Eater contributor JD Woodward worked alongside Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento Wednesday night at the Spam Throwdown at the Saint Arnold Brewery. Below is JD's account of what it's like to serve several hundred hungry guests.
An event like the Spamalot Spam cook-off, held at the Saint Arnold Brewery and benefiting Theatre Under The Stars is right up Lyle Bento's alley; it's fun, it's competitive, and it's also a bit silly. Off-site events always present their own set of challenges and obstacles to overcome; anything that can go wrong likely will so it becomes really important to be able to make things happen on the fly.
Lyle called me a couple of days before the cook-off, looking for help for the event,
"Heeey Buddy, come help me out with the Spam cook-off, buddy! I'm doing spam tacos al pastor!" Then, the day of, around noon, he called up again with exciting news,"Nooj! You're not going to believe this, I got a fucking trompo to use for the cook-off." It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about. "You know, the thing with the spit that turns around and cooks the meat!"
Needless to say, anticipation was running high as I walked into the area where everyone was setting up. Sure enough, there it was ? sitting on a table in the back of the room was a vertical rotisserie that was almost as big as Lyle. Lyle stood next to the spit that he'd loaded up with spam and huge chinks of pineapple and finished prep by cutting limes with a foot-long scimitar. He was extremely proud of the massive spit roaster.
After he showed me where everything was and explained how everything was going to go, we decided to go ahead and fire it up. Lyle turned on the gas and plugged it into an extension cord. We set it to high and held a blowtorch to the gas vents/burners; poof, they lit right up. The only thing left to do was turn on the rotisserie itself.
Lyle reached over and flipped the switch, nothing. The little piece that holds the spit was not turning, "Well maybe the plug is bad," he said, so he unplugs the extention cord and runs it to another outlet, flips the switch, nothing. "Well maybe the extension cord is bad," I suggest, so we remove the extension cord and move the table over towards the wall and plug it directly into the outlet, flip the switch, nothing.
It's only twenty minutes before we're supposed to be putting out food, so Lyle and I have out my cell phone flash light, looking up underneath this thing trying to figure out some way, any way, to get this thing to turn. Right then Reef chef/owner Bryan Caswell walks up wondering what the problem is; Lyle tells him and hands over the flash light. After a couple of minutes, Caswell finds a loose wire and reconnects it. We flip the switch and listen as the motor hums, turning the spit slowly round and round.
Now that the rotisserie was working we could focus on the rest of the prep: setting up the little flat top Lyle had brought to warm the tortillas, cutting pineapple, and getting ready to build the tacos with the meat he sliced off the spit. After a few minutes, the trompo began to attract a crowd, people began to come over and ask about it, and one person asked, "Isn't it supposed to be turning?" Sure enough the rotisserie was dead again, I looked at Lyle and he just said, "Fuck it, as long as it's hot we can just turn it by hand every few minutes or so, it'll be fine."
Lyle heats the tortillas up six at a time on the little flat top and hands me the meat he's cut off the trompo. I put together the tacos and start handing them out. By now there is a huge line forming so as the people wait, Lyle is cracking jokes and explaining the origin of the trompo style to people in line. Several people asked where we were from (since we didn't have a sign) and Lyle would respond, "We're from Underbelly, unless you don't like the taco, then we're from Reef." One gentlemen asked, "Don't they use them things to make Shawarmas?" Lyle immediately responds, "Well what happened was Lebanese immigrants from the Middle East brought this style of cooking to Mexico in the 1920's." He worked the crowd really well, taking the focus off the wait, and after about an hour of frantic taco making it was all over but the clean up.