could cater; they assumed that we would.

One and a half months before the event, the team and I went to Batanes for ocular inspection – with an open mind. It was March and it was windy. True to everything I had heard, it was quaint, awesome and majestic at the same time – mountain and sea overload at every twist and turn. And that was only Basco island. We were actually enjoying the trip and the view, until we came upon the location of the venue. The wedding reception was to be held at Fundacion Pacita Abad which was on top of the mountain; the cocktails after the Mass were to be held outside the small chapel a couple of miles down the mountain; and the cooking had to be done in probably the biggest commercial kitchen in Batanes, at Pension Ivatan, further down – way down – the mountain. It was for 250 persons – 100 sit-down and 150 buffet. A lot of carrying was going to happen.

Back in Manila, I immediately set up a meeting with Julia. We finalized the menu and fortunately, I was able to convince Julia that Corned Beef Sinigang, her favorite, just didn’t go with Paella. Secretly, I refused to imagine it.

So there was a dinner menu to be served plated (5 courses) for the guests inside the Fundacion; and buffet style, for the guests outside the Fundacion. There was also a cocktail menu. In addition, they were also going to serve Ivatan food for the buffet.

As for the dinnerware, serving wares, linen, etc., these had to be shipped one month before the event, to be sure that these would arrive ahead of us. They kept on warning us that the weather was unpredictable and sometimes the boat was late.

Then as we were finalizing the details, Julia said we would not be able to bring any of our staff since all the flights were already fully booked and some of her guests were even waitlisted. HUH?! There were going to be only three of us for 250 persons? My mind started racing. So that meant all the servers – 20 of them – would be local. On the kitchen side, I knew we would be able to manage because the kindly owner of Pension Ivatan already offered all the help she could give us. But we had to fly in ALL the ingredients, except for the vegetables, the chicken, the pork, and the eggs.

To make this really long story very short, I will not recount the nightmare at the airport because we were 200 kilos overweight – in a not so big plane.

Fast forward to two days before the wedding: Batanes was hot. All our supplies arrived intact and way ahead of time. I had also sent the non-perishable food items, so the challenge was to bring them out of storage, which was at the basement of the Fundacion. They had to carry up every single crate.

That day, they sorted, washed and polished every spoon, fork, knife, plate and glass from noon to evening. Where? It was all done by the garden, beside the bushes, on the footpath of stones and in front of the house of Butch, and scattered at the entrance, while friends and family came and went inside the house. All the food items and buffetware had to be brought down the mountain to the Pension.

The day before the wedding: It was still hot. The first half of the day was spent teaching the servers basic table service, how to set up and clear tables, how to carry bar trays, how to carry the plates and put them down, how to approach the seated guests. Elly, the dining manager, did a good job even if it was fast-tracked. Meanwhile, Dolfo, the chef imported from Sentro, and I, did all the mise-en-place that we could, spending the whole day in the kitchen of Pension Ivatan, which was exclusively booked for the wedding guests, so the kitchen staff was dishing out buffet after buffet after buffet. It was hectic and it was tight.

When I went to the Fundacion to check on Elly, I gasped! The venue did not look anywhere near ready. It was impossible to set up because carpenters, electricians, gardeners, engineers and guests were swarming all over the place. The finishing touches were being undertaken furiously and Julia’s parents were running around, sweating and tense. Everyone wondered aloud whether the venue would truly be ready.

We had planned to set the tables that night but there was a rehearsal dinner. So they were only able to start cleaning the place after everyone had left. Since it was already so late, Ricky took charge of cleaning of the hall. Fortunately, the bystanders noticed the urgency and helped in the clean up. Unwittingly, the floor wax brigade included the husband of the florist, the mother of the bride and the brothers of the bride – and they did a great job!

The day of the wedding: It was really hot in the kitchen. The team went separate ways. Elly and Ricky went up the mountain to set up while Dolfo and I went to Pension Ivatan to prepare the food.

We did the Tomato Soup with soup stock made from scratch. We (they, actually) tackled two sacks of lobsters for the Lobster Salad which was the first course. I’d say that this was the most daunting and the most tedious. Dolfo’s hands were full of cuts afterwards. The main course was Paella with New Zealand mussels, prawns from Hagonoy, Bulacan, chicken and pork from Batanes, and pork chorizo from Magallanes Village.

One cook filleted two coolers full of assorted fish. I showed the master baker how to make the Panna Cotta. I prepared the Macao Chorizo (super sarap!), Marinated Kesong Puti and Organic Cashew Nuts for the cocktails.

When I brought out the Camembert, the Stilton cheese, the Aged Cheddar and the dates for the cheese course, they all became agog. So I let them taste each one so that they’d learn something new.

Everyone in the kitchen was happy, telling stories while cutting, slicing, stirring, filleting, mixing, and whacking the lobsters. There was only one worktable in the kitchen and everybody was gathered around it. I really felt the bayanihan spirit – it was fun, just my kind of thing!

On the down side, it was really hot and sticky such that I could feel sweat trickling continuously from the top of my head down to my lips. But we finished on schedule and all the food and equipment were loaded in the jeep to be brought up to the Fundacion.

The chef of the Pension and all his crew went up to help us in the plating and in the buffet refilling. We were lucky too that the ceremony started late and that they lingered at the cocktails - we had time to set up the kitchen. Up at the Fundacion, it thankfully became breezy and cool, which helped a lot. 

The kitchen of the Fundacion is like that of a house; which means it’s not equipped to service 250 people. So you can just imagine the stacks of food pans and platters in every imaginable space – plus the whole kitchen team squeezed in. The servers were also going in and out of the kitchen. There was a single faucet with a double sink which served as the dishwashing area for the whole event.

The five-course dinner progressed smoothly from course to course since we managed to form a mini but crooked production line inside the kitchen. The servers did well, carrying the plates fine dining style and walking with confidence as the night drew on.

In between, the buffet tables outside were also being refilled deliriously. We ran out of plates and cutleries for the outdoor party so the servers scrambled for some inside the kitchen. Were the guests outside really 150? I saw hordes seated on the mountainside!

In the end, as it was winding down, I checked out the hall and saw very contented faces. At the back of my mind, I knew that we could not leave the Fundacion without having washed and cleaned everything. But around midnight, I really could not stand up anymore so I surrendered and bade Dolfo and Elly good night. I felt guilty leaving the two of them but for the first time in my years of standing up, I was ready to drop dead on the spot.

The following day, when I checked on the two, I found out that they had finished at 6:30 am! In true Chateau form, they cleaned everything – including the floor.

The day after: It was hot again. The much-dreaded counting and packing for shipping back to Manila took up the whole day. The hall, which the night before was beautifully set up, was scattered with plates, glasses, cutleries, sea shells, candles, tokens, flowers, boxes, etc. Since some of the guests were staying at the Fundacion, they kept passing by and whenever they did, I saw them look at us with a mixture of awe and pity. I don’t know how we did it, but we did.

On the brighter side, everyone raved about the food and the whole event. They could not imagine how we pulled it off – and neither could I. It was our first out-of-town catering but I was surprisingly not daunted.

Tess and Raffy, owners of Pension Ivatan, were our angels, providing all their help and resources to make it a successful event. Raffy was the one who finished those lobsters off and Tess orchestrated the logistics. The bride and the groom and all their relatives and friends thanked us and commended us profusely. As the father of the bride said during the toast, indeed, the hills were alive.

* * *

PS – When Ricky asked me if I would do it again, I answered without the slightest hesitation… “No way!”

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