Every veteran chef can tell of hair-raising experiences, but this one might take the cake:
Several hundred wedding guests in black tie sit under a palatial tent out in the Hamptons, enjoying the kind of high-society party that can run into the mid six figures. As the orchestra plays smooth background music and ocean breezes cool the summer air, the crowd tucks into the lavish first course, prepared by one of New York’s most exclusive caterers. In the kitchen tent, the head chef asks the maitre d’ where he put the cake, which he’ll soon have to present to the guests. Stunned, the chef discovers that there isn’t a cake—the party planner, a darling of the society set, was so overextended with other parties that he forgot to have it delivered. With his heart racing and only an hour or so until the cake-cutting ceremony, the chef comes up with a desperate plan: He sends several waiters to a nearby Stop & Shop, where they buy some icing and as many Entenmann’s cakes as they can bring back. Working at his most frantic speed, the chef spackles together a monstrous approximation of a tiered wedding cake, and then the maitre d’ wheels it out. TaDa! It’s hard to say who comes closest to a heart attack this evening: the shaken chef, or the flabbergasted bride.
Professional cooking means high pressure under the best of circumstances. A 2007 study of the most stressful careers put “head chef in a major restaurant” near the top of the list. Off-premise catering often adds a level of difficulty: Chefs must work in unfamiliar kitchens, or sometimes—as at the party mentioned above—must finish elegant meals under tents, with cans of Sterno in aluminum proofing cabinets substituting for Viking stoves. As if that weren’t trauma enough, many caterers make a good portion of their living from weddings, and what could be more nerve-racking? You can’t afford to screw up someone’s once-in-a-lifetime meal.
The pressure to create the perfect wedding dinner has increased in recent years. Weddings have always been important events, but the past few decades have seen a frenzied rise in intensity, as the business of the big day—including party planning, gowns, spa treatments, favors for the guests, and catering—has exploded into a 60- to 80-billion-dollar-a-year industry in the U.S. alone. Recent media has focused on the phenomenon of the “bridezilla,” the high-maintenance modern bride, but often it's really the whole family that's the problem. As Rebecca Mead notes in her book One Perfect Day: the Selling of the American Wedding, major social changes have made weddings feel more significant than ever before. They used to serve as markers of other major rites of passage (including becoming an adult, moving out of your parents’ home, and losing your virginity), but now most brides and grooms have already done those things before they reach the altar. “It is as if,” Meade writes, “the bygone traumas that were a necessary part of the life of a newlywed have been transferred and transformed into the new, invented traumas of planning a wedding.” In other words, the wedding itself has become the rite of passage.
You have to feel sorry for the poor chef.
Bob S. (the names have been changed to protect the sorely stressed) has survived 27 years as a party chef, including a stint with Glorious Foods, long known as the Big Apple’s elite caterer to the high and mighty. A wiry man with the New Yawk accent and confident strut of a cop or fireman, he recalls his first wedding as a solo caterer. “I was so stressed that my skin broke out and swelled and cracked; it was a super case of hives. Being new, I had designed a very ambitious menu. During the meal, I started to doubt my ability to get it done, and I started thinking about the monumental consequences of failure: losing my job, my house… After the main course finally went out, it was almost like a light switch shutting off: I could feel my body relaxing.” (Speaking of lights shutting off, Bob recalls one chef who—frantic over not having enough time to prep the first course—actually pulled the plug on the electricity for the guest tent. The bride’s mother screamed at the lighting company crew as they struggled to track down the source of the problem, while the chef bought himself an extra ten minutes.)
Bob notes a major difference between cooking in restaurants and cooking for catered events: “A restaurant fills up little by little; you don’t seat one hundred and fifty people all at once. There’s an ebb and flow. But catering is an onslaught. All the food has to be ready at the same time, and while one course is being sent out you already have to be working on the next one.” He also distinguishes between types of catered meals. “With a society fundraiser, the guests care about being seen. For the most part, they don’t care about the food. In high season, they might go to three parties a week, and they don’t necessarily even eat the entrées. With bar mitzvahs or birthdays, the emphasis is on show: lots of food, but not necessarily quality. But weddings are about fulfilling someone’s dream. And people will talk about them for years after.”
Of course, people do still tend to expect a lot of food at a wedding, and the risk of running out is a major cause of agita for chefs. With high ingredient prices, especially for a lone chef who can’t benefit from shopping in volume, the tendency is to cut corners wherever possible. For Ted R., a relatively low-budget Brooklyn caterer who has developed an almost Zen-like calm after decades of party experience, it took a while to realize that too many cost reductions exacted too high a personal price. He would cut his quantities to the bone, then panic about running out of meat or fish as the guests lined up for the buffet. (“That almost fatal sense of my looming death,” as he describes it wryly.) Eventually he realized that if he spends an extra hundred dollars on food, “the relief I will feel during the party is priceless. Don’t nickel and dime yourself into a nervous breakdown.”
He also learned, ironically, that sometimes relief can come from not agreeing to the client’s demands. Though the bride and groom might want to show off their foodie sophistication, “I tell people that if you’re having a hundred and forty guests of all different ages, maybe this isn’t the best time to show off your palate with all kinds of esoteric dishes. If the guest has to ask the waiter ‘What is this?,’ and the waiter has to say, ‘Well, it’s carpaccio of kangaroo’… I suggest moving a little toward the middle of the road.”
“You have to please your guests and not just yourself,” he explains, recalling the wedding of a famous radio talk show host who served fish for both the appetizer and main course at his wedding. “If you didn’t like fish, you were screwed.”
After a while, caterers learn to spot problem clients before they even accept a job. Ted remembers one potential employer who “had a taste in his head of some amazing short rib dish his grandmother used to make—I couldn’t guarantee that I could reproduce it.” He had another would-be client who last hosted a party 20 years earlier and expected to be quoted similar prices. “He seemed to think that inflation had worked everywhere in the world except in catering!”
Fortunately, most of the time these chefs find that employers will accept a calm and reasonable explanation of why such demands can’t be met, though Bob recently had a phone conversation that so frustrated him that he ended it by suggesting that the client perform a certain anatomically impossible act on herself.
Ultimately, he concludes, a philosophical attitude is one of the most essential weapons in combating job-related stress. “It’s like a twelve-step program that advises you to get through one day at a time. Just remember that—good or bad—in five hours the party will be over. And the sun will still come up tomorrow.”