It’s a few minutes before 6 p.m. and the activity inside the Neighborhood House on Little Cranberry Island is bordering on mayhem.
“Mussels! Pick the mussels up, please!” chef Robert Irvine yells over his shoulder in the cramped kitchen to anyone within earshot who, unlike him, has a free hand.
Irvine and his two sous chefs may have years of experience preparing exquisite meals for world leaders and celebrities, but none of that means anything when they are under the gun in an unfamiliar kitchen and cannot find a large, clean bowl. Fortunately, a local island resident who knows where to find one is on hand to point to the cabinet that houses the desperately needed item.
As Irvine and his two lieutenants, each named George, furiously saute and whisk and pour amid the scintillating aromas emanating from stove and grill, a few more locals guard the entrances to the building, making sure none of the crowd of 200 hungry people amassing outside enters before the 6 o’clock dinnertime.
On top of it all, cameramen and sound technicians hover behind Irvine and his helpers to document every move, stepping quickly to make room or to pursue an assistant down the hall on a pressing errand. Inside the library at the front of the building, cables snake along the floor to a soundboard and three video monitors that record the activity.
Clearly, this is not your average annual island harvest supper.
And though dinner is still minutes away, Marc Summers, executive producer for the new Food Network television show “Dinner Impossible,” is eating it up.
“Starting to get good!” Summers says twice as he darts back into the library after having made sure a cameraman was getting a shot of the local residents lining up at the front door. “I’m loving this! This is what I wanted!”
Though it was not yet over, Saturday already had been a long day for Irvine and his two sous chefs, George Gatali and George Krelle, who until that morning had never heard of Little Cranberry Island or of the local village of Islesford. When they met up with Summers at 7 a.m. at the town pier in Northeast Harbor to find out where they were headed, all they had was their chefs knives and $3,500 to spend on food.
They had no idea what food they would prepare, where they would get their ingredients, how many people they would be cooking for, what kind of pots and pans would be at their disposal, or what kind of cooking facilities they would have access to. And, with the help of a handful of local residents the Food Network had lined up ahead of time, they had only 12 hours to figure it all out and make it happen.
The premise of having Irvine and his sous chefs come up with a first-class meal either on short notice or with limited resources, or both, will be the theme of every episode of “Dinner Impossible,” a new show that is expected to premiere on the cable channel in early 2007, according to network officials. When the show filmed Saturday on Islesford will air has not yet been decided.
Summers said the producers wanted to film an episode in which Irvine has to cook dinner for an entire island town because he would have to use small, household kitchens and would be far from any supermarkets.
“In this situation, the elements were lack of food and lack of cooking facilities,” Summers said. “This [event] never would have happened if it weren’t for the people on this island.”
It wasn’t easy, Irvine would later admit. Part of the chefs’ day involved the two Georges falling from a golf cart – but somehow escaping injury – as it sped up an island hill from the ferry dock. They bought out the general store of all of its small amounts of produce and chicken, purchased heads of lettuce straight out of a local garden, and still managed to make the 25-mile trip to an Ellsworth supermarket and back by 1 p.m.
They scrounged up pots, pans and platters, used the sink at the local market to wash vegetables and, as Kate Fernald put it, “took over” her kitchen in her house next door.
Erin Gray, Fernald’s daughter and co-owner with her husband of the local general store, said she had to run back to the store a few times after it closed at 1 p.m. to get extra ingredients or supplies.
“It was a change,” Gray said of the whole experience. “It was a crescendo until the end.”
And it wasn’t exactly the easiest crowd Irvine and his crew were cooking for. The food was quite good, many residents said, but none was willing to say it was better than the fare they usually make for themselves at the annual pot-luck dinner.
But it was good. Hungry diners chose from among lobster macaroni, crabmeat-and-artichoke stuffed chicken, boiled lobster, salmon, mussels cioppino, chowder, steamed clams, ribs, and half a dozen different salads as they filed along the buffet line and piled food high on their plates. In all, the chefs cranked out 11 hot dishes and 9 cold ones in five hours.
And the icing on the cake? Well, besides the many delicious homemade desserts provided by local residents, the event raised $3,000 that the Islesford Volunteer Fire Department will put toward a badly needed saltwater tanker truck.
Joy Sprague, local postmaster and Neighborhood House committee member, served as the primary liaison between the show’s producers, the chefs and the community. She was the one who drove the golf cart, who opened the doors and invited the islanders in when the clock struck 6, and who quieted the dining hall when it was time to introduce the kitchen crew.
“Wow!” she said when asked about what the day had been like. “I really pushed for them to come here because I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
Many islanders said they enjoyed Saturday’s burst of activity, though one suggested they might have another community supper later in the fall without the frenzy and the large crowd drawn out by the television crew.
No one seemed to mind, however, when the dinner came to a close, the cameras stopped rolling, and the stress level returned to earth – least of all Irvine.
“This one was unusual. Trust me,” he said standing in the messy kitchen after he had gulped down a small bowl of orange juice for nourishment. “I’ve never been in a place like this.”
The chef said he would have to do it all again Friday as the network films him in another unfamiliar place for another “Dinner Impossible” episode.
“I’m relieved it’s over,” Irvine said. “That was tough.”
Check your local listings early next year to find out when “Dinner Impossible” will air on the Food Network. Donations to help the Islesford Volunteer Fire Department reach its $150,000 goal for buying a saltwater tanker truck can be mailed to P.O. Box 81, Islesford, Maine 04646.