And you thought cooking Thanksgiving dinner for your in-laws was daunting.
Imagine if you were a culinary student preparing a holiday feast for the president of your school and a cadre of brainy law students - a formal sit-down dinner for 23 served in a grand Main Line mansion.
"Well, we don't want to screw up," understated Devon Montgomery, one of the dozen Drexel University culinary students who volunteered to chop, reduce, fold, whip, roast, garnish and serve for the turkey-and-trimmings dinner held this month at the Orchards, the official residence of Constantine Papadakis and his wife, Eliana, in Strafford.
Although Thanksgiving isn't observed in his native Greece, Papadakis has taken to the American tradition of giving thanks. "Greek families use any excuse to get together and eat. There's always something on the table," said Papadakis, who started the annual Drexel feast at his home six years ago.
"Some of the students aren't with their families and this is a way to feel connected," said Papadakis, whose warm manner could put even the most nervous student at ease. "This is a way for us to share our home, and what Drexel means to us, with them."
It also offers the culinary students a chance to show off some of their moves to other Drexelites. "We're very proud of them," Papadakis said.
The student diners are selected for a different reason each year, for example, their foreign-born status or membership in student government. This year, 21 law students earning a 3.0 GPA or better from the university's new Earle Mack School of Law took seats at the table.
"I had no idea that the culinary school was such a talented resource," said Barbara Mallory Sampat, a Willingboro resident who is pursuing a degree in health law. She was pleasantly surprised with the sophistication of the Thanksgiving feast: "The taste and presentation of every course was superb."
Like the guest list, the menu changes yearly. "This year, we put the emphasis on local products and healthy cuisine," said chef/instructor Adrienne Hall, who supervised the meal prep and service along with chef Andrew Miller, a food science graduate student.
Other than an array of excellent breads and flaky herbed biscuits - Montgomery's contribution to the table - the menu offered none of the traditional calorie-laden dishes like bread stuffing and mashed potatoes.
The meal started with a tender salad of organic lettuces, grown in Drexel's city garden, tangy with paper-thin slices of Red Rome apples tossed in a goat cheese vinaigrette.
The main course was turkey breast, brined in buttermilk (cut by students earning a grade in a butchery class), served with pan gravy, cranberry compote, braised winter greens with leeks, Kennett Square black trumpet mushrooms and chanterelles, and spaghetti squash baked with garden herbs and roasted garlic.
The gravy was the exception to the healthy rule, a serious step above the usual flour-thickened pan juices. Instead, the students prepared a turkey veloute, a velvety mother sauce made from simmered stock, thickened with a roux and fragrant with butter.
Other than the rainy weather - "It rains every time we do this," hospitality student Alexandra Totokosopoulos said - the evening's repast went off without a hitch.
The table was set with Wedgwood china (service for 80), chosen for its Drexel colors (blue and gold); pumpkin-shaped candles; and fresh flowers in clear glass vases filled with cranberries for a seasonal note. A selection from Chaddsford Winery accompanied the meal.
Once the law students arrived, the culinary students sprang into action: chilled salad plates were adorned with the tossed greens, apple slices placed just so. After a welcome from the president and his wife, Hall announced the first course, and the feast began.
The job of plating main courses for 23, including two vegetarian options (cheese manicotti topped with a fresh tomato sauce whipped up on the spot), was done assembly style, each plate wiped and garnished. The tangle of golden spaghetti squash, winter greens and turkey breast looked as good as it tasted.
For dessert, baked Bosc pears were topped with a dollop of cream-cheese whipped cream and served with ginger biscotti.
"They did a really good job," chef Miller said.
Anna Lynn, a student in charge of cutting and caramelizing leeks, admitted that the entire event "was kind of intimidating at first."
But she rose to the occasion and, in the end, shared her perspective like a true chef: "Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday," Lynn said. "It's centered around food - really, what's not to like?"
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