THE PARTY IS only three hours away -- a sit-down dinner for 200 with two separate menus, five hors d'oeuvres, filet bordelaise, layered omelettes, pizza crepes and four huge cakes -- but in the kitchen of Lansdowne Catering, not much seems to be happening.
Co-owner Barry Morgenstern is slicing mushrooms. His partner Jerry Croce is washing pots and pans. Steve Ono is cutting carrots the long way, carefully, as though he had all day. At the big electric stove, Lynne Brady swabs out a heavy frying pan. Nobody talks.
They hate their stove. Like all serious cooks, they prefer the precision of the gas flame. But it costs too much to convert. Nevertheless, whether working in their own kitchen or in a private home on a huge institutional gas range, they have made their reputation as first-rate cooks in just three years.
"We pride ourselves on our tailor-made menus," Morgenstern says. "There are a lot of caterers in Washington, and you have to have a personality. Our signature is fresh, natural foods, and our training is in French, Italian and Chinese. Also desserts. But we can also give an African dinner with a little study."
This evening they are doing a bar mitzvah at a synagogue in Maryland. They may handle 10 parties a week in this very seasonal business, and they can do as many as four in one day if they can dictate the menus. They like to have one partner or sous-chef Barbara Spies-Hume actually on hand at each affair.
Three o'clock. Nothing remains on the stove. Time to pack -- "the hardest part." The refrigerated van waits by the loading door, and now mysterious foil packages, covered crocks and basins, big bags and jars and baskets of things begin appearing all over the place, collecting at the door. The cakes, made earlier in the week, are brought from the freezer. Ono starts neatly loading cardboard cartons.
Morgenstern keeps checking his three-column list of items on a sheet of yellow legal paper. Sanka. Coffee. Bechamel. Styrofoam. 2 boxes cocktail napkins. Large napkins. Baskets. 4 rolls paper towels. Potholders. Dish washing liquid....
Fragmented comments flip this way and that, in a desultory way:
"Better bring more knives. The whole carving set."
"I don't see any cornstarch."
"Jerry, you got your tuxedo?"
"Can you put your hands on the wide foil so we can wrap the cakes?"
Barry Morgenstern, short and stocky, the chef, never seems actually to give an order. His pleasant face grows serious as the pace picks up. He has been known to cry over cream that wouldn't whip. Jerry Croce, the salesman, is taller, graying, with thick glasses. He gets cooler under pressure. He disappears on little missions into the business office, a clutter of cookbooks and social registers, styrofoam blocks for skewered hors d'oeuvres, hammers and ladders, a Mexican hat, cases of napkins, uniforms on hangers, a Portuguese-English dictionary. ("We have to know three languages for the waiters.")
The paperwork starts two weeks before a party, when Croce gets together with the client to plan a menu, survey the site, check out the stove, the refrigerator, kitchen space, any equipment the client wants to supply, like silver and dishes. Naturally, the firm prefers to use its own things, and the partners have gone so far as to commission original serving pieces because they can't bear those standard silver chafing dishes that have "caterer" written all over them.
"Then we send an estimate and get a deposit," says Morgenstern. "We ask for a final guest-count 10 days before and we expect full payment the night of the party. That's usual practice."
Dinner prices start at $12 a head, $250 minimum. Rates can go as low as $6 for a cocktail party of 100 or more and as high as $40. For Lansdowne, the ideal size is 80 to 110 people: "When it's bigger, you can't watch the help; when it's smaller, it's too expensive."
(A large caterer like Ridgewell's works up to 60 parties in one day, from cocktail affairs for 50 to sit-down dinners for 1,300. Prices range from $4 for a portable buffet unit handy at conferences to $50, even $200 a head for a seated formal white-glove, individually-served dinner, depending on the wines and staff required. Ridgewell's has 75 people in its plant and 400 people on call. Lans-downe works with about 13 people, most often a family team they admiringly call the Flying Delgados.)
"With this bar mitzvah, we got the first call eight months ago," Morgenstern comments, as the last boxes go into the truck. "I've had more conferences with the client than I can remember. We were on the phone twice today already."
He is using 100 pounds of filet, 45 dozen eggs, 15 pounds of carrots, 10 pounds of mushrooms, whole armfuls of frozen spanakopitas and egg rolls in bags of 50. He goes through a case of butter, 36 pounds, a week. The bar mitzvah will cost $16 for each adult, $8.50 for each child, and the guest list has swollen from 130 to 190 -- a fact whose effects will snowball later.
"It's a theatrical production, that's what it is," he says.It is time to go. On the way the truck will stop off for 200 pounds of ice. "There'll be the florist and her helpers, and the orchestra -- they're going to have dancing after. I'd say a third of my time is spent on paperwork. Logistics. Getting things from here to there. Planning. Our policy is no surprises. For them or us."
Once they were doing a bar mitzvah for 110, and lightning hit the house just before the party. There was no power, no water, no refrigeration. So they got a powerline strung up across the lown, used their own portable ovens and an old fridge in the garage, plus water tanks.
It all began with Virginia Woolf.
Morgenstern, an English teacher in northern Michigan, was spending a year in London writing a book about the novelist, when a friend talked him into taking the Cordon Bleu cooking course. The son of a New York wholesale grocer, he had always been interested in food and enjoyed giving parties. Anyway, something snapped.
He returned to college for a courtesy year, then moved to Arlington and worked out of his apartment, his old friend Jerry Croce commuting on weekends from Pennsylvania, where he too was a teacher. Croce also liked giving parties, but not being a guest. ("I don't like small talk," he remarked. "Usually I stay in the kitchen when I give a party. One Sunday I had some people over and bought a New York Times for every couple and we all sat around and read all afternoon.") Three years ago they moved to Georgetown and went full time, handling now more than 150 parties a year.
"Planning is everything," says Morgenstern. "Jerry even works out the traffic patterns: You want 'em to circulate. We do a flaming shrimp thing, cook it before the guests' eyes. But you don't want 'em to pile up there, so you put the antipasto table elsewhere, and the liquor somewhere else."
Like many caterers, Lansdowne doesn't buy liquor for guests but does provide bars, setups, bartenders, consumption formulas and suggestions on what and where to buy.
"We try to give a party a personal touch. We like it so that when we arrive, the hostess can go take a bath, and when we leave, she can go to bed. Everything the way it was, or better."
The personal touch means remembering individual guests, like the guy who gets skim milk when a certain board of directors holds its regular catered dinners. Or the guest at this bar mitzvah who eats kosher and will get a special fish dinner. It also means drawing a few lines: Lansdowne won't do pigs in blankets, steamship rounds, meatballs.
"The worst is institutional parties run by committees," Croce says. "There's always one member who tells us not to listen to what the others say but do it his way. And the parties where the food is cosmetic, just there to be seen. We love it when people scarf it down."
He can tell when guests are done drinking and ready for dinner: the hors d'oeuvres trays come back full. It usually takes 40 minutes, though sometimes a host will insist on stretching the drinking time and then will wonder why dinner is too hot, cold or late.
"We don't like guests in the kitchen, either," Morgenstern murmurs rather diffidently, "though we can hardly chase them out."
At one wedding he was about to present a vast three-tier cake when a guest, a kitchen trespasser, lurched into it and knocked it over. Close to tears, Morgenstern refrigerated it for five minutes, reassembled the layers and patched it all up with great gobs of whipped cream and strawberries.
4:30 -- We arrive at the synagogue. The earlier bar mitzvah caterer is still moving out. The kitchen is filthy. A big pile of sweepings waits in a corner by a push broom.
Scowling, Morgenstern sets people swabbing the floors and bringing things in from the truck. Spies-Hume, the sous-chef, arrives and starts cleaning the gas stove. Morgenstern has remembered to bring her apron. It wasn't even on the list.
Now the Delgado team begins trickling in, the men wearing T-shirts and carrying their dinner jackets on hangers, the women already in waitress costume. Croce fetches boxes of silver, provided by the temple, and directs the table settings.Across the hall, the florists are setting up their displays. One woman blows up balloons with a squeaky hand pump.
By 5:10, the food is unloaded and cartons are back in the truck. Spies-Hume is salting the 16 arm-sized rolls of filet and pressing garlic buds which someone already has skinned and trimmed for her. Jack Delgado, a technician who does this work part time, organizes the two bars, the glasses, bottles, ice, olives, onions, mixes, and napkins which he twists into fancy stacks.
Then there was the time when two weddings were scheduled on the same Sunday and everyone somehow forgot that the wine supply was for both, so guests at the first affair were allowed to take bottles away. When the second wedding began to run out of wine -- with the stores closed -- Jerry frantically phoned a liquor store owner pal who had some wine with approximately the same label in his cellar.
5:20 -- There aren't enough small forks, a waitress calls out. Croce replies coolly. He is getting cooler all the time. Some will have to be washed during dinner.
Now it turns out that 50 dessert plates are dirty. Someone starts washing them: another extra job, another extra hand at the sink. The kitchen crew, like a ballet corps rehearsing in a closet, rushes about in a state of contained tension. Voices are never raised.
Calmly, Croce pinpoints the problem. "This room is too small for this party. It was supposed to be 130, and now it's 200, and if they're going to mill around in that clear space in the middle we won't be able to work on the tables."
He tells the waiters to place the napkins to the left of the plates, not on top, because the salads and water now will have to be served in advance. Two hundred napkins will have to be moved. Already the waiters are laboriously folding them into bird shapes.
"We're still short six tables' worth of forks," Croce says. This can happen when the caterer isn't controlling utensils, either from its own stock or rented. Either way, it's his job "to step between the client and what happens."
Once a windstorm knocked down a lawn tent minutes before a bar mitzvah party for 150. "We called the tent people -- we'd recommended them, so they came fast -- and while they took it down we worked around them. It was a little soggy, but the rain stopped and the party was okay."
5:40 -- The florists are finished. Tables are set, glasses on but not filled. The trash pile has been swept out of sight (by a photographer). Onstage at the far end, the Nowhere Men are tuning up. The kitchen is an elves' workshop: Ono sticks long skewers of Chinese beef and tomato into a basket, Spies-Hume takes a lesson in working the built-in coffee urn, Brady rolls chicken strips in cashew crumbs, Morgenstern arranges his vegetable bouquet of carrots and stuff.
Jack Delgado lines up more bottles: "Jewish people drink a lot of vodka. At the British Embassy it's always Scotch."
Croce: "They won't mill around drinking long. It'll be too crowded, which means they'll want to sit down sooner."
One time a bridegroom said he'd buy the wine but only provided enough for a half-glass apiece, so they had to keep the bars open during the meal, thus tying up two waiters. And then the host complained that some guests were slow getting dinner.
A new headache: Some doors from the adjacent sanctuary are blocked by tables. By law they can't be locked. The guests will have to be warned not to go through those doors. "And cross your fingers, that's all."
6:01 -- The first guest arrives, half an hour early. He brings a problem of his own. There's no guard in the cloakroom, and his wife has this fur jacket.
Without missing a beat, Croce turns to a waitress and asks her to take over the cloakroom....
6:10 -- The lights are dimmed. The whole crew, 14 strong, gathers for the instruction ritual. "First we have to decide who works the kids' table, the big table," says Croce. "The others get two tables each, and they're different sizes, 8, 10 and 12, so remember to tell Barry how many plates you need. This is the meal: first course in place. After that, take glasses, plates and forks. I know forks aren't usual, but they have to be washed for dessert. After the main course take all but the water and wine glasses. Because of the congestion in the kitchen."
He still has to locate the guest who gets the fish dinner. The appropriate waiter will be notified in advance.
"We'll pass three hors d'oeuvres. Oh yeah, don't forget to light your candles. And after you clear it all, one bar reopens and the other will have fruit and cheese and mints. Then we can all go home...."
The guests are thronging in, pressing forward, huddling like chicks around a warm brooder. The chatter level is rising. Standing tall in his new blue suit, the bar mitzvah boy watches with dignity as his shrill cronies skitter among the tables playing tag. The party is about to begin.