Catering demands an odd combination of theater, logistics, servility, and an ability to handle extreme pressure. Your mission is to cater to the needs and whims of the client with a smile on your face and with the faint hope that they will cough up enough money to merit all your work. Unlike many restaurant chefs, who are perceived as celebrities, catering chefs are often considered nothing more than servants-for-hire. I have had movie stars applaud my work in restaurants, only to have the same people ignore me when I’m catering their party.
Among the über-wealthy, often the supreme test of one’s power is the ability to get “the little people” to jump through impossible hoops, and jumping through the hoops of the rich and famous has been my job for most of my life. I made my living feeding egos like gold fish in a crystal bowl.
But catering is also about logistics and details. When a client pays upwards of $1 million for a party, you do not have the leeway to make a mistake. Everything — equipment, food, staff, accoutrements, and drinks — has to make it to the site in perfect condition. When it’s over, the site has to left in the same condition it was found, if not cleaner. All of my clients are particular, and to their credit they should be. A caterer’s job is to make these people look good, and I revel in that challenge.
I have mentioned before that some of the most talented, dedicated, and hardest working chefs in the food business are those who work in the trenches of high end events. I spent most of my career catering the events and parties of the Hollywood elite and now cater thirty million dollar homes in Napa Valley. At one point in my career, I ran the kitchen for a Los Angeles catering company that grossed over $30 million per year in event sales. It was not uncommon to coordinate as many as 30 parties a week and these ranged in difficulty from the Governors Ball at the Academy Awards to a last-minute dinner for two high-powered movie executives.
I have had to cook with paparazzi helicopters buzzing endlessly over our kitchen tents. My crews and I have signed wavers promising not to sell stories of what we observe to the rag papers, and I have seen things happen in Hollywood restaurants and parties that would make your ears burn with delight. Discretion is imperative, however, and I keep my mouth shut to preserve the privacy of the people who deserve it.
I suppose that most people would assume that the prized possessions a chef — especially a catering chef — are knifes, copper pots, or other assorted fancy tools of the trade. But what I have found is that it’s the little things that mean the most to those of us who make our living feeding flames: more caffeine in a day than most normal people drink in a week, enough aspirin to keep an elephant pain-free, Superglue to close stubborn cuts, baby powder to keep thighs from chafing, and, most important of all, a good pair of shoes. There is nothing worse than the pain of throbbing feet at four in the morning, especially when you have to get up and do it all over again at six the next morning.
In the next half of this article, I would like to present a snapshot of one of these events to illustrate the time, effort, and manpower involved in pulling off a catering gig. My hope is to convey the amount of talent, hard-work, and expertise that goes into events of this magnitude. If someone rich, famous, and powerful reads this article, maybe it will change how they approach their staff, these hard working people who create and execute memorable events. And for those of you in the business or considering starting a catering company, here are anecdotes and bits of wisdom that you might find helpful in your endeavors.
One Adventure in Catering
It was already close to 100 degrees in Napa Valley by the time we secured the 40-pound Kurobuta suckling pig to the spit with bailing wire. A coastal wild boar had been butchered the day before and my friend K2 was busy searing off the meat to be slow braised in Barolo wine. John fired up the Texas-sized barbeque in order to prepare for the slow roasting and smoking of dry aged prime Angus beef rib eye and Masami Ranch Kobe tri-tip. Water was boiled for the live wild lobsters flown in from Maine. A few miles down the road, the vineyard foreman Manny helped his wife pit roast a baby goat that he would deliver later that day.
Day boat scallops from the northern coast of New York state arrived with the Drake’s bay oysters around midafternoon. Simultaneously, the winemaking crew carefully placed barrels of port, cabernet, and merlot attractively into the barrel room for tasting. Ice was delivered by the car load, because we just couldn’t seem to chill everything enough. By the end of the day, we had used over 1000 pounds.
Field green lettuce, micro greens, and flower petals were sorted. The wood burning pizza oven was coming along nicely, holding at a firm 675 degrees. Pizza dough was rolled into tight little four-ounce balls. My daughter Morgan worked alongside my friend Laurie, stuffing squash blossoms with Robiola cheese, to be fried in a light batter. The freezer was checked to make sure that the Zabaglione gelato was stable and cold.
Three hundred guests were to fly in from all over the country, and 150 would attend each night. Everything had to be perfect. Just before their arrival, the laser fountains near the seawater pool were lit, creating a magical water show; wine was uncorked to allow it to breathe; and last minute adjustments were made.
I and a whole team of experts had spent months working on this series of events. Like the opening of a Broadway show, everything had to fall in place seamlessly; otherwise, the time, effort, and money would have been a waste. In addition, my reputation and success were on the line in a serious way.
Of course I was nervous: I always am before a party, no matter the size. I have been catering now for almost 30 years, and I still get butterflies before each event. The people who work with me can attest to the fact that I am a manic mess of concerns, constantly seeking confirmation that it’s all going to run smoothly. But they live with it, because just like me, they know what’s at stake. Their individual participation is just as important as mine.
In the end, after three long days in the scorching heat, the parties were a success. The suckling pig was tender and the lobster was sweet, fat, and perfectly cooked. At the end of the second night the team had passed the ultimate test of skill once again and was jubilant for it, though those of us who ran out of baby powder (me included) would have a painful time walking for the next couple of days.
I have always preferred creating events to working in restaurants. It is much more interesting to execute a world-class meal in a parking lot or field with finicky rental stoves and marginal equipment. I love working with crews of people who can go full-speed for up to 20 hours. I do this work because I love the challenge of pulling off the impossible; I love appreciative people; and there is nothing more honorable than to be of service to someone who cares. It’s simple, but I would do almost anything for someone who takes the time to treat me and my staff with compassion. In this changing world of ours, it’s no longer about money: It’s about love, appreciation, and sustaining a civilized way of life.