STORIES FROM "THE TRENCHES" AND OUR PAST:
- Jon got a call one day from an 11 year old boy wanting to plan a surprise anniversary party for his mom and dad: He wanted to wake his mom and dad up on a Sunday morning, and invite them to come downstairs for breakfast in the kitchen where a waiter in tux and a chef in whites were waiting to take their order-- whatever they wanted. A few years later Jon met the dad at an event we catered; he told him that when his son had made inquiry calls, our company was the only one that had treated him like a "grown up".
- A client was on total bed-rest for the duration of her pregnancy. The husband called to plan a surprise party for his wife the day after the wife had called to plan a surprise party for the husband—and each had, amazingly enough, chosen the same exact date. Somehow we managed to keep each in the dark, and pulled it off.
- When the bride's grandfather passed away just weeks before her wedding, the bride's mother decided to use her father's incredible collection of wines from a cellar of 40's 50's and 60's California varietals at the wedding. The group toasted the grandfather with a poem about how much love was uncorked in that room.
- The bride's mother wouldn't stop calling us with questions and cautions about the recipe she'd given to us for the wedding cake. She was so nervous! A few weeks after the wedding she wrote to us and told us how much it meant to her that we'd made that particular cake. The recipe was from her mother, who had died just two months before the wedding day. "It was like she was in the room with us," she said.
- We catered an 80th birthday party for a lovely man. After dinner was served he toasted the guests and then walked around handing out envelopes filled with cash to guests and to all the staff, kitchen staff included. He distributed over twenty-thousand dollars to everyone, and told us nothing could give him more pleasure than to give to others.
- We catered a bar mitzvah for a 'small' person. The mother asked us if it might be possible for us to create lower buffets and bars for her son- because it was his day and she wanted him to experience the party like everyone else!
- Our client told us her mother's favorite place in the world was the Bloomingdales Furniture department- and she actually managed to get Bloomingdales' permission to cater the surprise 60th birthday party smack dab in the middle of it for a Friday afternoon ladies' luncheon.
- We will never forget the look on the faces of the two absent-minded University of Penn physics department professors when we asked them what colors they might like for the tablecloths and napkins. "Colors? We can actually pick colors for tablecloths? Not just white? Really!"
- We catered a party at a client's house with an indoor pool. The house was very crowded and the guests were very hungry! Suddenly we heard a splash. A woman had fallen into the pool while reaching for one of our delicious crab cakes (don't worry, she didn't get hurt...) The funniest thing was that she looked way better in the outfit she borrowed from the hostess than she had in the one she'd worn to the party!
- Since the groom was from Cuba, we hired a Cuban guy to roll cigars for guests. He came, laid out his stuff, and rolled cigars for the better part of the night. Come midnight, we were the ones doing the rolling. We had to roll the guy up in a tablecloth and carry him out—he was completely and utterly sloshed and couldn't even stand up.
- We honestly thought the groom had bailed on the bride one evening at a wedding in the country, so we pulled out the shot-glasses and started pouring for the bride and all the guests. This was before cell phones were around. Some two hours later the groom showed up—horribly lost on back roads and completely frazzled. We gave him a drink, too, and pushed him down the aisle. Everybody was toasted before the toasts.
- The couple used their English bull-dog as ring bearer for the ceremony. We had to chase around the museum to get the rings that were tied to her neck.
- We were catering our first really big party- for 450 guests, and we were pretty frazzled. We'd ordered pizza for the staff and on-site vendors- nearly 200 in all. The delivery guy showed up even more frazzled than we were- he'd never delivered such a big order in his life—100 pizzas!
- James Taylor was waiting to perform, and asked the waiter for a little port wine to loosen up his vocal chords. The host didn't own port. He told Jon to go into his cellar and bring up the Chateau d'Yquem '86 worth about $2000. James Taylor liked it. Sweet Baby James never sounded sweeter!
- We were at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, serving a dinner for 600 referred to us by Georges Perrier, one of Philadelphia's culinary idols. The pressure was certainly on. Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails had been spectacular. The first course was on the tables, and our maitre d'hotel came up to me in the dining room and quickly escorted me back to our kitchen where our chef, always mild-mannered, was blowing a gasket. Our "made to order" "French cut free-range chicken with parmesan crust" were still raw, the power had cut out in our electric ovens. I signaled to the band to play a hot number and distract the guests, then wheeled the chicken across the party floor to the food court, running through all possible if/then scenarios. Not McDonalds, not the bagel place, not the coffee place. None of the nearby hotels. I got to the south end of the station and saw a pizza shop that had already closed. I banged on the door, and the two maintenance men inside looked at me and just shook their heads "no". I was in a tuxedo, no less! I implored them to speak with me. I flashed a ten dollar bill, then a twenty, then a fifty and then... only one hundred dollars later did they agree, thankfully, to re-fire up their ovens, Their ovens able to attain a continuous heat of 550 degrees, cooked our chicken in 10 minutes. It had never tasted better. The band played a couple extra songs to fill the "seam", and no one knew of the problem. Later that night I did tell the hostess.
- We were at a fancy dinner party at a Villanova estate. The plan was to serve dessert in the antique car barn. We'd planned a tailgating theme from the back of a wood-paneled 1940's station wagon that had once belonged to the Queen Mother- with silver service, Battenberg lace, wooden ice cream makers filled with homemade ice cream. To finish- pastries, brandy snifters, cordials and cigars. A mega thunderstorm passed over and all the lights went out. We had a few candles, but it was still way too dark. Light bulb moment--antique cars have headlights! The most dramatic dessert party ever, bar none.
- Dinner for the Columbus Lines launch of an ocean-going freighter from the port on the Delaware River. The officers' dining room was decorated in crisp white linens and red roses. When we arrived on site- ready to roll- the ship steward informed us that the galley kitchen was in use for the nine officers. He was 'dug in' and offered no solution. We had to cook the dinner on the dock, load the hot food into iron cages and hoist them up ten stories to the deck for service to the guests. Fortunately the party was a buffet!
- We didn't need to check the Doppler radar system to know how hot and muggy it was- but we did just that so we'd know exactly when the storm would hit before setting up this elaborate birthday party for 150 guests in the client's newly landscaped – and un-tented- yard. The temperature dropped 15 degrees and the night air was perfect. We got to work. Just as we finished, the client's brand new sprinkler system turned on and 100's of sprinkler heads began to water the dining room! It took us fifteen minutes to locate the turn-off valve. One half-hour and guests would arrive. We threw the tablecloths in the dryer--- and tumbled the dining room dry.
Lessons from the trenches.
- We came, we saw, we conquered: We planned the menu, we booked the staff, we cooked the food, we set the party up and-- nobody showed. We were ready anyway! We went home and re-examined our deposit procedures the next day.
- At one of the first big weddings we catered, we lit the candles, poured champagne, welcomed guests to their seats. A few minutes later we noticed a table midway in the room signaling to us-- ten hands waving in the air. Yes? Is there a problem? They nodded their heads vigorously, and we saw that they were all holding the table up. The table legs hadn't been locked in place but they'd somehow caught the table before calamity ensued. Not a drop of champagne spilled from their flute glasses! Never again did we forget to check the table legs.
- It's not funny, but it is- the look on people's faces when you mistakenly put salt in the sugar bowls.
- It was New Year's Eve at a house party in Rydal. We'd stored all our food in the garage because the kitchen was open to the guests. A storm blew over and the power went out. We could not open the garage! It took over an hour to finally get the power back on and the food out.
- We were at a tent wedding. A few hours into the party we wondered why some of the men had white stripes down the backs of their black jackets. It turned out that the tent guys were behind, and had painted the tent poles white just an hour before guests arrived for the party.
- Never bake something without checking the size of the oven against your pans, or you'll do what Lori did—take a perfect coulibiac—delicate fish mousseline wrapped in homemade brioche—and shaped into a fish—and have to split it into three big messy blobs—delicious, but definitely not beautiful!
- Physics 101-- you can get your fully-loaded catering truck under the low-archway into the Mews on the way in, but you can't get your empty catering truck under the low-archway into the Mews on the way out! Hundreds of pounds lighter and a half-inch higher.
- Never promise a client you can make soufflés to order for eighty in a home kitchen. And if you do promise, never unload your four-foot high all commercial kitchen mixer from your truck (after you've come back from the party where you made the soufflés) onto a rolling cart on the hills in Manayunk. Enough said.
- Jon heard an enormous crash the morning of his first party—the pates Jon had weighted down with his mother's finest china (don't ask him why he was so stupid—he was young) had shifted and everything had came crashing down in a big, expensive, horrible mess.
- Never promise a bride you can build a five-tier angel-food wedding cake. It won't work.
- Dog tales--we've had our fair share. Never nestle a wedding cake into a nook by a banister-ed staircase when the dog can climb the stairs and eat the entire back of the cake. If you're looking for the side of gravlax and it can't be found anywhere, smell the dog's breath!
- We catered a wedding at the bride's mother's current husband's (from whom she was recently separated) house, inhabited by the new girlfriend. The bride's father arrived with his current second wife (from whom he was recently separated) and his new girlfriend. The bride's still happily married!
- The message on the tape that Sunday morning from a client of ours will go down in history as the funniest ever. "Hi Peachtree. It's Roslyn. Listen, I'm on the way to the hospital, my water just broke. So, the bris is gonna be on Sunday. I hope you get this message because I..." and then all we heard was panting.
- We were driving along 76 in the Peachtree van, on our way to a party. A car honked to get our driver's attention—we rolled down our window and she asked if she could have an hors d'oeuvres.
BRUSHES WITH FAME
- We were working as personal chefs for the Phillips (owners of Phillips Gallery in Martha's Vineyard after Mrs. Phillips called us up in a tizzy saying "Lillian's coming to lunch (Lillian Hellman) and I don't have a thing to serve!" Our first week there a guest popped his head into the kitchen and said "Hi, I'm Bob Woodward. Can I get a fresh cup of coffee?"
- In the hubbub of set up for the Arthur Ashe tennis center benefit, somehow we blocked in the guest speaker's car with our catering trucks and we couldn't free his car. Most people would have gotten upset but this man decided he would just hang out with us and wait until his car got freed up. As we were loading our truck he asked if we wanted to hear his kid's demo tape. Little did we know that six years later the kid on that tape would become the C.M.A. entertainer of the year! Tug McGraw was the real deal.
COOKING IN FRANCE
The kitchens in France were amazing! Favorite memories of ours:
- We accompanied the chef to the local slaughterhouse to fill Bordeaux bottles with pigs blood for their famous blood sausage, and of course have a couple drinks ourselves – of wine, not blood!
- "Ou est la Soupe chien?"—Where is ze dog's 'soup!!!?' the owner would yell every day at lunchtime at the 3 star restaurant we worked at in France. The staff would come running at a furious clip. "Oui chef! Oui chef!" —we would stare longingly at the delicious meal given to the dog, knowing we would get only canned peas and tough flank steak for lunch.
- At Gerard Panguad, Jon watched in amazement as Alain, the pastry chef, blew tiny sugar figurines of burlesque dancers and fashioned a sculpted sugar façade of the Moulin Rouge or a 'tasse de café au caraible," a praline coffee cup filled with rum and coffee mousse.
- Lori was turning out 'amuses-gueules,' – toast points with blood sausage when the chef glares at her from across the turn-out line and barks—"If you went to ze Caribbean to get yourself a beau-tee-fool tan, wouldn't you want to show it off to ze world? Why not ze same for ze toast?"
- Pig bladder recipes—"saumon en vessie." The salmon was somehow stuffed into a pigs' bladder. It floated for an hour in a big braiser on the stovetop, a puffed up balloon, swirling around and around and around like a sunbather on a raft. Then onto a plate, a silver cloche and voila, straight to the dining room.
- In the days when women didn't work in French kitchens...
- Lori tried to get a job in Alain Chapel's kitchen. He wrote to her and said 'send me your picture and I'll let you know if you can work here!"
Lori would go out for her afternoon espresso in between shifts at La Mere Blanc. Her hair was clipped way short—for fashion's sake, and the café owner never realized when she said "Café, Monsieur?" that just because she had on her kitchen whites, she wasn't a boy.
We'll never forget the sight of one of the 'commis,' a 14 year old cook's apprentice parading around the French kitchen playing a bagpipe of a spring lamb's lungs, puffing them in and out as he paraded around the kitchen after he'd been taught how to butcher.
"Come see!" said one of the guys in the garde manger, taking Lori out the back door of the kitchen at La Mere Blanc in Vonnas-- where a local guy stood by his tiny delivery truck filled to the brim with flats of live frogs kicking away—soon to be turned into the house delicacy.