True Tales of a Caterer

Published in Gourmet Live 06.06.12
Serena Bass, who got her start catering a party for an Andy Warhol art opening, reveals what’s really happening behind the scenes at fancy events

A wedding reception done up in pink

It’s by chance and not design that I’ve been a caterer since 1982. Thirty years ago, I was in the middle of a divorce and had completely run out of money. Knowing the situation, my friend Carolyn, a New York City gallery owner who was about to show prints by Andy Warhol, helpfully suggested, “You can cook. Why don’t you do the dinner after our next opening? I’ll cancel the caterer I booked and hire you to do it instead!”

“Gosh, OK,” I replied, before casually asking, “Um…how much would you pay?”
“We’ll have 60 guests, and I was paying $25 a head. I’ll do the wine.”

And so it was settled. In my opinion, I was about to get money for old rope. What could be easier than providing a fabulous meal for a whole lot of people? I happily thought.

A week later, I ended up at Carolyn’s table, drunk on wine and heady with success: The dinner had been perfect. That first menu of parsnip soup, roast lamb, and a pear tarte Tatin had impressed. The very next day, two people called asking me to do parties for them. All of a sudden, I was a caterer.

It’s easy to envision catering as just beautiful decor and delicious food, but in truth, a massive amount of work goes into making that vision a reality. It was even harder when I first started because, like so many novice caterers, I worked out of my home kitchen and did all the prep and cleanup by myself. Whatever money I made went straight into the bank. I didn’t think twice about taxes or tedious Board of Health regulations. In retrospect, ignorance was such a happy state! Nowadays, I’d have a conniption if I found the walk-in refrigerator had drifted above 40 degrees or some uncooked chicken was put on a shelf above the salad greens; both would be violations.

The Trouble with Tony

After a few years of growing the business, I needed people to help me answer the phone, write proposals, shop, cook, wash up, deliver, serve, clean up, carry back, store away, and deposit the checks. What skills did this require? These helpers simply needed to be therapists or mind readers to deal with clients; have a degree in military operations to handle the logistics of packing, delivery, and cleanup; be well versed in the tenets of all major religions so as not to ever offend; and of course, understand how to cook, pack, transport, unpack, reheat, and plate the food so that it’s hot, fresh, and delicious, regardless of location. It was a bonus if said person could drive a truck. (Inevitably it was only individuals from places like rural Kansas or Wisconsin who could meet that particular qualification, as they’d been driving trucks since they were 16.) It’s also no surprise that I’ve hired, fired, and worked for a motley crew of characters.

Early on, I got some nice staff, including a young man I’ll call Tony. I just loved him. He was full of energy and incredibly fast at everything. On the other hand, he crashed my car a couple of times and was constantly asking me to spot him $20. I never really understood why he was so unlucky and so broke. Then one day, after he’d been out sick for a couple of days, a policeman and a parole officer came to the door looking for him. That’s when I learned the truth: Tony was a coke addict. The morning I hired him, it turns out, he had just been released from Rikers Island. I called Tony on the phone to ask him where he was. There was a pause, and he spoke words I’d only ever heard in a movie: “I’m on the lam!” Poor Tony.

Movin’ On Up

In 1996, I finished renovating a ground-floor meat locker for my business in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. As part of my negotiations with the landlord, I asked if I could live (illegally) in the commercial loft upstairs, which just happened to have a huge roof deck. My landlord was so thrilled that someone who wasn’t a pimp, crack addict, or drug kingpin was interested in the space that I think he would have agreed to anything—and he did. So I fixed up the loft and the outdoor space. too.

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