Norman Lemcke from the Essex Room discusses what it’s like to work in the kitchen of a popular venue for weddings and other events, along with all of the people and food that make it such a success.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here with Norman Lemcke of The Essex Room, a venue for weddings and other events in Essex, Massachusetts. And today we’re talking about working in The Essex Room kitchen. Welcome, Norman.
Norman Lemcke: Hi, John. Thanks for having me.
Opportunities in the Kitchen
John: Sure. Norman, while working at The Essex Room, tell me a little bit about your opportunities to help in the kitchen and what it is that you do in there as you’re maybe helping to prepare food for weddings and other events like that?
Norman: Right. My role in The Essex Room has kind of evolved. I do social media for them and when necessary I will help out in the kitchen, usually because they’re shorthanded and they have a lot of stuff going out, particularly if there’s a wedding and a clambake, for example. I mean, I think last season we did something… One day, we did over 800 plates.
John: Wow. Between several events?
Norman: Yeah, it’s the clambakes, and catering, and the wedding, and that number is probably low, but it’s a lot of food and it requires a lot of preparation.
Norman: Now I have to say I am not a foodie. Working in the kitchen was, “Oh, okay.” But it was prep work, so I didn’t have to know much. It was basically-
John: Not doing the cooking itself.
Norman: Exactly. Not creating the recipes. We leave that to Chef Ned. I mean, that’s his wheelhouse, not mine. I just do what he tells me to do.
John: A little chopping and cutting and things like that.
Norman: Right, right. And baking, I did a lot of baking. I actually have moved to where I really enjoy baking cookies and making desserts and stuff.
John: Oh yeah, and you’re following a recipe there so it’s not too hard.
Norman: Exactly. You can’t screw that up too much. I’d like to say that I haven’t, but it happens. Like I said, I’m not a foodie and Ned is, and so he’s very patient. When you have a staff of five in the kitchen preparing all this food, it’s stressful and emotions run high, but he gets it done; and I learned a lot. I learned following a recipe, doubling recipes. That’s where I usually got into trouble. Recipes are for 12 cookies, and if you have to make 500 of them, which I’ve had to do, doing the math is a little bit-
John: Yeah, it’s not just, okay, one cup becomes two cups. It becomes a little more complex than that.
Norman: Yeah, and then thank God we have a conversion sheet of paper, so you go, “Okay, so a pound of butter equals four cups.”
John: Yeah. Right.
Norman: I was probably wrong on that, but-
John: But you’re following the chart, and that helps.
Norman: I’m following the chart. I do the best I can, but I learned a lot about food. Ned is very knowledgeable and I’m not. And I remember one of the first times when he first started at The Essex Room, I mean, he was starting to just really overhaul the entire menu; and there was pasta leftover from an event, and so he offered it to the staff and he said, “Here’s some Parmesan. You want cheese on your pasta?” And I said, “No, I don’t like cheese on my pasta.” He was horrified.
John: Oh wow.
Norman: He was absolutely horrified. To this day, he can’t look me in the eye when it comes to cheese on pasta.
John: Right. “Oh, Norman, he’s the one who doesn’t like cheese on his pasta.”
Norman: Oh, yeah, it’s like he just looks at me with judgment and shame.
John: That’s funny.
Norman: But it’s all in good fun.
Norman: I’ve learned a lot and I’ve learned a lot about food, and I’ve realized that there’s a lot that goes into it. I have new found respect for people who work in the restaurant industry or the catering industry. It is truly an art form. It’s like painting, sculpting, anything that requires, you have the ingredients and then you have to make something out of it; and it’s hard work.
John: And even harder when you have to do that for 200 people or however many people it is.
Norman: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, there’s portioning and it’s just-
John: It’s harder to not make it come out like it’s a cafeteria or something.
Norman: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, each plate has to look pretty.
Norman: I actually do the garnish sometimes and I was the “garmanier” as Ned used to call me, which I think is a made up title. But you got to go with what Ned says.
But it’s all fresh. You see, the food comes in. I mean, so much food comes in before an event, and he’s going over it or the sous chef that’s going through it, and it’s all fresh and it’s all, most of it is organic. Everything’s homemade. I think there’s one item that is not homemade just because it’s just too labor intensive and I can’t think of what it is right now. But it’s all of our appetizers, everything from appetizers to dessert.
John: Yeah. I’ve talked to Chef Ned on some other episodes of this podcast that you can listen to on The Essex Room website, and I know one of the things that he’s really focused on, Chef Ned, is getting locally grown ingredients and really, like you said, really fresh ingredients from local sources, things like that.
Norman: Right. Yeah. He gets a lot of his herbs and fish and beef, I believe. The herbs, it’s a kind of a running joke that I tell people that I’ll comment on a sauce, let’s just say for example, and I’ll taste it. I’m like, “Oh Ned, that’s really good.” And he offers the information, says, “Well, it’s got parsley that was grown on the west side of a Tibetan mountain in June during the full moon.” And I’m like…my eyes just glaze over.
John: “I just said it was good.”
Norman: He does it every single time and it’s funny. I’m like, I don’t…
John: But that really speaks to him and his style is just that he knows where each one of those ingredients came from and it makes a difference to them.
Norman: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, he’s making fun of me, which is fine. And sometimes I think he’s making a lot of it up just to make a point to make fun of me, but that’s very rare. I mean, there things about micro greens and herbs. I don’t…just, “what do I have to do”?
John: Right, right.
Norman: But he’s very serious and he’s a very talented, and he really makes every event special. Before he came on, our WeddingWire reviews were, “Oh, Maureen was great. Donna was great. Lauren, Fay… Norman was fine, whatever. And the venue was great.” And as soon as he started after his first wedding, it was, “Oh my God, the food is awesome.” People are still talking about the food. That’s what people walk away with from a wedding, which is the food good, was the entertainment good and was the bride beautiful? And of course, brides are always beautiful.
John: Yeah. Right.
Norman: But it’s not cookie cutter food at all.
John: Right. Any other thoughts on working in the kitchen, or helping, or watching the staff as they’re working in the kitchen and their dedication to their craft, like you said?
Norman: Well, I think it’s important to know that when you have a floor staff and a kitchen staff, there’s a certain synergy that works out, and you have to respect that and they have to respect each other’s space, and I think our staff does that. I think the floor staff knows that when they’re in the kitchen that’s Ned’s domain and you have to follow his rules and Ned, he’s in the kitchen, he doesn’t really care what’s going on on the floor necessarily. As long as people get their food and it’s hot, that’s his one thing, that’s his one Achilles’ heel is when things get delayed, and they happen.
John: For whatever reason, and especially with weddings, there’s always maybe…
Norman: Toasts and speeches.
John: … pictures go too long or things like that.
Norman: Oh my God, yeah, it’s ridiculous.
John: You have the dinner set to go out at a certain time and then if everybody’s not ready for that, that makes it a challenge.
Norman: Right. We’re pretty military when it comes to schedules and we’ll say, “Okay, ceremony is 4:30 to 5:00, cocktail hour at 5:00 to 6:00.” And then it comes down to salads at 6:15, entrees being served at 6:43 or something. It’s very specific. He’s always thinking about that.
John: Do you ever help at all before a wedding to help with sort of planning the menus and things like that or how does that work?
Norman: Not really. Most menu planning is done with our wedding planners, Maureen Woodman, Donna Roy and Lauren Muise. They’re the ones who really hold the hand of the bride from beginning to end. And at some point, they sit down and they go through and choose a menu. We have a menu tasting six months before a wedding, which is great because they can taste what they’ve ordered. And we’ve had, people have changed. They were like, “Oh, I’m not too fond of this chicken,” and so we’d just do something else. It’s very helpful, and it’s also helpful to see the plate.
John: Right. Do you do that with one couple at a time or do you have multiple people come for a tasting, afternoon or evening or something?
Norman: We used to do it one couple at a time and we decided, all right, that was just too much work. Because when you have 15 couples getting married, you have 15 Saturdays in a row.
John: And you’re basically cooking an entire meal for them, multiple courses.
Norman: Oh yeah, and then some, and then some. Ned always goes above and beyond.
John: Right, because you’re doing, “okay, try this chicken versus that chicken or this salad versus that salad”, maybe.
Norman: Yeah, we try not to give them too many options because then it becomes chaos. But now we do it in groups and it’s more of an event. We do it, usually, in the evening. We set up tables in the dining room and people bring their parents, their friends, and whoever they want input from. That’s something that we do that I’m not sure other places do. And it’s not just like — you don’t get a little fork full of food. You get exactly what you will be served at your wedding. This is not a small amount of food.
The only thing we don’t do is wedding cakes. That’s really the only thing that we don’t and we usually order those through Topsfield Bakeshop.
John: Okay. Yeah, just to stay focused, like you said, on the meal itself and all of those locally grown ingredients and things like that.
Norman: Absolutely. And it’s a space and it’s labor, and I think Ned, that’s his focus. I mean, he’s not a baker, primarily anyway.
John: As much as he does do very nice… I’ve seen his little petit four desserts and the cookies and things like that, like you said, that are out of this world, but he kind of keeps it to that and lets the cake people be the cake people.
Norman: Right. And then the menu is planned. Then any kind of items like desserts and what kind of desserts, those are decided on through the wedding planner and the couple, and they change. It’s really up until the very end that they can change their menu.
John: Any final thoughts on the kitchen and working in the kitchen?
Norman: Well, I think my experience has been that this is probably one of the best kitchens and most creative kitchens that I’ve ever experienced, whether it’s being a floor person back in college or whatever. Ned and the entire staff in that kitchen, they are the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. They’re standing for hours and hours. I don’t know how they do it.
John: Right. All right, well that’s really great information, Norman, and great to talk to you about the kitchen at The Essex Room. Thank you.
Norman: Thank you.
John: And for more information about The Essex Room, you can visit the website at essexroom.com or call (978) 768-7335.