"Catering is different than, say, the computer industry," said John Putprusa, catering sales manager for the Bethesda Marriott. "We share ideas . . . We learn from each other." The sharing, however, only goes so far; it does not include recipes, Putprusa added. "In my experience, if you come across a good recipe, it's secret. I wouldn't give it to my wife."

The best caterers can expect is to sample their competitors' wares, and Saturday night the Vista International Hotel went all-out to host a gala dinner to impress the toughest audience. It was the annual holiday party for members of the D.C. Chapter of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE).

Wendy Wolf, assistant director of catering at the Vista, said, "Catering to the caterers -- the people who make parties happen in this city -- is a tremendous challenge. To impress these people is not easy to do." But, she admitted, "It's excellent PR."

The hotel ballroom was transformed into a Victorian village, with dry ice reproducing the London fog, facades of Victorian houses lining the "street" and even a "traitor's gate," complete with prisoner's hands dangling outside the bars. During the predinner reception, maids, bobbies, flower girls and chimney sweeps replaced waiters and waitresses, passing out champagne and hors d'oeuvres and chatting with the guests about things British.

The party goers combined business and pleasure, making new contacts and talking with old acquaintances. Daniel Dodson, director of catering at the Sheraton Washington, said, "Tonight's more of a play night. One has to play, too." And the mood was right for celebrating. "D.C.'s had a couple of very good years," he said.

Carla Sabloff, assistant director of catering at the Sheraton Grand, was also celebrating the first anniversary of her Capitol Hill hotel that night. "We are doing very well, especially for the location," she said. The most distinguishing feature about catering to senators and representatives, she said, is that "I've never been able to sell a foreign bottle of wine." The Congress members tend, in fact, to get wines from their home states. "I can't sell French wine for the life of me."

Putprusa said the biggest trends in the catering business this year were "sushi and theme parties. The worst thing is when we mix themes." For example, Mexican and Polynesian don't mix, he said.

Most of the $20,000 worth of food, flowers, music and decorations were donated by associate members of NACE, said Harriet Epstein, president of the local NACE chapter and director of catering at Hogate's Restaurant. The nearly 250 guests paid $35 each to attend, and proceeds go to the NACE Scholarship Fund, which, said Epstein, "gives grants to area colleges to promote students in professional catering."

The holiday party, said Epstein, is purely a social opportunity. "The people are warm, friendly, professional. The competition disappears here . . . We work so many long hours in this business, 12- to 16-hour days, up to seven days a week, that when we put on a party . . . we treat ourselves like queens."

The royal treatment featured a multicourse dinner including cream of chicken soup with artichoke and oyster, squab and venison with baby squash and baby carrots, and an elaborate Viennese dessert table. The Gene Donati Strolling Strings performed during the meal and then guests danced to the music of Bolt. Spirits were so high that when the band played "New York, New York," most of the people on the dance floor joined hands to form a kick line. Still, when Sabloff went off to dance with another NACE member, her escort commented, "That's not dancing, that's networking."