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Food + Cooking

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.

The first night I slept there, I awoke to such a loud ratatatatatata-tat that I thought I had a woodpecker in my bedroom. It turned out to be just the staccato chopping of my kitchen guys, who were in early prepping for a big job. It was 4 a.m., and the irresistible rhythms of Marc Anthony floated up through the floor to the skylight. I got up and looked out the window to see a trickle of men leaving the Lure, the gay bar across the street. It was closing time for clubs and bars across the city, but we were already up and running.

My morning routine in those days was that once awake, I’d go straight down to the kitchen, no matter the time. There would be hot muffins and a pot of freshly brewed coffee to help start the day. Maybe there’d be inquiries on the answering machine about organizing a glamorous event or two. By this time, I had so much more experience that while I listened, I would mentally address the potential pitfalls of a rooftop dinner or a clambake in the Hamptons. But to be honest, until everyone else came in, I truly preferred to be in the kitchen cooking.

One time, we were engaged to cater a famous fashion designer’s Christmas party for 400 guests. “Don’t worry,” we were told. “The doors will close when we reach 400.” Well, guess what? The doors didn’t close. So when the clicker wielded by our intern neared 700, I knew we had a situation. We dashed off to the local liquor store only to get a metronomic finger indicating that they were closed. But thanks to our theatrical thumping on the window (think Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate) coupled with our professed readiness to strip to the waist—plus my creative promise of entrée to the party—the shop staff reconsidered and reopened. 700. 702. What’s the difference? I thought.

The Unexpected Client

I was working late one night when the phone rang.
“Yes?” I said, expecting a friend.
“I’m calling from the Office of the Vice President.”
“Vice president of what?” I asked distractedly.

Well, that got my attention! Planning a campaign dinner for vice president and then presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 was mind-boggling in its complexity and bureaucracy. We were sucked into a maelstrom of code names, security clearances, and a multitude of documents with a lot of fine print that needed signing. And there were certain situations that we thought were terribly funny—like changing the direction of traffic on a street in the West Village and not being able to hear orders due to the four helicopters chopping away in the sky above us—but were unsmilingly advised by Gore’s security detail that they were not. Yet if there’s one thing to be said about working for politicians themselves, it’s that they are unfailingly charming and so grateful for good food.

The Show Must Go On

One night while catering a huge fund-raising concert for a major foundation, my staff and I found ourselves in a tricky spot: While our side of things was running as smooth as silk, the same could not be said for everything else. In particular, the foundation’s event planner was hysterical, having lost control of the talent. One performer was locked in his dressing room, refusing to come out until he’d finished his yoga routine; another was in the kitchen with an arm around one of my best-looking waiters, whispering plans for later; a third was in the corridor yelling over the phone to his soon-to-be-ex-wife about exactly how much of his money she would be getting (none). And the headliner? He had disappeared altogether.

Everyone was frantically rushing around looking for the star of the show when Genaro, my sous-chef, took me aside and reported that there was a man asleep in our van, and that the vehicle reeked of Scotch. In Genaro’s opinion, the man didn’t look like he would be getting up anytime soon. I headed outside, but not before grabbing a pitcher of ice water. I flicked some water onto the man’s blotto face. Nada. I trickled some onto his head. Nothing. I sloshed half the pitcher on him. He opened his eyes, smiled, and said, “Thanks, darlin’, I needed that.” And off he went. Full-service catering to the rescue.

Getting There Is Half the Battle

The most horrifying thing that ever happened to us professionally was on the day of an òber-glamorous party in the Hamptons for a home-decor magazine. Having headed out east ahead of everyone, I was waiting at a friend’s house for the arrival of the bus transporting the staff, the van carrying the food, and the event planners and florist, who had borrowed my car. They were all running an hour late, and I realized I was in a cell phone dead zone. Where was everyone? My anxiety level had risen to the point where I could hardly see straight. I turned on the television for some distraction.

“We have late-breaking news of a multiple-car pileup on the Long Island Expressway. We have a chopper over the scene.”

There on the television screen was Adam, my captain, sitting on the grass holding his head and surrounded by the crème de la crème of Manhattan’s modeling community—a.k.a. the waiters. Ryan, the chef, was rifling through a big red first aid kit. As I squinted at the screen, I could see Linda and Maria, my event planners, asking anyone in a functioning car to transport them to their destination.

The whole thing was utterly surreal, but I’m happy to report that no one was seriously hurt, and somehow everyone and everything got to the event site in time. The waiters set up the bars in 16 minutes flat, changed into uniforms, and were statuesque and ready, drink trays in hand, by the time the first guests arrived—which only made me think I had radically overestimated the setup time. My car insurance policy was canceled, but the guests had a terrific time, so it all worked out, right? We are professionals, after all.

As food jobs go, “off-site catering” strikes terror into the hearts of many, but it thrills me to no end. It’s true, some jobs are filled with drama, but here are the things that make it all worthwhile: our brilliant flower and decor man, who will fight for the right shade of blue; the event planners, who toil through the weekend without hesitation; and the smart, dedicated, and talented cooks, who form the backbone of my kitchen and are so hardworking that they truly astound me every day. And of course, the appreciative clients, who are as excited as we are and give us the freedom to create a gorgeous event. Who knew all this would come from not finding change under the sofa cushions?

Serena Bass’ first catering party was for Andy Warhol and 60 guests. Author of the award-winning Serena, Food & Stories, Bass is a regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio and is writing a second book. She is happily still catering.