By Kurt Epps—The PubScout
Even in the business of emceeing beer dinners, there's a first time for everything. When I get called to emcee one, I'm used to walking into a restaurant, chatting briefly with the chef (after having previously selected the beers we'll use}, then sitting back and watching the restaurant's workers bring out the various courses and beers. I discuss the pairings, do some shtick and another group of happy beer-dinner go-ers is sated with fine food and fine beer.
My chef buddy Bob "Buddy" Dick and I have teamed up on a number of these very successful beer dinners in the past, but the recent closing of his restaurant made it look like those great events were history. For a chef of Buddy's caliber, however, there is always a market, and he got a call from a group to be a "guest chef" for one of their dinners. He, in turn, called me.
I had never heard of this group (I was late to Facebook, too), but the idea of doing a beer dinner in a VFW Hall in Kenilworth with a bunch of guys who claimed they would do the cooking ignited my interest. Buddy would be the Master Chef, and the guys would be his assistants. "What the hell," says I. "As long as the beer is there and I eat what Buddy himself prepared, I'll be all right." So I assented.
Had I had enough time (or sense) to read the background of these guys, I wouldn't have been so surprised to see fifty or so grown men in white coats and chef hats (called "toques" I later learned) hustling about at various tables, each with a different course in different stages of preparation on top. Many of the guys were "Boomers" like me, but there were quite a few younger guys chopping, cranking, molding, mixing and dusting, too, all under the watchful eye of Master Chef Buddy Dick.
They are Les Marmitons , which means chef's assistant or kitchen boy in French ( depending on whether you're talking to the chef or the assistant). Les Marmitons is "a gastronomic and social club of gentlemen who share a common interest in fine food, wine and the culinary arts…." Except this time they were doing an Oktoberfest dinner, and beer, not wine, was the beverage of choice. Hence my presence.
But Buddy Dick was also wise enough to contact Der Brewmeister himself—Roselle Park's Dave Hoffman—who provided two of the beers for the evening, and extremely insightful tableside conversation. Dave had brought along his award-winning Helles as a "Quaffer," which is part of every Marmitons dinner and what they all drink while prepping the food. "This could be interesting," I thought.
Les Marmitons are deadly serious about their work/hobby. Each is supposed to arrive with his own culinary weapons, as well as his culinary attire, which for some is adorned with colored bands, signifying a rank in the club. [See the pictures top right] It is an international organization, I learned, but in the West, the credit seems to go to a Johnny Appleseed-like character named Jean-Pierre Jobin, who, after joining the group in Canada, traveled the US countryside while working as a computer consultant, creating chapters of Les Marmitons as he traveled.
The format for this five-course Oktoberfest meal was SOP for Les Marmitons. The "team" of chefs who prepared the course, cooked it, plated it and served it, and a member of the team stood up mid-course to explain the details of the dish. Every chef at the table paid rapt attention, too. My role was to "explain" the beer choice, and as these guys are accustomed to wine accompanying their food, I had to make the necessary comparisons. "The major difference between wine experts and beer experts," I said, "is that we beer guys would never spit out what we we're drinking--unless it's bad."
The president of the group, Richard Dreher, had sent me the night's menu, complete with the recipes of every dish prepared, and I matched the various courses with beer. One, of course, was Dave Hoffman's Oktoberfest which accompanied the main course of Schwein Skotelehen mit Knockwurst. Translated, that meant Pork Chop with Knockwurst, accompanied by an out-of-this-world Carrot Souffle, Spaetzle and dark Beer Bread. Les Marmitons were as impressed with Dave's beer as we were with their food, and that was just one course. So much food came to the table, topped off by an ice cream float using Young's Double Chocolate Stout (hey, you don't see many skinny chefs or Germans) that we had to waddle away at night's end. Originally, Les Marmitons would do all the cleanup, but they were smart enough to pool their money and pay two other people to do it.
There are usually no women at these events, except around the holidays, which is in keeping with the founding idea of a gentlemen's hobby/club. There are also some strict rules regarding comportment and behavior at these events, as this entry from their website will attest: "Members share a common desire to cultivate and enjoy the gastronomic and social aspects of the club - and excessive consumption as well as the conducting of commercial business is deemed inappropriate at club events."
Les Marmitons (there are two separate chapters in NJ, one in Port Reading and this one, Les Marmitons of Cranford) have eight monthly meetings and special holiday dinners. This was the first which actually had beers as the basis for the entire menu, and it was well received by everyone present.
Anyone who has the good fortune to be invited as a guest would do well to take advantage. You may have to wear a white coat the while, but that's a small price to pay for good food, good company and a good time.
Any readers interested in participating with the Cranford Chapter should contact Richard Dreher.
©Kurt Epps 2010 All rights reserved