Cate-tastrophes: Catering Nightmares

Oh, it’s party season again, when revelers don uncomfortable clothes and chug potent, creamy eggnog—which you must know never ends well, yet it happens every year. We’re talking blotchy faces, rumpled satin, comical hookups: the works. But as sloppy as Christmas parties get for revelers, the real stories come from the caterers—who, as sober and watchful as judges, are forced to witness the whole thing. Sadly, they also have to clean up the mess, but the silver lining is that they come away with funny stories.

In my post-college years as a caterer, I’d seen it all, from not-so-clandestine couplings to dressed-up pratfalls (my favorite). As a holiday gift to my readers, I’m going give you my three best catering stories—and, oddly enough, none of these feature out-of-control guests (which are actually a commonplace hazard of the gig, and ultimately kinda boring). This year, I’m featuring the foibles of the professionals—who didn’t even have the handy excuse of merrymaking.

K.I.S.S.

Isn’t it funny how people lose their minds around famous people? So it was with one caterer for whom I worked, who—desperate for fame (she dropped endless tales of her “one-woman show at the X country club”)—would fawn over any D-list celebrity with the misfortune to wind up at her parties. As employees, we’d cringe as she attempted to hand-feed hors d’oeuvres to Billy Baldwin or wipe the crumbs from Debbie Gibson’s lips while her poor celeb victims became increasingly (and helplessly) annoyed. Though poorly paid and lowly, we staffers pitied those trapped celebs, going so far as to mumble apologies as we handed back their coats. Always, much too soon.

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On this occasion, which occurred before my time (but is recounted by a solid source), our boss had booked a party in honor of then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. The event was to be a family-style cookout on the pretty grounds of a historic house, with hamburgers and potato salad served under shady trees. A band wearing candy-striped jackets would play on a white bandstand, and the entire afternoon was destined to be Old-Timey-Wholesome.

But everyone knows that a hamburger cookout is not exactly a star turn for a caterer, and if she were going to Go Big, plain burgers were not the way. So our boss decided that to honor this A-list celebrity, our cookout burgers would be made entirely with filet mignon. That’s right, no humble chuck—or even prime sirloin: Poppy would have thousands upon thousands of dollars of tenderloin, stripped of yucky fat by her kitchen staff and then ground into perfect, pricy patties.

Have you ever heard anything more refined?

On the Big Day, the roomy, rented grill was fired up and all the bigwig politicos arrived. The burgers, ruby red and unpolluted by fat, were brought out and—milling and hungry, just like at a real cookout—the party began to gather around the grill. Our caterer, spotting a prime opportunity, elbowed the cooks out of the way, and, grabbing a spatula, began to slap those filet burgers on the grill.

Turns out there’s a good reason that you never heard of filet mignon burgers.

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One by one, as they cooked, the burgers turned grey and crumbled through the grates, because—devoid of any binding fat—the lean meat simply disintegrated into protein pellets. The crowd of political heavyweights stood holding their plates, watching in confusion as their lunch turned into cement-colored gravel and then disappeared. It was kinda like in the movies when a vampire gets stricken by sunlight, except much, much, much more expensive.

Yeah—and I heard they ran out of potato salad, too.

Why Carts are Bad

Imagine an intimate birthday party for anchorman Stone Phillips, with all sorts of glamorous, beautiful people in attendance. Stone himself, who looks like a soap opera star in person (all square jaw and palisade of hair) was relaxed and handsome, and his lovely wife, charming. The attendees were a warm, jovial bunch of good friends and a rare pleasure to serve.

The crisis? How could our stage-starved boss grab attention?

With fast thinking, she devised a plan that employed a disused, wheeled wooden cart that she found lying around the building. Instead of, per usual, having an anonymous, tux-wearing staffer carry the cake into the party room for “Happy Birthday,” the caterer herself would wheel it in to applause. To this day, I can’t imagine what she was thinking; perhaps she figured her sassy wheeling would catch the eye of network brass.

Anyway, you know what happened. The untested locking mechanism balked when it struck a bump and the cart collapsed, sending the cake flying through the party—but only after the entire crowd was looking. The caterer made a heroic dive for the cake and actually connected, grabbing two handfuls of carefully-piped buttercream before the remainder slid—splat!—onto the floor at Stone’s feet.

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Now, these lovely folks were too well behaved to laugh, but every staffer in the room helplessly erupted into loud, simultaneous snorts of stifled laughter. Their braying raspberries were perfectly audible in the stunned silence. Some—like the sole bartender—actually had to flee the room before falling into hysterics at the sight of her kneeling there, eyes locked with Stone Phillips, cupping handfuls of his ruined cake.

The Uninvited
Imagine a top-tier party venue being thoroughly rocked by a hot band on a Saturday night, with a swinging horn section and a belting, soulful female singer. The dressed-up crowd—big, drunk, happy—was on its feet and dancing until the ladies’ makeup was running and sweaty men had un-tucked their shirts. Guests were fanning themselves with whatever they could find, and—in hopes of snagging a cool Hudson breeze—a thoughtful dancer had opened one of the large, river-facing windows.

No one could have predicted that, instead of cool December air, in would stagger The Uninvited.

It was a rat, folks, large and riverine, with a fat, pink, segmented tail that it dragged behind its greasy body. The rodent perched on the sill like an old, hammy stage actor, pausing until it was clocked by every pair of eyes in the room. Once unchallenged for attention, it thudded to the floor in front of the confused band— who, imagining themselves on the Titanic, exchanged glances but nobly kept on playing. Men threw protective arms across their ladies, and the crowd made a Biblical part, as the rat wove a sickly serpentine right around the dance floor.

It’s unclear whether the rat was poisoned, or perhaps—given its size—merely senile, but this new party guest was definitely not in good health. Moving in fits and starts, it was a ghastly sight—yet, I admit, even at the time, I found it a little touching. There was something about this Christmas rat, who apparently lay dying outside, when, lo—it was summoned by the siren sound of music. Stirred from its lonely nest, it dragged itself toward the party, determined to spend its final moments in light and music and laughter. Why, that terminal party animal even took a spin on the dance floor—though after its lap, it crept under the radiator to convulse, its pink, hairless tail snaking out and—periodically—twitching.

I tell you that rat actually ended the party, since it would have taken an hour and a half to re-locate the band, and no staffer (armed only with a broom and a wastepaper basket) could be induced to provoke its ire. The band took a prolonged break and the room instantly cleared, effectively diffusing the party’s momentum and ending the night early – and rather memorably.

The best part? The caterer, facing a fleeing crowd (and, perhaps, a client unwilling to pay for unused time), circulated through the crowd begging people to stay—attempting to pass off the twitching, very ratty rat as “a poor little chipmunk” that wandered in out of the dark night.

Amused? Enraged? Want to share your own holiday horror stories? We’d love to hear about it, so send us a line.

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