Catering Stories: Two For One-Part 2

Sunday October 21, 2012

This is a continuation of Part 1.

The counterpoint to the Victorian office party was that Nicole’s best friend decided to get married. The same day.  And this was a marriage with a lot of excitement and happiness attached.

Susan had fallen madly in love with her instructor in chiropractic school. They embarked upon an affair, and in time he left his wife and stopped other outside dating. Susan had suffered through all these uncertain evolutions of their association, so when things settled down and a marriage was planned, she was ecstatic. She asked Nicole to do the astrological projections so she could set a date, right down to the time for saying the vows, that would contribute to the beginning of a long, loving, and stable marriage to Dennis.

Nicole did the calculations and ended up with the exact same date and time as her office party.  This meant many of their best friends could not attend both functions; people had to choose.  Susan called me and insisted that I had to do her wedding party as well. I was in a double bind to say the least.

While I had a crew of dependable workers to load and unload, setup, serve, and cleanup, I was running a one-woman show. I was present at every function and acted as chief co-ordinator, cook, and even dishwasher, if the need presented itself. No other person had the entire party in their head, even with my detailed lists and briefings. Also, I always oversaw all the decorating of the food and tables. My style was becoming a trademark of my business and I, at the time, had not met anyone who could set things up and have them look just the way I wanted.  Even if the parties had been one in the morning and one in the afternoon, I would have been able to be able to be at both. But with both at the same time, I had to make some hard decisions.

Susan’s party was in her mother’s spacious 1940s home in the Oakland Hills.  Susan was a vegetarian and wanted some marvelous vegetable dishes that were comely and tasty. Dennis wanted some meat, so we decided on some glossy sesame ginger chicken wings and duck sausage with sweet hot mustard for dipping that would be “just for him,” since he was the only meat eater.

A word on vegetarians.  Food professionals find out very quickly that the word vegetarian can describe any number of different diets. There are ones that are very strict, with no dairy or eggs, then others that consider game and fish okay since they are not in accordance with commercial meat industry practices and considered clean food. There are some that will only eat organic foods or raw foods.  Caterers find out by experience that while many people may be vegetarians at home or while negotiating a menu with you, at a party they figure they are able to eat other foods.  So in the catering world, the axiom is that vegetarians cannot be trusted so it is important to plan on enough of each dish to feed each person in the entire party. If there are leftovers, so be it. Better than running out of food, the nightmare of the caterer.

Since the house was built into a hill, the entrance to the kitchen was up a steep set of cement stairs up the side of the garage wall, then a zigzag across a narrow yard with a high retaining wall, then up another set of open cross beam-supported wooden stairs to the kitchen door two stories up. It was a cramped entrance path right out of an Esher print, dizzying in how it wove in and around, and a good long aerobic haul getting things from the car to the kitchen.  The kitchen was small, but had a big oven. That meant there could be food that could be heated up onsite.

I would also double up on the menu and make many of the same items for both parties, totally about 150 people.  Susan’s menu had more items than Nicole’s. I figured I could be cooking for about 10 days before the party, first baking the quick breads and freezing them.  The olives, embellished with some orange zest, peeled whole garlic, and fennel seed, would be combined a week ahead; they would taste great. The quiches and giant steamed artichokes could be made 2 days ahead.  The salad dressing and aioli, as well as the curried carrot mousse and marinating the chicken wings, could be made one day ahead.  The shopping for the fresh fruit and vegetables all needed to be done the night before and could stay in the cool trunk of the car overnight. I would bake the challah (which would be made in a beautiful over sized braided round) the night before as well. Two separate cars needed to be packed and inventoried.  I planned that except for baking the sausages and chicken wings, steaming the cauliflower, chopping fruit for the salad and slicing breads, the wedding would be easy to get on the table.

I split the crews. Two of my most dependable workers, Jennifer and Lynn, would set up and work Nicole’s party. Jennifer was a serious foodie; I met her when she was assisting food celebrities at the local cooking school. Lynn was energetic and could execute any task exactly as I asked her to.  I would help them unload, then do the on-site logistics and decorating. Once the party was set up, before the guests arrived, I would drive across the Bay Bridge and get to Susan’s party just as the meal was being served. I had it timed to the half hour.

My boyfriend David, a seasoned veteran since my first party five years before, would handle cooking at Susan’s party.  I also had Mary, who was a professional bartender and great home cook. She was reliable and conscientious, just not trained in food service, but could set up her bar, then help in the kitchen. One of my other veterans with lots of pro experience and oldest friends, Crystal, was a guest at the wedding, but offered to handle all the plating and decorating. She was able to be me at this party. I felt secure with every aspect of the planning.

Wedding Brunch

in the Oakland Hills
Sunday, January 31, 1988
Fresh Vegetable and Cream Quiche
Duck Sausages with Honey Mustard
Artichokes and Cauliflower Aioli
Sesame Ginger Chicken Knoshes for the Groom
Curried Carrot Mousse
Olives with Garlic, Fennel and Orange
Seasonal Fruit Salad with Kiwi Poppyseed Dressing
A Variety of Homemade Nut Breads
Matrimonial Challah
Country-Style Raisin Pumpernichel
sweet and honey butters                           brie cheese
Wente Brut vintage 1982
fresh squeezed orange juice                                 cafe

seasonal fruit salad

Our caravan pulled up to park directly in front of the Noe Street front door on time, 8 a.m. David rendezvoused with Mary and Crystal in Oakland without me. I put a tremendous amount of time organizing Nicole’s buffet and it ended up showing in how smooth the morning prep went. The buffet was heaped and overflowing with appetizing colors and shapes.  I had to admit to myself it was one stunning buffet.  I had even driven down to Los Gatos a few days before to select a perfect bonsai tree from a friend’s collection to use as table decoration touch, which ended up looking incredible silhouetted against the empty walls.

I also had the menus hand done in calligraphy, a touch I liked to include for my parties.  I would place the cream-colored parchment menu in a large ornate silver frame at the beginning of the buffet; then guests could read the menu rather than us having to repeat it over and over.  People always ask, especially if you are serving food that is out of the ordinary.  After the party, I give the gorgeous menu to the hostess as a gift ( I keep a copy for my files).  I often went a step further, writing the name of each dish on a decorative place card with the ingredients in smaller print below.  Set next to the particular food, people can check the ingredients as they go through the line with their plates.  This allows people with food allergies and special diets to remain dignified and not bring any notice to themselves unless they do so choose.

With the San Francisco party completely under control, I dashed down to my car and drove over the bridge.

marinated olives with garlic, fennel and orange/recipe below

Although I arrived late morning, some guests were already leaving as I pulled up.  This was a dress up party and all the women were wearing lovely hats. My gaze was averted to a woman totally dressed in red. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her shoes, skirt, blouse, handbag, wide-brimmed hat, and even her nails, were all a slightly different shade of red, a startling sight that took a moment for my awareness to adjust to.  A guest getting in her car next to me was saying to her companion in a low tone, “My, my, that is quite some red hat,” a comment that summarized the entire, slightly off-kilter, effect (It ended up that the lady in red with the groom’s ex-wife).

When I entered the kitchen door, I was met with total chaos. The kitchen was a mess. David looked at me with a bewildered exhausted look. “We had a bit of a time of it,” he said. “It took longer than we expected to carry things from the car. The oven was slow.  Once they said the vows, people wanted to eat immediately and the chicken and duck were the first to go. The groom didn’t get a bite. We couldn’t keep enough food on the table. They hit that table like locusts in a field of ripe grain.”

I looked at the buffet table, the family-sized oval dining room table, and it was a spread out mess.  The centerpiece decorations I had planned, a cascade of whole vegetables in a large basket, had not been in place, so the table was virtually empty except for around the edges.  The tablecloth was crooked and hanging off the side.  Emptied platters were scattered.  There was no order to anything.  The food was great, it just was a party that got visually out of control.

I smiled and did the best damage control that I could, extending my apologies to Susan, completely embarrassed. I was responsible for the party not being right.  She was incredibly gracious and an ethereally beautiful bride.  She gave me a warm, heartfelt thanks and hug.  Her day was not disturbed at all; she had married her Dennis and the world was perfectly glorious.

“Where is Crystal?” I asked David. “I thought she was going to handle all this and help you.”

“She ended up spending all her time talking with the guests,” he replied with a tone of resignation. “We were left on our own. I hope you’re not mad; Mary and I did the best we could. There was just too much to do with just the two of us. We were working like crazy in here.”

I took a deep breath and just let it go. When clients want to cut their costs by having less help at the party, a caterer’s hands are tied; you do the best you can within that budget. I was angry at Crystal for not keeping her word, but what was done was done.  As I looked at Crystal across the room, she looked back at me with soft champagne-hazed eyes and smiled innocently through her bright red lipstick-coated lips, something that would become a trademark in the years to come.  I would be wasting my time to scold her.

I set to work helping to clean up.  After loading the car, it was only about 1 p.m. Everyone was starving, so I treated the crew to scrumptuous chive omelets, big glasses of orange juice, coffee, and country bread toast at a nice little restaurant on the Oakland main food street. We sat family style at a long table in exhausted fraternity. They deserved it and it helped everyone regain their energy for the drive home.

I headed back to San Francisco to make sure Jennifer and Lynn were okay and to help load the car if they needed it.  To my surprise, Nicole was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, furious that I left her party.

“I don’t think I should have to pay you for your time since you went over to the other party before my party was over. What do you think you are doing charging us both for your time,” she said with a threatening tone and demeanor. I was so exhausted that I was stunned.  Here was one of the most perfectly executed parties of my career, was complemented by all of the guests as being perfect and delicious, and the hostess was going to nitpick me on the bill.

“I told you, Nicole, that I would be going to check on Susan’s party,” I said. “Everything was done exactly as you asked and the guests were happy, right?”

“I don’t remember that you were leaving,” she replied in a clipped tone. “I am unhappy with your service and I will never recommend you to anyone.  I want you to adjust the bill.” Here were the words that drive a stake through a caterer’s heart.

I diplomatically refused, reminding her of our written agreement, but acknowledging her anger.  Dealing with disgruntled clients, whether you feel them justified or not, is a learned skill. Diplomatically handling the wide variety of client issues is what drives most caterers out of business; you have to be able to think fast toward a mutual resolution and not take things personally. An undisciplined reaction trying to defend yourself and you can end up with far more to deal with than a disgruntled client.  On the easy end, some lingering bad feelings; on the extreme end, possibly a day in small claims court.

Nicole ended up writing out the bill for the full amount, thrust it in my hand, and then walked away.  The brunch was a wonderful success, but that fact was now lost.  In attempting to please both Nicole and Susan, even with them understanding the variables of the day, neither had ended up satisfied.  There is always the possibility that each job would have had the same outcome even being the only job of the day; I would never know. But I made a mental note not to ever be put in that situation again.

Neither Nicole nor Susan, still the best of friends to this writing and both still happily married, ever spoke to me again. I was left wondering what the astrological symbolism of the day, written in the stars, was for me.

Marinated Olives with Garlic, Fennel, and Orange

Makes 1 quart

You can use any type of brine-cured olive for this recipe from California to Greek.  These will keep for 3 months in the refrigerator.  They look really pretty in the jar, so they are suitable as a gift with a loaf of country bread.


4 cups ripe black olives, pitted and drained

3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and each cut into 4 slices

1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomato strips

5 julienne strips of orange peel (about 2 inches long)

1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seed

1/2 cup olive oil (can be part of the oil drained from the tomatoes)


In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients, except the oil, and toss to coat with herbs and evenly distribute the tomatoes.  Place in a quart glass spring top jar and pour in the oil.  Refrigerate to marinate at least 3 days before serving.  Bring to room temperature.

Recipe and Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2012

If you copy the text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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