Geoffrey Gatza has been fascinated with feeding people for as long as he can remember.
"Mom tells a funny story," he said, "that when I was a baby I would cry when she would change the channel from Julia Child."
He would follow that drive to become a professional cook, first in the Marine Corps, then at the Culinary Institute of America and years of working in restaurant kitchens.
Later in life, he would fall in love with poetry, too, writing his own and starting a small poetry press called BlazeVox. He got involved in the Buffalo poetry community, but he wasn't a huge fan of poetry readings, as such.
"Poetry readings can be rather dull. It feels almost like you're getting a sermon at church," Gatza said. He noticed, over time, that "a lot of the fun takes place after the poetry reading, when we'd go out to a bar and have some fun. A lot of the happiness of the poetry reading happened after the event."
It clicked for Gatza in 2009. Michael Kelleher, who was then director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, asked if he would cook for a literary event. The budget for ingredients wouldn't be much – about $100 – but maybe Gatza could see how far that would go in sating 75 to 100 people.
The idea, Gatza said, was to "change up the idea of a poetry reading, so you'd get more than just your die-hard poetry fans."
Gatza quickly warmed to the culinary challenge, and the Just Buffalo Big Night series was born. In 25 events since, Just Buffalo has welcomed participants to an evening of "poetry, food, music, visual art, film, video and whatever else we can think of," as Kelleher put it.
At $5 for admission, it's one of the classiest meals, dollar-for-dollar, in the Nickel City. (The next Big Night is at 8 p.m. Saturday at 468 Washington St.)
Using his restaurant-level menu writing skills and his penchant for bargain-hunting, Gatza puts out a buffet of snacks, salads, main dishes and desserts that gets rave reviews. Besides a seafood option, it's largely vegetarian and vegan cuisine, which fits his customers just fine. "The audience is predominately artsy and there's a lot of vegans in the crowd," he said. "The meat eaters don't care. They're just happy to taste everything."
Poetry, plus cooking for a crowd – among Big Night's successes, has made Gatza one of the happiest cooks in town.
"It makes people feel warm and comfortable, as opposed to being sermonized to," said Gatza. "When you're having a drink and meeting people over some food, it's no longer the dour ‘We're having a literary moment' and more of a joyous occasion. It makes me so happy to blend these two things together."
So how does he satisfy a party of 75 for $100?
"My trick is, I buy what's really cheap and make it work," he said. He goes shopping, and sees how far the money will go in getting the best fruit, vegetables and other ingredients. Then he tackles the creative challenge of writing those ingredients into a menu he can prepare over three days, with nothing that needs to be cooked at the last minute.
He starts at discount grocer Aldi's for the basics. "Buy boxes of pasta there, eggs, milk, vegetable oil," he said. He'll also buy certain Aldi's prepared foods with no shame, like its mini-eclairs, $4 a box. "A lot of their stuff is top-notch," he said. "Those eclairs are real pate a choux and whipped cream. I couldn't make it for what they're selling it for."
He usually hits Guercio's on Grant Street for deals on vegetables, and also stops at Super Bazaar, the Amherst Pakistani-Indian grocery at Sheridan and Bailey. There he reaches for spices and Indian snacks – "most of the audience has never had them before, and it's a good thing that throws them off what they're used to," said Gatza. "Minted potato sticks – you'd never think they're delicious, but they're awesome."
So when Gatza got everything home last month, he set about solving his culinary puzzle. Here's what he came up with:
Appetizers: Cornbread with "Welcome Back to Big Night" inscribed in Sriracha chili sauce. Tandoori spiced flatbreads. Crispy Indian peas and potato mint sticks.
Dishes: Pasta salad with tomato basil vinaigrette. Curried potatoes and peas with ginger syrup. (Based on a filling for samosas, fried potato turnovers, the potatoes, with recipe below, are one of Gatza's most popular dishes.)
Sesame ginger roasted beets. Lemon parsley couscous. Ribbons of yellow and zucchini squash with dried cranberries. Black beans with tomato chili salsa. Cinnamon turnips with caramelized onions. Spinach and mushrooms with yellow tomatoes.
And the menu's lone non-vegetarian dish, built around a fish product, mock lobster from Aldi's. Gatza decided to accompany it with roasted, spiced fennel and celery. "Fennel is one of my favorite aromatic vegetables," he wrote. "The fresh snap of the licorice and the light delicate leaves of the herblike tops make for one of the most versatile of flavorings." It also stars cooked celery, he said: "The slow cooking process makes the celery develop a real roundness in flavor."
For dessert, Gatza offered rice pudding with sultanas, New York Macintosh apple crumble, lemon sponge cake with mango gooseberry cream, cantaloupe with lavender syrup, cookies and mini-eclairs.
As usual, Gatza had to-go containers so people could help themselves to leftovers. The crowd almost cleaned the platters.
"Working at a restaurant as a cook, you generally don't get to hear people say ‘This was wonderful, I really liked this,' " Gatza said of the event. "People are shaking my hand, asking if I do catering. There's a level of appreciation you don't get if you're in the kitchen dirty and sweaty."
People like that make the work a joy, not a chore, Gatza said. "It's nice because it makes them happy and puts them in an open space to hear the poetry reading or watch a film," he said. "It's a great way to give back to the poetry community that has been very good to me."
> Curried Potato and Peas ?with Ginger Syrup
3 pounds Red Bliss potatoes
1 package frozen peas
1 onion, sliced and caramelized
2 tablespoons madras curry ? powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 tablespoon chopped ? fresh mint,
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
Salt, black pepper and ? nutmeg, to taste
1/2 fresh lemon, squeezed
1 cup ginger syrup, below
6 to 8 tablespoons butter
Place washed potatoes in pot and cover with salted water. Boil the potatoes until they are soft. Drain potatoes and cool for at least two hours. Leave the skin on and cut them into small pieces.
Heat a saute pan and add 6 to 8 tablespoons of butter. While it melts add madras curry powder and garam masala. Let the spices cook in the butter, and when they are toasted add potatoes. Cook until potatoes are golden and crispy.
Add peas. Let them slowly cook together, and remove from heat. Let mixture cool on a baking sheet. Add caramelized onions. Toss mixture, and add fresh chopped mint, coriander, salt, black pepper and nutmeg. Sprinkle with fresh squeezed lemon juice and ginger syrup, to taste. Serves 8
> Ginger Syrup
1 cup sugar
2 ounces fresh ginger root
1/2 cup white wine
Cut unpeeled ginger roughly into 1-inch pieces. (Cut smaller if you prefer a hotter ginger flavor.)
In a saucepan, mix ginger with sugar and white wine. Bring to a boil. Cook for a half an hour on low heat, until it becomes a nice syrup. Strain out ginger and let syrup cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.
> Mock Lobster with Fennel and Roast Celery
16 ounces imitation ? lobster meat, or imitation ? crab, flaked
2 heads fennel
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt, pepper, to taste
Fresh ground nutmeg, to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek
2 tomatoes, diced
1 bunch of celery
1 head garlic
1 cup good olive oil
1/2 fresh lemon
To make garlic oil: Cut garlic head in half lengthwise, leaving skin on. Heat up oil to 175 degrees and add garlic. Remove from heat and cover pot with plastic wrap. Let sit overnight for best flavor. Strain, reserving oil and garlic and refrigerating until ready to use. (Separate roasted garlic from skin, and reserve for another use.)
To pan roast fennel: Trim stalks. Cut off fluffy herb top, chop finely and reserve. Cut bulb into quarters. Carefully remove large root with a diagonal cut. Slice bulb into strips.
Heat a saute pan, add a tablespoon or two of garlic oil and when hot, add fennel. Toss in oil and then let them sit in the heat without moving them much. This will ensure that they begin to caramelize. Stir after a few minutes.
When they are almost finished, add sugar and season with salt, pepper and fresh ground nutmeg. Let this mixture cook down until the sugars caramelize and a slight syrup has developed. Remove from the heat and let cool down until ready to use.
To roast celery: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut root end off celery and trim leaves. Remove the stalks and wash well. Slice celery (preferably on the bias, to get small arrow shapes).
Place celery in a large bowl, drizzle with garlic oil, and season with salt, pepper, fenugreek and fresh ground nutmeg. Place celery on nonstick baking sheet or tinfoil-lined pan and roast in a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.
To assemble dish: On a serving platter, scatter the diced tomato. Lay down the roast fennel and roast celery. On top arrange the flaked mock lobster in a pleasing way. Sprinkle with chopped fennel leaves and drizzle with garlic oil. Squeeze lemon over the whole dish. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Serves 8.