Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why I catered only once

Today I am at a beautifully catered luncheon on the patio of a private home. Yellow rose and chrysanthemum centerpieces and pristine linens and glassware on round tables of six.

Peggy Dark of The Kitchen in Pasadena and co-author of Fabulous Parties: Food and Flowers for Elegant Entertaining has created this three-course menu for 100 members of the Angels of the Arts, the support group for our Orange County Performing Arts Center.

My thoughts flow back to a day, years and years ago, when my late husband Paul and I had our cooking school, the Von Welanetz Cooking Workshop on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where many of today’s superstar chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Michel Richard taught their earliest classes. I was fearless then about picking up the phone and inviting the most interesting chefs and authors I could think of to be guest teachers, so we had long waiting lists of Hollywood celebrities and their cooks who wished to learn the latest trends in food and entertaining.

Paul and I were invited to cater an English style buffet luncheon for 100 at a boutique opening on Sunset Boulevard at which a well-known British actress would be the guest of honor. Well, why not? we thought, thinking it would be a great adventure, and named our price. That it was instantly accepted might have been a clue.

We did most of the cooking ahead of time, a gorgeous British buffet of two kinds of curry, rice, homemade chutneys and condiments. Trays of pineapple and strawberries and coconut-coated bananas, everything cut small so it could be served on small plates and eaten with a fork.

All the behind-the-scenes crises are too numerous to remember. The only sink in the boutique was a 10-inch oval in the powder room. The only place to heat food was on tables we set up in the alley/parking lot behind the building where the butane burner I was using to reheat the curry fizzled and took its final gasps. Paul quickly made a run to buy a can of the campfire standby, Sterno, for me to use instead, but it produced powdery black soot that smeared my hands and apron as I was stirring. All this while smiling (let’s be honest--grimacing!) for a photographer and being interviewed for a newspaper. Yet Paul and I were familiar with the challenges of party production and surrendered to the chaos.

So it wasn't the many logistical challenges that put a damper on our moods that day, that made us vow to refuse all future offers.

We had invited three friends to wear embroidered English aprons and help us serve. As they were passing appetizers and Champagne, I noticed one looking slightly more flushed than usual. When I asked, she confided she was shocked at the arrogance and rudeness of the guests. I began to watch and listen. "Take this away." "I told you, I drink only Perrier!" "Really! Isn't there some caviar?" It was a rude awakening! Can it be that servers are treated as the lowest of the low? Have we been guilty of such thoughtlessness?

The party went smoothly on the surface. Our team pulled it off with panache and seemingly effortless grace. The boutique owners were delighted with how it all seemed on the surface.

Dead-tired, droop-shouldered and demoralized described all of us though. Because of a sudden stop on our way home a large water supply we’d brought for rinsing dishes crashed and splashed. Squish, Squish said our shoes as we unloaded the rented van at our home in Pacific Palisades.

On an impulse, or perhaps an intuition, I went to check our phone message machine. At first I couldn’t absorb the stunning news—Paul and I had won The French Tastemaker award for Cookbook of the Year in the category of entertaining for our first book, The Pleasure of Your Company (Atheneum).

We were instantly revitalized by the huge career boost the award would bring. We broke out a bottle of chilled Champagne and some appetizers from the van for an instant celebration with the friends who'd assisted us.

Today, as I sit relaxed at our perfectly presented tables, I feel deep pleasure at being a guest, so beautifully cared for. I realize now that emotional roller-coaster experience was my wake up call—I decided that day to make eye contact with and appreciate anyone serving me.

It is a long and winding journey from field to fork.

Appreciate every hand that helps to fill your plate.


The first course today is this spring combination of baby lettuces, paper thin slices of radish and fresh pea sprouts garnished with bright, edible nasturtium flowers.

So easy to prepare from farmers market greens. Below is a photo of the nasturtiums I planted a few weeks ago to garnish my summer salads.

Today will be a good day to harvest these.

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