Mean Cuisine - August 4, 2002
At $1,000-a-plate benefits, the hosts stew and the caterers boil
It's the place to be if you want to see and be seen, to hobnob with the snobby set and to do your part for a worthy cause.
But "if you want good food, go to a restaurant."
That's what one longtime Hamptons resident had to say about the cuisine at the countless charity benefits he attends out east every summer.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the weekend calendar of the social set is booked solid with cocktail parties and dinner dances, where the price of admission to ultra-exclusive events can range from $500 to $1,000 per person. But instead of discovering lobster or foie gras waiting on your plate, you're more likely to find yourself lining up at a buffet to receive your portion of the ubiquitous salmon and fresh-from-the-farmstand vegetables.
Partygoers will recite a long litany of complaints about the mass- prepared food ("It's barely edible!" they sniff), but often the blame lies beyond the kitchen. From the moment the caterers sign on, they face a Sisyphean task: planning a meal that will fall within a charity's modest budget, while impressing 600 palates that are anything but modest.
Though Hamptonites "want everything to be perfect," say caterers, there's simply too much that can go wrong. "A menu may sound wonderful, but if you can't produce it and get it to every table within 15 to 18 minutes, you're in trouble," says John Kowalenko, the owner of Hamptons-based caterers Art of Eating. "The challenge is coming up with a menu the client's going to be happy with, that's in the budget and that you can put out of the kitchen fast."
Yet that's easier said than done. Caterers regularly find themselves working out of a would-be kitchen that was just a field hours before - with sprawling property like the Villa Maria in Bridgehampton, the Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack and Sandacres Estate in Quogue serving as the East End version of the local VFW hall.
Not only do caterers have to set up their own refrigeration, sanitation and electricity, they then have to satisfy diners who won't wait patiently as the other side of the room eats first or their meal arrives at a tastelessly lukewarm temperature. One option for caterers is simply to not even try. At the Memorial Day weekend benefit for Southampton Hospital, the menu was switched from the usual fish to a steak entree - an improvement not because of the quality, reported an attendee, but because "this way, at least it's supposed to be cold."
Pity the caterers. Even if you flew in the most exclusive Sorbonne-trained chef from Paris and had him personally prepare each $1,000 plate, the been-there, eaten-that crowd would find fault.
"The clientele expects the best," says Kowalenko. "They know food, they know service. They have very good discretionary income, so they can look for the best - versus another area where people might settle for less than the best cut of meat."
That's a lesson Kowalenko has learned in 13 years of business. For the Concours d'Elegance benefit for the American Cancer Society in Bridgehampton in early June, he and his wife and partner, Cheryl Stair, served a lunch of local asparagus on endive with early summer greens; shrimp in yellow gazpacho with Israeli couscous; and almond cake with a blend of fresh berries.
"That wasn't a typical menu," says Stair, the chef in the family. "But then, there's no such thing as typical out here."
The fierce competition among the caterers for famous clients rivals the battles between the clients themselves who are vying to outdo each other. "I've seen just about everything," Phil Jay, the owner of East End Clambakes, says wearily, with the voice of more than 20 years of experience. No idea is too outrageous - from the latest ethnic craze ("Indian food is really hot right now," reports one caterer) to Tuscan tables (a more stylized buffet) to requests for "dessert for the dog," Carla Rubin, an owner of Manhattan-based caterer Creative Edge Parties, says with a laugh.
"Asian flavors" was the trend du jour at a recent $300- to $2,500- per-person benefit Rubin catered for the Group for the South Fork. "They like to have a bit of a theme," explains Rubin, whose company charges the charities $175 to $250 per person (including service).
After a cocktail hour at sunset, where waiters passed trays of delicately arranged beef spring rolls, grilled shrimp and Parmesan rice cakes, the guests - who'd awaited in vain the arrival of promised attendee Martha Stewart - sat down to a dinner of chilled local white and green asparagus dressed in vinaigrette, Thai chicken curry with steamed orange blossom rice and strawberry shortcake parfait.
As the hordes gossiped about the embattled domestic diva's questionable stock trade, and disappointed paparazzi consoled themselves by trailing designer Nicole Miller, Rubin moved stealthily through the tent, whispering into a Secret Service-like microphone concealed in her palm. "Can we get more hors d'oeuvres out here?" she urged the kitchen.
Private soirees can gleefully slam their doors to the masses, but - to the dismay of party planners - anyone with the cash can buy a seat at the table at a benefit. The exclusive crowd suddenly becomes anything but, as the Nantucket reds find themselves mingling with (gasp!)North Fork khakis.
Another stumbling block in the quest for perfection is the "benefit committee," which regularly plays the role of wrench- thrower in the caterers' culinary vision. "Often we put a lot of work into a menu - and then there's a committee," says Stair. "Someone will say, 'I'm afraid we shouldn't have radishes in the salad because people hate radishes.' There are 450 people coming - maybe someone would like them!
"Our menus start out imaginative and wonderful - and get whittled down to salmon and steak."
That's not to say some aren't willing to take risks. A benefit in Sagaponack for the Phoenix House, a nonprofit devoted to the treatment and prevention of substance abuse, featured a "really cool menu" of Cuban bread salad, followed by a buffet dinner of grilled hangar steak with chimichurri, arroz con pollo, rum and pepper painted grouper and Cuban black beans.
But Stair sighs, "That's highly unusual."
Each caterer has a tale to tell of quirky menu demands. At "Live With Regis and Kelly" producer Michael Gelman's wedding two years ago, "Regis wanted pigs in blankets," says caterer Janet O'Brien, whose eponymous company operates out of the Hamptons. "Now everyone's mad about them."
O'Brien reports a surprising "kitsch thing" taking hold on the East End, including mini grilled cheeses, deviled eggs and apple pie - a staple at hip-hop impresario Sean Combs' parties.
"It's his favorite thing ever," says O'Brien, who recently got her "30 seconds" of fame in Barbara Kopple's much-maligned Hamptons TV documentary. ("I could have been the main character," she says. "But they just didn't get enough footage of me.")
"We do all of Puff Daddy's parties, all of the rapper events out here, all the famous parties," she says. "Last year was a quiet year - we hope he'll be back in form this year because his parties are the most fun."
The rest of her clientele, though, she admits, is a bit more concerned with calories. "There's definitely a very high standard here," says O'Brien.
The biggest "no-no" remains carbohydrates. "They're eating a lot less bread," reports Stair. "They still order it, though. As a matter of fact, the people who eat the least order the most," noting that some people can't help but cheat on the Zone Diet.
The non-Zoners, meanwhile, studiously avoid allowing red meat on the menu. "Filet of beef tends to scare people," says Don McCoy, an account representative for Glorious Food, a Manhattan-based caterer. "A lot of people, particularly women, don't order it in restaurants. But when it's put in front of them, they gobble it right down."
For a recent $500-per-person Nature Conservancy event in East Hampton, McCoy offered the 350-plus crowd a whole artichoke filled with shrimp in tarragon sauce, followed by cold filet of beef with horseradish sauce, the ubiquitous asparagus vinaigrette, corn salad and grilled sweet potatoes.
Any overly fat-restrictive demands, say caterers, are often muted by the "cook's dream" bounty of local ingredients, straight from the farm and the sea. "Because of the fabulous seafood and farmstands," says O'Brien, "it's quite a natural thing for us to prepare fabulous fresh food that's low in calories."
O'Brien, whose fee ranges from $50 to $70 per person for food alone, played up the best of the local harvest with a bountiful feast at the 650-person benefit for the East End Hospice in late June - her first time as the event's caterer. Feverishly toiling behind the scenes in her effort to impress, O'Brien dispatched an army of waiters into the sweltering crowd on the bay in Quogue, carrying trays of andouille sausage, cheese quesadillas, chicken skewers, vegetarian sushi, pan-seared scallops and smoked salmon on pumpernickel bread.
The partygoers - who ranged widely in age, style of dress (from black tie to shorts and loafers) and fondness for the straight-from- the-bar-mitzvah circuit band - then queued up for the buffet.
On the long table were heaping plates of roasted tomatoes, grilled asparagus and portobello mushrooms, Israel couscous and a baby spinach salad accompanying sliced filet mignon, grilled chicken breast and a whole roasted salmon.
The lines for food stretched deep into the white tent, as the uncertain wait staff bickered over how to serve the food correctly. Missing essential details like the butter knife and a drip plate for the sauces sent one anxious lieutenant - who came prepared, dressed in sneakers - scurrying back to the kitchen more than once.
"The kind of caterers out here don't know how to serve this number of people this much food," sniffed one attendee. "They don't have warmers; they don't have staff."
You can dress the servers up in white shirts and black pants, but at these summer benefits, they're still a bunch of college kids just trying to earn extra cash. And they couldn't care less about serving from the right and clearing from the left or keeping the line moving at a pace any faster than the usual weekend crawl along Route 27.
The raw-clam bar, where diners piled their plates high only to join the back of the line to secure more, was equally troubled. Some deemed the clams "not cold enough - I don't want to get Hepatitis C" - while others complained about the "little skin" that was left on. While O'Brien called the clams safe, the membrane that remained on the mollusk led to a minor behind-the-scenes emotional meltdown. Later, she apologized for her "clam moment."
"I'm not that familiar with clams," she confessed later. "And with the knife he had, he wasn't taking the little skin off," she said of the hired clam-shucker.
Enough with the raw clams, moaned one guest. "What's wrong with oysters?"
What's wrong is the price. Though partygoers forked over $150 to $800 for that meal, caterers say that money never makes its way to them.
"Benefits don't want to pay the caterer," says Stair. "They want to pay $30 a person for food. Unless we want to donate money back, the menu can be pretty simple."
Translation: Forget the foie gras, and serve up that salmon.
While some benefit guests may claim to happily suffer a mundane meal for a good cause - "You're not paying for delicious food, you're paying to support a charity" - others whine about the wallet wallop.
"Bring back the days of the prime rib!" demanded one benefitgoer. "For the price they're charging, you'd expect something extraordinary, something fabulous - not shrimp that's chewy."
Complained another, "If I have to eat one more piece of salmon on brown bread with a caper and a dill weed, I'm going to throw up. Put it on white bread - go crazy!"
Kowalenko is sympathetic. "People might not expect lobster tails and filet, but they're looking for more than chicken on the dish," he says.
The backsliding economy has also moved more expensive foods off the table, says McCoy.
Lobster and foie gras are "not a given any more," he says. "Grander and trendier foods have taken a backseat."
McCoy tries to compensate by providing lavish desserts. "When the ticket prices are up there, you need to turn it on with dessert," he says.
Glorious Food created a "mega dessert buffet" at the Parrish Art Museum's $500- to $1,000-per-person gala in mid-July. On the table will be "a little bit of everything": peach cobbler, blueberry cobbler, chocolate bread pudding, lemon meringue pie, angel food cake with Grand Marnier sauce, homemade cookies and brownies and fresh fruit and berries.
"That will be the least thing taken, I predict," he says.
At least if the crowd doesn't eat its money's worth, it can usually drink it.
"People still like special drinks passed," says McCoy. "Of all the wonderful drinks out there, cosmopolitans still rule." And so those at the Parrish enjoyed trays of cosmos, on ice rather than straight up.
At the Group for the South Fork benefit, the open bar was stocked with multicolored martinis (chocolate and green apple), cosmopolitans, margaritas and all varieties of wine and beer.
"I don't come for the food," said one partygoer, as he led his date to the bar, where even the pickiest of eaters could find a measure of $1,000 contentment.
© Hampton Event Management International