There is a list on the stainless steel refrigerator, red swipes of Magic Marker through the finished items: potato pancakes, phyllo pastries with spinach and ricotta, crudites with hot artichoke dip, tenderloin beef, sliced, with horseradish cream.

There is a second list, neatly typed and slightly frayed, on the desk of Bittersweet catering director Deborah Burke, outlining menu and service and time and location for an evening cocktail party for 100 in upper Northwest Washington.

The party will start in three hours, and Burke needs one more list.

"You have to go through and just list everything. The French bread goes in a basket, and it needs a linen napkin, and it needs a knife." She leans over a clipboard of white legal-size paper and writes: "Bowls for oysters."

Imagine cocktails and hors d'oeuvres for 12: the grocery sacks, the stuffed refrigerator, the worry that the sesame chicken balls will burn while the stuffed mushrooms are still thawing. Take that anxiety and multiply it by 10. Double that during the holiday season. Repeat every day for one month.

In December, Bittersweet's full-time staff of 17 and countless free-lance service helpers entertained 4,000 people. After the biggest, most elaborate feast, for 550 people at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, Burke said, "I was so physically and mentally beat when that thing was over, I just wanted to sleep for a week. And I couldn't; I had five parties the next day."

You cater that much, for that many people, and panic gives way to fast-paced rhythms.

At 4 p.m., the potato pancakes rest in neat rows on a tray, the phyllo triangles are folded, the crudites cut. The only frenzy in the long, narrow kitchen of Bittersweet's Alexandria shop involves Burke and her clipboard.

She whisks through the small shop, dropping items into the first-aid kit of catering, the basket that goes to every party: "Paper towels, trash bags, a couple of bowls to put bar fruit in," Burke recites. "Cocktail napkins, matches, masking tape, scissors. We keep some things here -- a zillion corkscrews. At Christmas we had tons of little red and green napkins."

Joe Reid, 25, arrives to help load the cars. Burke is in the kitchen, swaddling food in layers of plastic wrap. "I've had four gallons of salad dressing spill in the back of my car. I was on the Beltway. I thought, God, that's a really tangy Italian dressing. I was in traffic; there was nothing I could do."

Now everything gets double-wrapped, but nerves still jangle the night before, spinning catastrophes in semiconsciousness. "I couldn't get to sleep last night -- I was thinking about the lists," Burke says.

There have been some close calls, parties that lodge in the mind like splinters.

"We had a sit-down dinner for 144 people at Christ Church. I had allowed 1 1/2 hours for setup, which I thought was plenty. It took eight people working full speed two hours to get it done. I was paralyzed."

At the party for 550, "We only had an hour to set up. We were running, I mean frantically running down these hallways."

Once the power failed at a wedding, and Burke had to fiddle with fuses when she should have been fiddling with hors d'oeuvres. Once Bittersweet's staff made little men, just for decoration, out of leftover bread dough, and a guest thought they were dessert.

"My biggest fear is burning holes in tables with a chafing dish."

It's happened.

Burke scans the clipboard, glances into the basket, breathes. "One more quick check through the kitchen," she says.

Once at the party site, the work goes smoothly despite the unfamiliar setting. Burke arranges watercress on a platter; Greg Love of the Old New Orleans Seafood Market in McLean sets up a small oyster and clam bar in the living room. On a chilly enclosed porch, Reid folds blue cloths over a long card table; Dan Calley places goblets, in triangular formation, on each side of the table.

"We have bevnaps here?" asks Jody Manor. Bevnaps? The shorthand is explained: catering lingo for beverage napkins.

In the kitchen, a green trash bag is draped over the silverware drawer, close at hand for cleanup. "One of the rules is, you never put linens in a trash bag. We threw away $1,200 worth of linens one time," Burke says.

There are other rules, like the "14 bites" method of estimating how much food to buy. "If somebody went into a board room and there was as much food as they wanted, they'd have 14 bites," Burke explains. A potato pancake is two bites.

It's 7 p.m. Amid mild bustle, this is the time of finishing touches. Ovals of beef are arrayed on a platter. A spine of sliced mushrooms goes down the center. A blue Sterno flame flickers under the artichoke dip. The first guests arrive.

Burke moves around the kitchen without questions. "I walk into people's kitchens and I instinctively know where the silverware is -- I just go for it."

Some clients want to use their own dishes, and once, someone's glass chafing dish exploded, leaving Burke with tiny cuts on her hands.

"But I've never had a cooking disaster," she says, knocking on the gray Formica.

At 7:10, the first tray of potato pancakes comes steaming from the oven. In the living room, Love parts the hinge of an oyster, gently pulls the muscle from the shell, sets it on a plastic tray. The phyllo triangles are baked light brown, and Burke presses one to her cheek. "Are these too hot to pass? Owww . . . yes."

On the porch, Reid pours Scotch, martinis and wine, and smiles a lot. "That corkscrew's jammed, and this one's crooked," he tells Manor cheerfully. Moments later, a more crucial problem: "We're running out of glasses."

It is 8:30. In the kitchen, Burke fills a sink with soapy water. "It's beginning to wind down," she says.

There is a pace to parties, an initial rush as guests discover the food and, later, a lull as the movement of objects from the kitchen shifts quietly from out to in. Items return -- a parade of half-filled glasses, wadded bevnaps from other rooms. All 110 potato pancakes are gone, but there are 70 oysters left, and about 60 clams.

Often, after a party, much is left over, and the excess can be disconcerting. When hosts don't want the leftovers, Burke says, Bittersweet often gives them to a homeless shelter or other charity. "I have seen some people throw away incredible amounts of food, and I say, 'Don't doooo that.' "

The uneven symphony of party chatter gives way to the efficient noises of cleanup: a rustle of plastic trash bags, the click of lids on containers. The growl of the garbage disposal drowns it all.

The leftover oysters are shucked, as is Manor's tuxedo jacket, and Reid is loading boxes into the car. Burke sponges the counter obsessively, lifting canisters and burner grills to wipe underneath.

It is 10:25. The clean dishes, the ones that belong to the host and hostess, are stacked on a table. Everything else is in boxes. The last thing to go is the bar table, shorn of its drapes, metal legs collapsed inward, jutting two feet out of the back of Burke's Audi as she turns the corner.