Delivering Culinary Magic at Roadside Banquets:Catering Chef Tang Cin-lu
【◎English translation: Hou Ya-ting
◎Photos by YJ Chen】
On a typical Saturday, the atmosphere at Nanhai Tzi-chu Temple in Kaohsiung's Neimen District is relaxed. Tonight, however, caterer Chef Mr. Tang Cin-lu is serving a roadside wedding banquet at the temple. The bride's father is chairman of the temple management committee, and there is undisguised anticipation for tonight's culinary spectacular. Chef Tang and his team are operating at full steam for tonight's 30-table celebration, and have been working under tarpaulins beside the temple's visitors' lodge since 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
Neimen's most striking geographical feature is its barren badlands, and these have influenced the occupations residents have entered. An impressive number of Neimen natives have gone into the catering industry; the district has won a reputation as the "home of master catering chefs," and organizing a banquet is still the most popular way in which locals celebrate.
Chef Tang followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a catering chef at the age of 20. He has been a key member of his family's catering business ever since, and took charge when his father, Mr. Tang Sih-fu, retired. However, Chef Tang says his son has no intention of carrying on the family business. Nevertheless, Chef Tang's wife remains a steadfast partner. Chef Tang says his father started the catering business in the 1960s with another chef, Mr. Tang Jhu-jiao, and a vegetable vendor, Mr. Guo Jhang-ci. The trio catered events throughout Taiwan, providing the tables and chairs, as well as the ingredients. They cooked on site for weddings, funerals and all kinds of occasions. At that time, providing the furniture and catering equipment, in addition to doing the cooking on site, was a relatively new service model. Chef Tang says that of his father's two partners, one has retired, but the children of the other are continuing the business.
A caterer's kitchen is always full of activity. Chef Tang may fry seafood on four stoves at the same time. Puffs of steam and aroma rush upward. Chef Tang also pays attention to his team, issuing commands while laying plates, cooking vegetables, scooping up meatballs and slicing them while at the same time answering interview questions.
For tonight's banquet, Chef Tang's team consists of 10 veterans, among them chefs, waitstaff and dishwashers. Some of them previously worked with Chef Tang's father, and they have forged a formidable partnership. Mrs. Tang recalls once catering for 200 tables. As the banquet consisted of 10 courses plus fruit and a dessert, 2,400 portions had to be cooked, plated and delivered. When asked about the crucial requirement when cooking for a banquet, Chef Tang says it is ensuring each dish is served at an appropriate temperature. Teamwork and experience enhances on-site efficiency.
Mrs. Tang is concerned that traditional banquet dishes may not excite guests, so she and her husband constantly update their menu. Mrs. Tang revels that Chef Tang sometimes draws inspiration from restaurants he has visited, scrutinizing their cooking methods and perhaps utilizing them in a new dish. Among his newest creations are fried pork baozi meatballs and shabu-shabu hotpot featuring giant grouper, kimchi and tofu. According to Mrs. Tang, the fried pork baozi meatballs are coated in crispy batter, and stuffed with pork, scallion, garlic, shrimp, dried shrimp and fish paste. A salted egg yolk is added to the center of the stuffing. This dish offers multiple textures and flavors. The shabu-shabu hotpot marries local grouper and tofu with Korean kimchi to enhance the savory flavors. Chef Tang's way of interpreting diverse cuisines means his roadside banquets are warmly received by customers.
"Even though I keep developing the menu, my catering business has suffered serious setbacks," laments Chef Tang. In the heyday of his catering business, he was preparing banquets every day. Now, he only receives banquet requests on weekends. Chef Tang is not the only caterer who has experienced stagnant business. The catering industry has faced a surge in the number of restaurants, and unrelenting competition. In addition, a lack of physical space for roadside banquets in urban areas has hurt the industry. According to Mrs. Tang, for caterers the worst season is the fifth, sixth and seventh months on the lunar calendar, due to various traditions as well as hot weather. During that period, they may receive as few as three requests per month. The severe challenges and poor outlook discourage Chef Tang's children from carrying on the family-run catering business. For tonight's banquet, the chef and his wife got up at 4 o'clock in the morning to begin preparations. Mrs. Tang says they will devote themselves to catering as long as their physical strength holds out.
When asked what he learned from his father, Chef Tang mulls the question, yet does not have a quick answer. He checks the time, rolls up his sleeves and starts to slice dried mullet roes, scoop out braised pig knuckles, check the temperatures of the steamer baskets, taste the seasoning for the thickened pork soup and shabu-shabu hotpots, and lay steam crabs with glutinous rice out on plates. By 6:30 p.m., the catering team is ready to present the first course, serving five appetizers, while taking out sashimi courses. Chef Tang is now decorating plates with flowers. Being a catering chef means handling a million different things at once, and keeping it all in sync.
Catering chefs need excellent culinary skills, precise time control, swift dispatch of personnel, and flawless arrangement of procedures. Chef Tang embodies these qualities, displaying a smooth culinary fluidity each time he organizes a roadside banquet.
Contact Caterer Chef Mr. Tang Cin-lu for banquet reservations