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Chaos Theory and the Art of Catering

March 14, 2010

Chaos Theory and the Art of Catering

Catering has always appealed to the uninitiated. Urban legend insists that if you can cook, you can cater. After all, how hard could it be? New Mexico has always been full of inept wannabe caterers with dollar signs in their eyes. Sometime I think I’ve worked for all of them.

The fantasy goes something like this: You arrive with everything you need artfully arranged in your crisp tuxedo shirt. Course after course is perfectly served. The dishes seem to wash themselves. You smile demurely at the compliments and scattered applause. On the drive home, you glow at the large unexpected gratuity.

Those of us in black and white who’ve been underpaid to serve know better. It’s more like tap dancing on a tightrope without a net. The difference between a real circus and the social one is that you pay in advance at a circus. Caterers are never really sure if the check the inebriated client wrote will clear.

On the other hand, the client is never really sure what they’re getting, either. I’ve catered parties that blew up so badly that the smell of cordite should have followed me as I slunk out the back door unpaid and hopefully unnoticed.

When I took the leap and went out on my own, I was going to go the distance and enter the ranks of Santa Fe’s catering elite. After all, I had the best logo, an elegant line drawing of a hand holding a strawberry over parted lips and three years of working for the best caterers in town. I couldn’t lose.

I should have realized a pattern was set when my florist died while filling my order on my first crucial job. I ended up buying fishbowls and ornate chopsticks.

As any food professional knows, quick thinking is the only thing that saves the day and your accounts receivables. In the catering business, those nerve-racking moments happen in a strange place, in front of hundreds and without backup.

At my first formal catered dinner party, my elegant, elaborately decorated whole king salmon centerpiece arrived, much to my surprise, in the shape of what could only be described as unique. The hostess called it revolting. I didn’t learn until afterwards it had been scrapped off the walls of the delivery van and piled back on the platter.

At least the salmon arrived before the event.

The five specially baked lemon meringue pies that the hostess had demanded were late. When they finally arrived a few frantic moments before dessert was to be served, they were only halfway cooked.

If you’re a caterer and life hands you liquid lemon meringue pies, all you can do is make lemon parfaits. Filling champagne flutes, I layered crust and watery lemon curd, topping it with a triangle of meringue and candied lemon zest.

The guests’ delighted responses appeased the hostess and she added a grudging gratuity. That’s when I discovered that successful catering is the art of creative salvage.

Eventually I learned that it all comes down to the menu. Learn to resist your client’s unreasonable demands and build a solid workable repertoire that you can produce and repair on location with style and confidence.

And if all else fails, you can make a parfait out of anything.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2010 6:30 am

    Those of us who have never catered, have to appreciate the humor and creative minds of those caters who have been put in the firing line to appease the client.

  2. March 15, 2010 2:40 am

    This is a really good post. I never knew that things could go so bad. But you hide it so well when things fall apart. You were gutsy to go into business yourself.


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