Everyone knows it’s there--somewhere. In the walk in. On the top-left shelf, or right, maybe midway above the milk and cheese, it’s always there: THE TRAY. Either a full or half-sized sheet pan, maybe even a couple of two-inch hotel pans, THE TRAY is where the dribs and drabs of old, once or sometimes even potentially necessary foodstuffs gather to get older. Comingling substances in various vessels from no longer legible or documented dates of origin, they gather in anticipation of being called into service again. Like a semi-washed up relief pitcher waiting the call to the bullpen, they ruminate on their metal bench ready to throw heat, or spice or zest.
THE TRAY holds those misfit jars, crocks and flint glass woozies of condiments, sauces, rubs and marinades of sometimes questionable provenance representing every cuisine in the realm. Why does THE TRAY exist? Because a club kitchen has to be nimble enough to produce any cuisine on any given day for any occasion, for any event, whim or fancy. A club kitchen is serving up Italian favorites one night and Tex-Mex classics the next. Each cuisine requires genuine, authentic ingredients. After a while a diverse, exclusive set of ingredients takes up residence on THE TRAY. There’s the little jar of oyster sauce from the Asian Night buffet, that container of blue cheese-stuffed Manzanilla olives from the Martini-Mixer marketing event, an almost-full pint of chipotle-horseradish-honey-mustard from Bring Your Dog to Hot-Dog Yappy Hour. Oh, and can’t forget the tahini and preserved lemon still kicking around from the Mediterranean-themed ladies golf luncheon!
Somehow, the inhabitants of THE TRAY are bestowed special dispensation from the FIFO rule: hmm, can’t get rid of that half empty jar of mint jelly, Mr. Smith might request it for his lamb chops. We keep the blended family of THE TRAY around, indefinitely, just in case. We tend to give the “best used by date” a fair amount of leeway for residents of THE TRAY. Like the tarragon-raisin-caramel-green peppercorn-caper vinaigrette that Mrs. Green brought to the kitchen last Thanksgiving to be offered exclusively to her family. We’ve got to keep that--she might ask.
The collection curated on THE TRAY shows forethought and a sense of planning and preparedness for the unexpected. It’s somehow comforting to know that the bottle of Three Crabs Fish Sauce that’s been scuttling around THE TRAY for goodness knows how long is there should the need arise to honor a special request for Vietnamese hot-pot from Mr. Davis in the dining room. (He just got back from a trip to Southeast Asia and has a craving for nothing else.) Ubiquitous, THE TRAY sits in anticipation should the need for something, funky, fancy or fermented to step in and satisfy.
The congregants on THE TRAY are actually a testament to savvy sourcing. Who really needs to purchase six number-ten cans of Melba sauce for the upcoming Jones rehearsal brunch when procuring a sixteen ounce jar and leaving the remainder from the event on THE TRAY till, whenever, will do just fine? The population of THE TRAY comes from far flung bodegas and boutique markets that sell just the right amount of an ingredient for a (usually) one-off event. After their debut, these global constituents coexist inclusively among the diaspora of THE TRAY.
Has anyone seen the container of wasabi-pickled-ginger kewpie mayonnaise? Of course! It’s on THE TRAY in the walk-in, naturally.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.