Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Big Top is about to Come Down

And I thought I now had the time to resume this blog on a regular basis!
I assumed that the open house on our other property marked the end of that particular preoccupation. But the open house was too succesful. We had 3 offers, one of which was $125,000 over the asking price, a cash offer. So, of course, we accepted that one, but they wanted a 10 day close, so immediately we had to begin the process of de-staging and knocking out the punch-list of minor unfinished items that the new owners wanted done before the deal could be finalised. We also decided to host a cocktail party at the house on the final Monday before we turned over the keys for about 25 friends and family. My wife did most of the preparation over the weekend while I was at work, but cooking still managed to take up my entire day off. I spent a good deal of that time making a Moroccan soup called Harira, a rich, fragrant, full-bodied, meaty concoction for which I will attach the recipe below.

But finally the punch-list was knocked out, the money transferred and the keys handed over! My wife and I are now in the "post-Barranca Drive" era.
Life with Cirque du Soleil is approaching its end. The final performances are on March 16th, which happens to be our wedding anniversary, so I will not be working that day. My last day will be Saturday the 15th, so I have 4 more working days to go, and I will be relieved when it's over. My days have settled into a tedium, the only lighter moments coming in the hours I spend working with LuAnn of the permanent staff, who is great fun, and the malicious pleasure that all of us temporary Cirquadors take in bad-mouthing Nathan and his unpleasant behavior.
My daily walk reflects the changing in the weather as the rain has taken its leave and the sun is taking charge of the skies. The trees are beginning to bud or blossom, the transients gather to sun themselves on the cement picnic tables, and the clunk of baseball on bat signals the approach of Spring. Four times in the last week I have found baseballs next to the path I walk on each day back and forth to the Circus. On the far side of the path from the field. So I ask myself, "Who do I sue if I get clocked by a flying baseball?" Or, perhaps "Who does my wife sue on behalf of her husband who is now a drooling mental defective?"
So, after next week I will be taking a short "sabbatical" from cooking for a living, but a good friend of mine, who was also my boss in the restaurant business for about 3 years, is about to open a new restaurant after spending several years in real estate, selling restaurants. He has the itch to get back into the craziness of owning a restaurant, and I was the first person he called to manage his kitchen. It should take a couple of months for the property to change hands and remodeling to be completed, so I have some free time until May. I have a number of projects to keep me busy (including this one) so there is little chance I will be bored.

Harira: Garbanzo and Lentil Soup ( adapted from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon by Claudia Roden)

Serves 10
1 pound beef or lamb, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
2 large onions, chopped coarsely
1 cup dry chickpeas (garbanzos) soaked overnight
3/4 cup brown lentils, rinsed
1 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (see note)
4 celery stalks, diced
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. ground ginger
2 sticks cinnamon
1/2 tsp. saffron or 1 tsp turmeric (I used turmeric)
salt, to taste
5 tbsp. all-purpose flour
5 oz. orzo pasta
juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup chopped cilantro (coriander)
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

Put the meat in a large pot, along with the onions and drained chickpeas. Cover with about 13 cups water and bring to a boil. Skim off the scum and simmer, covered for 1 hour.
Add the lentils, tomatoes, celery (include some leaves), tomato paste, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron or turmeric. Simmer 15 mins. more adding more water if necessary, and add the salt when the lentils begin to soften.
In the meantime, put the flour in a small pan and gradually add 2&1/4 cups cold water, a little at a time, beating vigorously to blend well and to avoid lumps. Put over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens, then simmer for 10 mins. Pour this batter into the soup, stirring vigorously, and cook for a few minutes, until the soup acquires a light, creamy texture.
Add the orzo 15 minutes from the end of cooking so that it doesn't get mushy (or pre-cook it in salted water and add when you serve). Add the lemon juice, cilantro and parsley at the same time.
Serve with lemon wedges.

Note: The easiest way to peel tomatoes is to cut a small, shallow X into the end opposite the stem and drop the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove immediately, shock in ice water and the skin should come away easily starting at the X. (In restaurants we used to just drop them in the deep-fryer for about 30 seconds!)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

I say goodbye to the Circus, almost!

I'm now into my 4th week with Cirque du Soleil and I'm wondering if it will be my last even though the stay in San Jose has another 4 weeks to run. The truth is that I actually gave my notice after the 1st week. I don't have a problem with being told what to do by people who may have less experience than I do. I have, from time to time, worked for agencies that specialise in food service employment and have been sent out on assignments where I was over-qualified for the position that I was filling, but I was paid the same whatever the work, so I did the work as instructed just like everybody else. But I have always expected to be treated with respect and courtesy whether the employer knew my background or not. Being talked down to occasionally comes with the territory and you simply have to accept that with good grace.

One afternoon during that 1st week Nathan handed me some beef bones and asked me to start a beef stock. So I roasted the bones to give them some color then threw them in a pot with the basics: coarse-chopped onion, celery and carrot, covered them with cold water, brought it to a boil, turned it down to a simmer and left it on the stove. As far as I'm concerned, good stock should simmer for several hours and I was due to leave soon so I left it in Nathan's hands.

The next day Nathan handed me a container of chicken scraps and asked me to make chicken stock, then he said "Don't do what you did yesterday and take it off the stove and leave it in a corner without telling anybody." Not, "Did you...?" or "Do you know who...?" So I wasted no time in telling him that I hadn't done it and his response was "Well, somebody did." The implication of that was clear enough to me: he didn't believe me.

One of my responsibilities is to keep the lunch line stocked and refreshed throughout the lunch period which runs from 12:00 to 5:00. With 5 or 6 different items that can be an almost constant task when it's busy. When things slow down, less so, but periodically, even if there's little traffic, items start to look a little old and dried out and have to be replaced. So, on one occasion, I had just changed out 2 or 3 items and paused to take stock of what I might need next when Nathan came around the corner and said "It's not cool to be standing around doing nothing. There's plenty of work that needs to be done." This happened twice.

So after 3 or 4 days of this, my working day fell into a certain pattern. For the first 5 hours or so I worked with LuAnn who is a pleasure to work with: good-natured with a sense of humor and no need to browbeat or patronise. With LuAnn the work gets done with energy and enthusiasm. Then Nathan arrives and the change in atmosphere is palpable, and I'm not the only one who feels it. 2 other members of the temporary staff (Cirquadors as we are called) have described the same experience. There is tension and edginess in the air and the primary motivation is to avoid the sharp edge of Nathan's personality. It is an uncomfortable environment, not conducive to getting the best out of people, regardless of their talents.

So at the end of my Saturday shift I told Cynda that she needed to find a replacement for me, that I enjoyed working with her, with LuAnn and Karine, but Nathan was an ass; arrogant, patronising and sometimes downright insulting and they couldn't pay me enough to take that kind of crap.

She wasn't pleased, but I agreed to work through the following week to give her time to find a replacement. She asked me to inform the Manpower people, who have an office on site to manage the 150 or so temps who work for Cirque at any given time. By the time I got to their office, Cynda had already been and gone, so they knew that I had given notice. We sat down and I gave them my reasons which they understood, but they asked me to reconsider on the understanding that the situation would be dealt with. Not wanting to be a hard-ass I agreed to give it one more try, with the proviso that if there was one more instance of that kind of unacceptable treatment I would be out the door. They accepted that and I headed home with 2 days off to look forward to and the prospect of an interesting Wednesday when I returned to work.

The first 5 hours on Wednesday were, as usual, fun-filled but productive. When Nathan showed up I was on the look-out for some kind of reaction, either some attempt to apologise for "hurting my feelings" (which would hardly have done the matter justice) or maybe even some kind of retaliation but...nothing! He was polite though not exactly friendly, he didn't bother me, he didn't ask me to do anything for him, he pretty much left me to get on with whatever work LuAnn had for me, and I've made sure every day since then that I have plenty of prep to do in the afternoons. I can't honestly say that I'm enjoying this assignment, but in the absence of a really good excuse to leave, I can't, in good conscience, just quit. Mind you, one day last week, I got 2 phone calls on the same day from 2 different people asking me how soon I was going to be done with the Circus because they both had work for me to do. Both are in the process of opening new restaurants and want me to run their kitchens. So now I have a dilemma. Which way do I jump? and how soon? Both propositions appeal to me in different ways. One is from a friend and former boss who I know well, and his menu is more appealing, Mediterranean with Persian influences (he's Persian) but the commute is longer than I really care for. The other is closer, a couple who own a German bakery and who want to create a European-style cafe, with a strong German flavor. Both are anxious to move forward. I need to make a decision by Friday. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Life not under, but slightly to one side of the Big Top

I know this blogging business should be an almost daily affair, but I've been so busy with the damn circus, plus preparing our other house for sale after over 2 years of remodelling that it has been virtually impossible to get this done. The following was started several weeks ago. The house is now finished and on the market so from now on I should have much more time to relate my misadventures with the Cirque, and more. And maybe even some more useful stuff about food and cooking which is what we're supposed to be about!

Friday the 25th was day one of my stint with the Circus. All of us temps were asked to gather at the main gate, 7:45 a.m. sharp to meet with Cynda, the kitchen manager. So we duly gathered in the rain. We were on time . Cynda wasn't. No matter, we were officially on the clock and getting paid for milling around. The fortunate thing for me is that I live a mile from the site and I walk to and from work each day. It's hardly a country stroll, with its carwash and run-down machine shops and busy intersections but I do pass a pleasantly grassy city park with handy toilets should the need arise, and, inexplicably wedged in with the baseball diamond and basketball court, 20, yes 20 horseshoe pits! When does this neighborhood ever attract enough dedicated horseshoe tossers to justify 20 horseshoe pits! Perhaps the city of San Jose hosts the World Horseshoe Championships each year and I just don't know about it.

Beyond the park the road bridges the Guadaloupe river, once a pristine salmon river, only now slowly recovering from years of pollution and neglect. In Summer the river is a pleasant meandering silver ribbon cutting through the canopy of green trees. Today it is a roiling brown turgid mess powering its way through banks of improbably green grass, studded with stark tree trunks, plastered with matted brown leaves and trash, witness to the height of the earlier flash flood, which left a quite considerable number of black and white plastic bags fluttering in the stiff January wind.

But the high point of this morning's walk was the view of our Eastern hills, capped with fresh snow, glimmering in the brief morning sunlight, a sight we are treated to only once or twice a year, before the clouds closed in and the rain, once again, began to pour.

The permanent Cirque du Soleil kitchen staff consists of Cynda, Nathan the head Chef, and Luann and Karine the other 2 chefs, none of them over 30 I would guess. Now regardless of the culinary skills and experience of the permanent staff, this influx of unfamiliar temporary kitchen staff in each new city requires 2 qualities above all others: a sense of humor, and the ability to put us all at our ease. If we are comfortable and relaxed in these new surroundings we are more likely to give of our best. Easy enough, right?

The 3 women have these qualities in abundance; Nathan does not. He tends to be humorless and patronising, occasionally downright insulting. The women work primarily the early shift, Nathan the later one. My shift spans the two. Needless to say, I enjoy the earlier part of my day more than the latter.

For the last 4 days we have been feeding only us local temps and the permanent travelling set-up crew, all hard hats and harnesses, about 100 in all. Today at lunch there was a sudden influx of young, athletic and attractive bodies: the artists were arriving. Let the Show begin!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Been gone too long! I joined the Circus

It's been a month since my last post, unfortunately. You may recall that I had scheduled myself to cook for 18 days straight, with 14 of those days cooking breakfast over the holidays after giving 3 of my cooks extra time off. So I worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, my birthday (the 29th), New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. That was the last day of my solo flight and my cooks were due to return, but I was still scheduled for 3 more days before I could take a day off. And it was on this day, January 2nd, a day that will live in infamy, that the owner decided to fire me! It was not a great surprise, but it was rather sudden, with no overt warning.

But it wasn't the owner who did the dirty work. It wasn't even the General Manager. Neither of them said a single word to me that day, or thereafter. It was left to Dean, their management consultant, whom I one described as an over-inflated Chuckie doll with better hair, who called me into his office, which was a bit of a clue, and, without preamble, began the conversation by saying "This is about managing the transition" and for a moment I wasn't sure what we were talking about. Then I was offered a "termination by mutual agreement", which would avoid the stain of being "fired" on my record, but still allow me to collect unemployment if I chose to. No substantial reason was ever given for the termination, only that "I was not a good fit". I couldn't agree more! Before I took this job I was warned by both the outgoing chef and the current GM that the owner would be my biggest challenge, that he was a constant presence and inclined to interfere. They didn't tell me that he was also boorish, foul-mouthed, insulting and totally lacking in charm. I thought that I could win him over with my natural charm. I don't think I've ever been more wrong in my life. By the end of the first month I was already looking for another job, hoping to have another position to walk into before I cheerfully announced my departure. They beat me to the punch, but I walked away with a great sense of relief.

Since then I have divided my time between job-hunting, working on our other house which we are preparing to sell, looking at small cafes and sandwich shops with a former boss of mine who now deals in restaurant real estate, with a view to buying my own place, and when I can get away, a bit of fly-fishing.

One of the more interesting postings on Bay Area Craigslist was by Manpower for a Chef to work with Cirque du Soleil for their 2 month stay in San Jose. I figured that the Circus would provide an entertaining diversion while I decided what my next move should be. It turned out that a lot of other chefs had the notion that Cirque du Soleil would look great on their resumes and Manpower was swamped with applications. I survived the first two interviews and the final interview was on Wednesday the 23rd, the final decision on the 24 th, and the first day of work on the 24th, which didn't leave much time for reflection. In the meantime I had interviewed with a German couple who had just bought a somewhat run-down cafe in an affluent neighborhood and had plans to turn it into a European-style cafe. They needed someone to run the kitchen and provide direction for the menu. So this was also an interesting opportunity and I really liked the people, so which way should I jump if both made offers? I knew that the cafe would need extensive renovations which might take a couple of months, so I clued them in to the Cirque du Soleil opportunity, and they said go ahead and we'll get back together when the Circus leaves town. I actually had both parties on different phones at the same time when Manpower called with the good news from the Circus folks. I didn't want to commit to the Circus until I had some sense that the cafe owners would keep me in the frame. But it all played out just the way I was hoping. So with luck I can move effortlessly from one to the other. We shall see! Stay tuned for my adventures with Cirque du Soleil.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breakfast Merry-Go-Round

The Holiday period brings a slowing down in our business. In a business hotel like ours, the guest count declines steadily in the week leading up to Christmas and does not start to build up again until Jan. 2nd. The level of occupancy is at such a low ebb that we open for breakfast only during the 10 days from Dec. 22nd to Jan. 1st. Regrettably, closing completely on Christmas Day or New Year's Day is not an option: our parent corporation demands breakfast 365 days a year.

My 3 cooks (2 of them brothers and all 3 Mexican) requested the Holiday period off. Since we weren't open for dinner for 10 days, it was no problem to give Miguel, my dinner cook, the time off. But as for my 2 breakfast cooks, one full-time and one weekend, if I gave them the time off, who would cook breakfast? You already know the answer.

In an attempt to create some goodwill in my attempt to turn this ragtag group, with their varying levels of experience and commitment, into something approaching a professional team, I decided to give all 3 the 10 days off. Given that I worked the week before this Holiday period began, and will work the several days after until the weekend blessedly rolls around, I've denied myself a day off for the best part of 3 weeks straight. The saving grace is that breakfast only requires my presence for about 6 hours a day, but that day begins when I roll out of bed at 5:30. I'm a quick mover in the morning, so after a 15 minute drive, I'm in my kitchen by 6:00

Turn on the lights, the ovens, the flat-top grill, the deep-fryer, the steamtable, the heat lamp and the hot well for the oatmeal. Start the oatmeal cooking (I don't believe in quick oats: even the 5-minute variety cook for 30 minutes in my kitchen, and I make it with half water, half milk for a rich, creamy, fully-cooked oatmeal that needs no additions, though we surround it with raisins, brown sugar and walnuts). Put the bacon and sausage in the oven, quiche if it's on the mneu that day, set the timer. The timer is critical: without it, something will burn, guaranteed. Toss a few pounds of cooked, diced potatoes on the now-hot oiled flat-top, leave them undisturbed to brown. Set out the bowls of fruit on ice; canteloupe, honeydew, watermelon, pineapple, sliced peaches, mandarin oranges and, oh yes, prunes. Fill the juice dispensers; orange, apple and grapefruit. Turn the bacon and sausage in the oven, re-set the timer. Put the scones and muffins in the oven, set the second timer. Make a small amount of pancake and waffle batters. Don't forget to stir the oatmeal.

Remove the browned potatoes from the grill, put them in the steamtable. Clean off the grill, grease it with fresh oil, dip the French toast in batter and lay it on the grill. Take the bacon and sausage out of the oven and put in the steamtable, saving the bacon grease (still one of the world's great seasonings). Flip the French Toast. Breathe. take the muffins and scones out of the oven, set them on a rack to cool. Grab the day's first cup of coffee (the opening server made that, one thing you didn't have to). Remember something you forgot. Put the oatmeal in a bain-marie and set it in the hot well. Take off the French Toast, slice it, dust with powdered sugar, set in steamtable. Clean of grill one more time,oil it and pour on a healthy quantity of beaten eggs, scramble quickly and set in steamtable. Set the scones and muffins in a basket in the serving area. Grab the container of serving utensils, do a quick dash around the stations, setting out tongs and spoons. Set out quiche, if it's a quiche day. Or maybe biscuits and gravy, or breakfast burritos, or......! Set up mini-pitchers of pancake syrup in the steamtable. Check supplies of omelette ingredients. Check the clock. 6:55. Just made it. Pause for another breath. Dash to the bathroom. Make it back just in time for the first customer.

I'm now into my 8th day on this breakfast go-around and one day blends into the next, especially over the Holiday season, so that I have a hard time remembering what day it is, which is a bit of a problem because I have particular obligations on certain days in terms of ordering from particular vendors. Christmas Day came and went without much fanfare on my part. I worked 7 hours, drove over to our other house which we're remodelling, spent 3 hours or so there, working on the landscaping and went home. The rest of the family was at my wife's mother's house, which I find dreadfully dull, so I pleaded exhaustion and spent a pleasant evening in my own company. Tomorrow is my birthday and yes, I'm cooking on my birthday too so that will pass without fanfare. Who needs to be reminded after 50? New Year's Eve? Yes. New Year's Day? Yes. My breakfast stint finally ends on Jan. 2nd, but after that I go back to my regular routine. I finally get a day off on the 5th. Time to go fishing!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diary of a Mad Chef!

Maybe I should rename this site "Diary of a Mad Chef!" Being a chef is not all glamour and plaudits. Sometimes it's just bloody annoying and frustrating hard work. Yesterday was the Employee Christmas Party at the hotel, and who do you suppose got to prepare the food for the employees to enjoy? Me, of course! Now, this wasn't the first time I've cooked for a staff party at my own workplace, although the best companies I've worked for would host a catered party at a location away from the workplace, but whenever the party was in-house, accomodations were made to ensure that as many of the staff as possible could enjoy the festivities: the restaurant was usually closed for the evening, and the menu was kept simple so as not to burden the kitchen, so that chef, cooks and dishwashers could share the fun.
Yesterday, I bust my ass for 14 hours non-stop, first cooking lunch for the guests, then cranking up the pace to feed 80 or so employees and their guests, starting with hors d'oeuvres at 6:00. The menu was of my choosing, but I was left in no doubt that the owners had certain expectations: 4 appetizers, followed by 2 entrees plus a prime rib carving station, and dessert assortment. We began with Buffalo chicken wings, bbq meatballs, crab-stuffed mushrooms and jalapeno poppers, and, no, I'm not stupid enough to actually make those things from scratch! Then on to Chicken Parmigiana, Carne Asada, Rice Pilaf, Roast Potatoes and a sauteed Vegetable Medley.
Now, I was not alone in having to work my own employee party - the entire management staff was expected to pitch in to decorate the room, set up the bar, bus the tables, run the food and clean up afterwards, including re-setting the room for a lunch for 80 people the next day, an event that came with only 2 days notice! But I can guarantee that nobody else in that hotel worked as hard as I did. Usually I take a certain pride in turning out a good meal in the face of that kind of challenge, but not this time. My new recruit Matt, a recent graduate of a 10 month culinary program, well-intentioned but no real experience, and I cranked it all out without major mishap, but as the evening wore on I grew increasingly irritated at the stinginess of the owners, who were simply too damn cheap to pay somebody else to cater the party, and the wastefulness of the guests who would pile up their plates with food then not eat it. I got to watch that food being scraped into the garbage. Trust me there was nothing wrong with the food!
At one point during the evening I was presented with a Christmas card with a $100 bill inside. I didn't think much about it at first, but as my irritation grew, that $100 began to seem more like an insult and I wound up giving it to Miriam, one of my servers who has worked hard for me for a couple of years and become a respected co-worker, a friend and confidant. Miriam is a single mother with a delightful daughter, Christina, who calls me abuelo (grandpa). She was headed for Vera Cruz the next day to spend a month with her mother. So I said "buy something nice for Christina, tell her it's from her abuelo".
At one point my presence was requested in the party room for some party game or other. I simply told the messenger "Tell them I'm too f***king busy and I'm not having fun!" Miriam took my place for the drawing and pulled out a couple of $20 gift certificates to a restaurant that I actually like, the Poor House Bistro in San Jose (I rarely ever eat out). By the time I left the kitchen about 10:00 p.m. I was as tired as I've ever been after a day's work. And I still had to do some shopping for the event the next day. It was almost 11:00 when I got home and my wife was more incensed than I was! I had to be up again at 6:00 to start all over again on the lunch for 80, and the handful of jalapeno poppers that I had gobbled down in lieu of a decent meal did a number on my insides in the night. Not exactly restful.
It was clear the next morning that nobody who was working that morning really wanted to be there. I certainly wasn't bringing 100% of my attention to the job. At one point during lunch I made a pizza without the sauce - and it didn't dawn on me until about 3 hours later! The guest never said a word. Maybe she liked it! And then I discovered that someone had abandoned their soiled underwear in the mens room and I did the manly thing and disposed of it (in a sanitary way, of course and I did wash my hands extra thoroughly before going back to work).
And, as it happened, after Matt and I scrambled to put together the lunch for the 80 guests (a memorial lunch for a recently deceased friend of the owner's family) only 35 showed up! Leftovers, anyone?
I should run away and join the Circus! Cirque du Soleil is actually coming to town next month and they're looking for someone to cook for the performers for their 3 month stay. Interesting, but they don't pay enough. Can you imagine cooking for the stars of Cirque du Soleil for $12 an hour. That's pitiful. If they paid more I would do it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Know your onions? The French do!

These are my wife's favorite soup bowls and the ones we use on Christmas Eve
The latest copy of Cook's Illustrated landed in my mailbox today, and I was interested to note that there is an article about French Onion Soup. This is something of a tradition in my wife's French-speaking family, to be served on Christmas Eve. Amusing isn't it that I, an Englishman, a "rosbif" as the French snidely say, am the designated French Onion Soup maker in a family of French origins. Truth is that I am simply so good at it!
The process of putting that rich silken concoction on the table starts at Thansgiving. We take the turkey carcass and throw it in the biggest pot we have in the house, which is the turkey deep-fryer pot (yes, deep frying a turkey really works, doesn't result in a greasy bird and saves a considerable amount of time, providing you follow sensible precautions and don't burn down the house or garage. It should always be done outdoors!).
But in this case I use the pot on top of the stove. In go the usual complement of onions, carrots and celery and enough water to fill the pot almost to the top. Then I fire up the heat and bring the whole mess to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook until it reduces to perhaps a gallon, which may take all day and all night. This year it took 2 days on very low heat. By the time it's fully reduced that stock can just about stand up by itself, it's so thick and full of gelatin from the mass of bones. I fact, if you refrigerate it, the chilled consistency will be akin to jello.
You will often see the term demi-glace used to describe a thick rich beef stock. Demi glace means half frozen, in French, of course, which refers to the very solid texture derived from the high proportion of gelatin in the stock, when it is chilled.
In so many restaurants what passes for onion soup is a pitiful thing, consisting of a mass of quickly sauteed onions drowned in an over-salty beef broth, usually from a can, or heaven forbid, some instant thing called Au Jus mix! (Don't get me started on the mispronunciation and misuse of that term). Onion soup should NEVER be made with 100% beef broth! A mixture of chicken and beef broth is acceptable but the poultry should always predominate, by at least 2:1.
Obviously you don't need gallons of stock for onion soup on Christmas Eve, unless you're feeding 30 or 40 people, which is why I reduce it to a manageable gallon or so, because that's about all the room I have in my freezer.
Speaking of Christmas, it looks like I will be cooking breakfast at my hotel on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day and all the days in between, because all my cooks want the same week off and I'm trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, which may wear thin by New Year's Eve! Mind you, these days, I can barely manage to stay awake until midnight on New Year's Eve. All seems rather pointless at my "mature" age.
I will take the stock out of the freezer on the morning of Christmas Eve and throw it in a pot on the stove over low heat. No need to thaw out in advance. One of the the tricks with onion soup is to start out with a lot of onions, because they will reduce considerably in mass with the slow cooking that carmelization requires. Carmelization is simply the slow extraction of the natural sugars in onions and browning that sugar over heat. Don't try to make this process easier by using sweet onions like Maui or Walla Walla. They will simply make the soup too sweet instead of savory-sweet
You will need a heavy gauge pot, aluminum or copper-bottomed stainless steel. I put a splash of vegetable oil in the pot and turn the heat to high. When the oil begins to smoke I throw in all the onions. Quantity is not that important. If you wind up with too many carmelized onions, use them in something else. The onions will start to brown immediately. Stir them constantly for a couple of minutes to prevent burning. Despite what I may have said elsewhere carmelizing is not a euphemism for burning. After a couple of minutes turn the heat down to very low and let the whole mess do its work, stirring occasionally. The onions need at least an hour to release their sugar and turn sweetly brown. I quite often let them cook for at least a couple of hours. When they are reduced to a beautiful brown tangled mass of tangy sweetness, I throw in a handful of flour to create a simple roux amid the onions, with the oil that's already in there. I let that cook over low heat for a couple of minutes to let the rawness cook out of the flour, as always with a roux. Then I add a cup or so of white wine, maybe a splash of brandy (optional), a little thyme and a bayleaf or two, letting that cook together for another couple of minutes. Finally in goes the stock. Note, once again, this is a poultry stock not beef! Beef stock overwhelms the delicate flavor of the onions.
Again I turn up the heat to medium so that the mixture can come slowly to a boil, because a roux will not do its thickening work unless the liquid at least simmers. You don't want a really thick onion soup, but you do want body so there is just enough roux here to provide that, but no more. Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes and the roux has done its work, a little salt and black pepper is all that's needed to finish it. A slice or two of fresh baguette, brushed with melted butter and toasted in the oven floating in the bowl and topped with freshly grated Gruyere cheese melted under the broiler and you have a masterpiece, a meal unto itself.