The culinary countdown - 50 courses for 50 guests in 3 1/2 hours - begins in 15 minutes.
The occasion: The 50th birthday of Joel Olson, executive chef of Hemmachef.
The place: Olson's West Side home.
The date: Saturday, July 25.
At 6:45 p.m., guests sip merlot or sauvignon blanc outside and the kitchen heats up inside ... but not as hot as it should be by now.
"One of the stoves is not working," Olson says, smiling as if this were a minor setback. "Doesn't that always happen?"
"Welcome to Hell's Kitchen," says his friend Cathy Lucas, a chef and cooking instructor from Boca Raton, Fla. She'll rarely leave the tight L-shaped room, where Olson consults a handwritten game plan taped to the cupboard.
"Corn chowder's done. Tomato soup's done," he says, checking on the miso and French onion soups.
Before soup pouring begins, his team of volunteers is plating the amuse bouchetier. These small bites to "amuse the mouth" constitute the first of 11 tiered courses they'll serve. The only way Olson has a shot at completing all 50 courses by his 10:30 p.m. goal is to group them for guests, who will dine under tents in his back yard.
Meanwhile, Olson greets newcomers with a wave and a command: "Get a drink and go back outside."
Inside, he choreographs a crew of culinary professionals and dedicated but untrained helpers, who dance through the night somehow avoiding burns, cuts and sharp words.
Tier 1: Five amuse bouche courses Neighbor Adam Gallagher has arrayed 50 gold-rimmed paper plates on the dining room table. Hands fly to complete the arrangement of bean pate, wontons, brie on focaccia, spinach-cheese phyllo, and corn bread with a turkey dog and a dab of cranberry ketchup delivered by the chef's dad, Randy Olson of Marshfield.
Lucas carefully spoons currant glaze on the brie until Olson tells her, "You'll never get it done. Just let it drip."
Helping himself to these first courses, Brian Lochen of Madison refers to his vintage blue tux jacket: "Joel told me to dress up. I was afraid that if I didn't, I wouldn't get all 50 courses."
"We're running late already," Olson says at 7:02 p.m.
Tier 2: Four soup courses "The running joke all day was that we had to have 50 of everything," says Tim Welsh, food and beverage director for The Woman's Club of Minneapolis. "Everybody would come by and sample stuff."
While Randy Olson counts the remaining handmade Gruy UNKNOWN_HIGHBIT_a8 re croutons, Lucas and family friend Bruce Andrews of Minneapolis focus on the next tier. Lucas searches for the shrimp toast, and Andrews yells "Joi!" after spilling cooked pasta shells on the floor. On cue, Olson's black lab arrives for cleanup.
"Oh, shots! Great!" says Steve Green of Chicago, Olson's friend from high school, as he and other guests pick up soup shooters at 7:29 p.m.
Tiers 3 and 4: Five shellfish and three pat e courses "We're going to make up some time on the pate course," Olson says, showing off the catering wrap securing portions prepped in advance. "You could drop this and you wouldn't be bummed unless you dropped it on your foot."
After pate courses are arranged, Olson realizes shellfish comes first, so Gallagher stacks those plates and spreads 50 more for shellfish. Olson finds the pesto he made for the already-served tomato soup, the only gaffe of the night and a bonus later when he adds it to pasta for the next day's event.
"What's in the oven? Cathy, talk to me," Olson says, as they juggle prep of the next few tiers.
Guests help themselves to shellfish at 7:54 p.m. and return for pate at 8:08 p.m.
Tier 5: Five poultry courses "Chef's prerogative," Olson says of a last-minute switch to poultry before fish.
He's searing duck on the stove near his 3-year-old daughter Charlotte's toy kitchen in their three-season porch and talking about how she already knows how to crack eggs and add a chef's pinch of salt.
Olson's wife, Laura Flinchbaugh, announces "Charlotte has tasted everything" and jokingly complains about some guests not doing the same.
By 8:38 p.m., 22 courses have been served and there are 28 to go.
Tier 6: Six fish courses Flinchbaugh's friend Sandy Birnbaum of Bethesda, Md., admits she's full. Bob Gray, also from Bethesda, jokes, "So far I'm tapping my hollow leg."
Watching Olson and friends plate the fish course, Birnbaum tells the chef, "Now you should open up a restaurant in Madison."
"I would never do this for money," Olson replies. "I love doing this for fun."
Instead of being a "hired gun," he prefers the role of entertainer as he teaches adults and children to cook at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, and at the McLean Community Center in McLean, Va. He schedules blocks of classes and, while back in Wisconsin, sometimes works on a Viroqua home he's renovating as a culinary school.
At 9:07 p.m., guests picking up the fish deliver compliments such as "You're rockin', man!"
Tier 7: Four mushroom courses Olson, who's not eating, plans to grill a burger for himself after the party but later won't be hungry.
"I'm tired of the food already," he says, estimating that - before Saturday - he had logged 150 hours over five months planning and preparing items that could be frozen. Some ingredients come from his pantry, such as Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce and the pickled beets he made years ago following his Aunt Jo's recipe.
"This is all about food memories, not cooking everything from scratch," he says.
Some guests have left early and others may have skipped courses, so the crew cuts back to 35 plates for themushroom courses, served at 9:28 p.m.
Tier 8: Two granite courses "The mushrooms were the piUNKNOWN_HIGHBIT_a8 ce de r e sistance ," says Bruce Wilson, who, with his wife, Cindy, of Middleton, is calling it a night. They miss the adult slushies - white wine and orange granite, and merlot and black pepper granite - served at 9:45 p.m.
Tier 9: Six meat courses "Did you find the black olives, Cathy?" Olson asks, referring to an ingredient for the final salad course.
Through the night, the crew has searched for ingredients and prepared foods stashed in one of four refrigerators, two ovens, a Cambro holding cabinet and assorted counters and tabletops. Still, Olson is close to his schedule, serving this tier at 10:04 p.m.
Tier 10: Seven game courses Adam Buckli, Olson's nephew from Eau Claire, says, "I've been keeping pace. It's like a marathon." He talks about Olson's annual game feed and about picking up culinary skills from Uncle Joel that have helped him impress the ladies. While Buckli is committed to eating all 50 courses, the team is down to 25 plates for this course, served at 10:25 p.m.
Tier 11: Three salad courses Upon serving salads, Welsh declares, "We did it!"
Olson, however, has missed his goal.
"I feel bad I'm 2 minutes late," he says, reaching up to "correct" the dining room clock to 10:30 p.m.
"All in all, that was an epic effort," he concludes.
The aftermath Olson had yet to serve dessert, which wasn't counted in the 50 courses but included peanut butter and chocolate fool (mousse, cake, liqueur and more), and a strawberry and white chocolate fool.
And after his guests left, Olson would be up until 4 a.m. preparing for the next day's event: a pig roast and pinata party celebrating Charlotte's birthday. She shares her dad's July 25 birthdate but gets her own party. Olson had invited 50 guests ... but wasn't promising 50 courses.