When you’ve been a guest at a banquet, wedding reception, or community dinner that has gone off the rails, you know what disharmony looks and feels like. The conflicts that erupt between the staff; the tension between the event planner and those hired to carry out the experience; the resulting resentment by the person whose special occasion is ruined; and the ongoing community commentary about the awful affair.
This is where The Kitchen Maestro excels. In an orchestra it’s the maestro that manages to get all the instruments to play out the harmony. The guests never know how much effort is involved in creating an event where the decorations, the food presentation reflect the significance of the occasion. The pleasant servers deal with quick resolution to the millions of last-minute unanticipated items; and clean-up/tear down is handled promptly. And the maestro moves effortlessly between the musicians bringing out the best of their individual skills.
Some of our families’ greatest stories revolve around the years my mother worked as head cook at Ross’ Restaurant in Rockford, Illinois; her weekend jobs cooking and serving private parties; her cooking for events and celebrations at Allen Chapel AME church; and eventually her catering company. A backward glance at her life’s work reminds me of how synchronization can be achieved in balancing excellent food preparation and service resulting in memorable events.
Without any formal training, Marbline Box rose from dishwasher to head cook for an Italian restaurant under the tutelage of her boss. Ross’ Restaurant was known for extraordinary service as well as excellent Italian cooking, steaks and prime rib. Her boss taught her how to plan meals, haggle with butchers and grocers to obtain the best prices, and how to manage the staff in his absence. On Thursdays, my mother came home with the remains of the special for the day: prime rib bones with the deliciously seasoned red meat still attached. We had prime rib sandwiches for dinner. On the next day, we had hearty soup simmering with the bones, remaining meat, and vegetables.
My mother had four growing girls and didn’t earn a lot of money as a cook. She needed a second job to help make ends meet. Among the restaurant’s guests, she gained a reputation as both a great cook and dependable employee. She was asked to work at private parties on the weekends. At those parties, she always held back four servings of the meal. We stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights waiting because we knew she would be bringing us a late night dinner that included choice steaks, lobster tails, baked potatoes, and desserts.
When not working, my mother was cooking meals for the church’s annual days or visiting church dignitaries. Working with groups of volunteers, the meals rivaled banquets hosted by top restaurants. During the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, only a few hotels/banquet halls were willing to serve the black community. Mrs. Box filled a void. Even if not a restricted establishment, contracting with a hotel for a banquet was cost prohibitive. Primarily churches and fraternal groups hosted major events at churches or at black operated community centers.
Not only did our mother know how to create harmony in the kitchen but she taught her daughters how to cook and serve graciously. My sisters and I were taught to cook entire meals and perform kitchen clean up including washing the enormous pots and pans, and mopping the floors.
As groups and individuals asked her to cater their events, my mother purchased multiple cookbooks focusing on serving large groups and earned the required health department food service certifications. She purchased the equipment needed to operate a catering business and created realistic budgets. She also managed to identify a supporting cast to decorate the venue with beautiful, cost-effective decorations that added to the ambiance.
My mother’s catering work is a part of her legacy. The Maestro created harmony through the loving way she served large groups of people. My sisters and I learned how to communicate harmony through settings with food from her and we carry that tradition forward with special outdoor gatherings during the summer and holiday dinners open to invited and drop-in guests…that Box way of making a kitchen hum and making all the pieces come together.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.