BLACK-TIED BUTLER John Healey wheeled through the door from the dining room into a tiny room and put the first course plates on a Xerox machine.
"We have a fork problem," he sang out.
"They used the wrong fork," said caterer Jayne Bridge Taylor, reaching for a basket on top of a file cabinet for extra silver.
Nodding a "yes" he sailed out again to clear more dishes while Taylor finished piping garlic mayonnaise onto plates of shrimp sitting on an office cabinet.
By now you have the picture. This is no ordinary dining room. Taylor and Healey are working out of an office that becomes a service pantry when Lyn Nofziger and Mark Bragg, political and corporate consultants, invite people to lunch at their offices on the top floor of a restored mansion just off Dupont Circle.
They have a complete formal dining room equipped with silver, china, linens and fresh flowers which often is pressed into service once (or more times) a week for what may be a trend--the elegant, and very personal, office luncheon.
Taylor recently started a similar dining room operation for Carl Byoir and Associates, a public relations firm on L street.
Back at Nofziger/Bragg, a postage meter has been moved to the floor, making space on a table for a small bar. Under that table is an electric hot tray with foil-covered spinach ramekins. A red Igloo cooler holds cucumber stuffed with marinated shrimp. A blueberry and kiwi tart is secure atop a file cabinet beside a Mickey Mouse birthday cake, a surprise for Nofziger whose Mickey Mouse bow ties are a personal trademark. (Why Mickey Mouse? someone asked once. "It's the nature of the business I'm in," was the reply that launched a legend.) Nofziger and Bragg, both former Ronald Reagan campaign advisers, have found a new way to go for the first class executive lunch.
There are about four ways to have an expense account lunch in Washington. You can hop to a good restaurant to see or be seen; you can hire a caterer to bring his own china and formula lunch to your conference table; you can have your secretary call your guest's secretary to find out what he/she wants for lunch and order up the reubens from a deli; or you can set up your own kitchen and hire a full-time chef. The last was the dream of Mark Bragg but he quickly decided, "That would make me a poor man."
So, Bragg and Nofziger came close. The dining room with Jayne Taylor in charge created a smooth-running system to bring guests excellent food, beautifully served. "It's good and a little different," says Nofziger.
"We do it because it doesn't cost more than to go out to a good restaurant," said Bragg. "We have privacy and relaxation you can't get elsewhere. The office is a haven. We don't really do business at these luncheons," Bragg concluded. "It is a time to relax and just enjoy good food."
On this day recently, it was to be a cozy luncheon for four. A social coup, since both Doles--Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole and her husband, Senator Robert Dole--were to be guests. They are old friends from the Republican campaign trails, and it was a good time to spring a birthday cake on Nofziger.
Liddy Dole arrived first, straight from a Cabinet meeting, and the first complication arose for the caterer. Betty Meyer in the Senator's office phoned to warn them that a roll call would delay the Senator. At that moment, Dole became a blip on a social radar screen. He was tracked on the telephone in his car from Capitol Hill to the Dupont Circle-area office--his progress monitored by Beth Johnson, phone in hand, perched on a desk littered with plates and luncheon paraphernalia.
"How classy," said Liddy Dole viewing the dining room and then diving into an empty office to work on the telephone with her secretary--another plus for office luncheons.
"Are we in danger of that getting cold?" asked Johnson, hand over phone, eyeing the foil-covered dishes.
"Yes, we are," said Taylor. A decision was made to start without the Senator. Healey pulled corks and disappeared into the dining room.
"Lyn has a sportscoat on," he reported back with some astonishment.
"He does that for Cabinet rank and ambassadors," said Johnson, still manning the phone and filling out pink message slips. For "just the boys," he shows up in shirt sleeves in his formal dining room, she said.
"She grows her own vegetables," said Healey waving toward Taylor and helping a reporter fill her notebook during the wait. "And she has two people who deliver ginger and spices from England--her mother and father."
British-born caterer Jayne Taylor was the find of Mark Bragg who watched her work a small dinner party for Delaware Governor Pierre DuPont and his wife, Elise, who maintain a house on Capitol Hill.
The wife of an international trade laywer, James Taylor, 32-year-old Jayne is likely to work in shorts and T-shirt looking trim, tanned, and very American, but the soft British accent can't be missed.
She hit it off with Nofziger/Bragg and has been helping them for a year and a half. But there have been compromises.
"Lyn has a thing about Tabasco," said Taylor with some pain in her voice, turning Tabasco into TaBASco. "He wanted the bottle on the table," explaining the enormity of the problem she faced with this client.
They negotiated. Taylor's father shipped a small crystal bottle topped with a silver stopper from England, which Taylor now refers to as the "chili/sherry decanter" and that goes on the table, refilled from a super-sized Tabasco bottle that's kept hidden. In return, she manages to work Tabasco into many of her recipes without yielding to Tex-Mex cuisine, which she resists for luncheons.
Taylor rarely repeats a recipe unless it's a requested favorite. She consults with Beth Johnson on the menu, and welcomes suggestions.
One of those requests from Nofziger is for what he calls "killer lunch." That's a seafood salad he had the day he suffered a stroke a year ago. It was a very mild stroke, and he was back at work in two weeks, but it did change his eating habits. He wants to avoid meats and fat, and keep down his weight, "Something I'm not good at," he admits.
The daughter of a British army officer, Taylor spent her school days in Belgium in what she reluctantly describes as "probably a finishing school."
"Gloria Steinem would have an attack. They emphasized cooking, sewing and speaking French," she laughs, but the school turned out a very liberated young mother running a flourishing business (Bridge Taylor Catering Ltd.).
She peeled shrimp and buzzed chicken breasts in her Cuisinart at home recently, hard at work preparing for a reception for Medal of Honor winners at the National Archives. On a side table, French country pa te's cooled under weights. Tasting, she added slivers of fresh ginger to the chicken for a stuffing that would fill plum tomato halves and cucumber boxes.
Working in offices where there are no kitchens is filled with perils for the caterer. At Nofgizer/Bragg there is a kitchen, but it is three flights down, in the basement of the adjoining Woodbury Blair mansion. Access is via a closet-sized, rickety elevator which starts with a jolt, spilling soup or pitching food down the shaft. Access also means a trip through the hallways of other offices, whose occupants aren't enchanted with food smells. Sometimes Taylor is followed down the hall by someone spraying perfume in her wake, to hold down the aromas and complaints from other tenants.
She got her start 11 years ago while working for the British Embassy. A professor friend asked her to help with a Georgetown University Renaissance Ball. "It was my absolute dream come true," she says. She put on a real Tom Jones orgy. There were glazed boars' heads set in wreaths, and a four-foot silver tray heaped with a mountain of whole cornish game hens interspersed with bunches of grapes. There were whole cheeses, and enormous wicker baskets filled with loaves of bread. It was a gorgeous paean to gluttony and great fun. After that, more professors asked her to do parties and she was launched.
"Different," is the word you hear most often about Taylor's food. But actually, it isn't complicated, by the standards of today's haute cuisine cookbooks and magazines. The food is fairly simple. The keys are care and beautiful presentation.
Beth Johnson says there's another reason for Taylor's success with Nofziger/Bragg. "She seems like a part of our family now. Jayne cares about us. It's important to her that she please us. We'd be just another client to a larger outfit."
Taylor believes that food should be light for a luncheon when people must go back to work afterwards. Summer meals are always cold, with a hot bread and a hot first course. She likes to have people finish a meal just a little bit hungry. "They leave thinking about the food they have eaten and enjoy it a lot more."
Here are some of the recipes that Taylor uses. SPINACH AND EGG RAMEKINS (4 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 10 ounces spinach, fresh or frozen, chopped, cooked, drained Hot pepper sauce 4 eggs Parmesan cheese Salt and pepper
Butter 4 ovenproof 6-ounce size ramekins with 1 tablespoon butter. Line with chopped spinach, leaving a well in the center. Sprinkle with 3 or 4 drops hot pepper sauce. Break an egg into the center. Sprinkle parmesan cheese on egg, add salt and pepper, 2 more dashes of hot pepper sauce, and a tiny knob of butter, about 1/4 teaspoon on each egg. Bake, uncovered, on a cookie sheet at 375 degrees 15 minutes for a soft yolk, 20 minutes for a firm yolk. Serve with a wedge of lemon as a first course. COLD TOMATO AND CUCUMBER SOUP (6 servings) 3 medium tomatoes, peeled, chopped 2 cups chicken stock 1 teaspoon sugar 1 tablespoon each butter and flour 1 cup cucumber, peeled, chopped Salt and pepper 3/4 cup sour cream 2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped 2 teaspoons fresh dill, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried dill
In a saucepan combine tomatoes and stock, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add sugar. Make a beurre manie by mixing together the flour and butter. Add this to hot broth, stirring, long enough to thicken soup lightly and cook away the raw flour taste. Cool. Add cucumber, salt and pepper to taste and blend in a blender until smooth. Fold in sour cream, parsley and dill. Serve cold with additional chopped dill as garnish. CHICKEN IN CHERRY TOMATOES (15 servings as an hors d'oeuvre)
Taylor also uses this chicken pa te' in halved plum tomatoes or in cucumber chunks, unpeeled, hollowed out. After they are filled they are decorated with a tiny piece of red bell pepper. 2 whole chicken breasts, cooked, bones removed 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced 3 tablespoons mayonnaise Salt and pepper to taste 30 cherry tomatoes
In a food processor, combine chicken breasts, ginger, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Process briefly to make a stiff paste and correct seasonings. Cut off end of cherry tomato that is opposite stem end. Hollow out with melon baller and fill with chicken paste. Chill before serving. SHRIMP BOATS WITH GARLIC MAYONNAISE (4 servings) 1 pound large shrimp, raw, peeled (26 to 30 count) 1/2 cup white wine 2 straight cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise Watercress, radish roses and lemon wedges for garnish
Marinade: 1/4 cup lemon juice 3/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped 1/4 teaspoon fresh tarragon (omit if fresh tarragon is not available) 2 bay leaves 1 tablespoon capers 1 tablespoon chives 1 small onion, sliced Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic Mayonnaise: 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise (preferably homemade) mixed with 1 clove garlic, pressed or finely grated
Place peeled shrimp in a saucepan with wine, adding enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook 3 to 6 minutes, until shrimp are pink and opaque. Do not overcook. Drain, cool and devein shrimp. Mix marinade ingredients together. Marinate shrimp 6 hours or overnight in refrigerator.
Make cucumber boats of equal size by trimming the ends. Scoop out seeds to make a trough down the middle. No more than 2 hours in advance, fill trough with garlic mayonnaise. Shrimp are hooked over the cucumber in a line, tails toward plate. Just before serving, a final row of garlic mayonnaise is pressed through a pastry bag, using a #21 tip, to make a row of rosettes along the top edge of the shrimp. The plate is decorated with watercress, radish roses and lemon wedges. SHRIMP WITH BASIL (4 servings)
Taylor serves these shrimp ringed with large piped rosettes of dauphine potatoes which have been baked on a baking sheet until golden brown. Or she serves it with a rice pilaf and watercress and orange salad. 1 pound shrimp, large, raw, peeled 6 tablespoons butter 1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
Saute' shrimp in butter until pink and opaque. This will take 3 to 6 minutes. Do not overcook. Just before they are done, add fresh basil; stir quickly and serve with lemon wedges. BLUEBERRY AND KIWI TART (6 to 8 servings) 9-inch sweet-dough single pie crust, baked (recipe follows) 1 egg, beaten lightly 1/3 cup applesauce 2 kiwi fruit, peeled, sliced thinly 1 1/2 pints fresh blueberries 10-ounce jar apple jelly 1 tablespooon sugar Mint leaves for garnish
Spread a thin layer of applesauce over pastry. Cut kiwi slices once again and place them standing on edge around rim of pie. Fill with berries, heaping up in the center, making sure kiwi slices show around the rim. Dissolve apple jelly and sugar together in a saucepan, stirring until mixture reaches the softball stage (234 degrees on a candy thermometer). Pour over berries while hot, making sure all fruit is coated. If mixture is too thick to pour, add a few drops hot water. Chill. To serve, decorate with mint leaves in center and slice with a very sharp knife to make clean cuts through the berries. BASIC SWEET PASTRY (Makes 9- or 10-inch pie crust) 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon each salt and sugar 1/2 cup butter, cut into 1 inch pieces 1/4 cup ice water
Mix together flour, sugar and salt; cut in butter until mixtures resembles tiny peas. Stir in ice water gradually until mixture can be shaped into a ball. Chill for an hour. Roll out on lightly floured board. Line pie pan with pastry, bake 5 minutes at 425 degrees. Remove from oven, brush with beaten egg, return to oven and cook 10 minutes more, or until pastry is a golden brown. Cool. GRAPES JUANITA (8 servings)
Taylor said if she had to be marooned on a desert island with one cookbook, it would be "Great Dinners From Life," first published by Time-Life Books in 1959, and currently available in paperback. This recipe is from it, and she uses it for any whole fruit or berry, as long as the color does not "bleed" into the sour cream. 2 pounds seedless grapes 1 cup sour cream 1/2 cup light brown sugar Grated orange rind
Combine grapes and sour cream. Sprinkle the brown sugar on top. Chill for at least 2 hours. Garnish with grated rind. (Adapted from "Great Dinners From Life," by Eleanor Graves, Time-Life Books)