Catering Season Is in Full Swing - May 29, 2000
John Kowalenko keeps a 24-hour weather radio in his car, a powerful electric generator in his truck and a dozen propane tanks at his store to run a gas stove.
But he's no survivalist. He's a caterer, and he knows what weather can do, like the time a heavy downpour flooded one of two tents where he was getting ready to feed 300 people.
"Whenever people say they don't need a tent, I show them the video," he says.
Being a caterer can be a difficult job. But being a caterer on the East End can be especially challenging, and the Memorial Day weekend is when things really get into gear, Kowalenko says. He and his wife, head chef Cheryl Stair, are doing seven parties this weekend, rain or shine.
The parties are small, nothing bigger than 90 guests. But they're a good warm-up for the rest of the summer, when guest lists can swell to 300 people or more.
The couple's Amagansett firm, Art of Eating, caters about 120 events a year, and two-thirds are crammed into the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
In those 10 weeks, they will serve 10,000 cups of coffee, use 16,000 bottles of soda and burn 6,000 pounds of propane keeping things hot. They will spend $200,000 to rent tents and places to hold parties, go through 150,000 paper napkins and throw all the trash out in 6,000 garbage bags.
And they will help raise funds for a variety of charities, move trees and bushes when necessary to put up big party tents behind houses and keep a 25-member part-time wait staff busy all summer long.
While Kowalenko keeps things moving, Stair has to come up with the menus, which are tailored to a high-end crowd of Hamptons regulars, people who go to a lot of parties over the summer and who don't want to serve the same kinds of foods they have eaten somewhere else.
"Everyone says the same thing. They want it simple and elegant. But none of them mean the same thing," Stair said.
Kowalenko started in the food business in high school, working part time in a deli in Centereach. He then became a bartender, going from pouring shots and beer at the Oak Beach Inn to creating banana peach daiquiris at the old Club Pierre in Westhampton Beach. It was at the Pierre that he met his wife.
Now, they are among the better known caterers to put on big parties, the fund raisers of summer weekends.
Kowalenko will be at Southampton College's annual fund-raising concert and at the Hampton Classic horse show. Last week, he did a fund raiser for The Retreat, a women's shelter.
But he likes weddings most of all. "Everyone seems happier," he said.
Still, one wedding Kowalenko did on the East End several years ago is responsible for his violation of his own prime rule: that the guests and hosts never see the behind-the-scenes chaos.
But for this particular wedding, the centerpiece-a wedding cake ordered by the bride -was being prepared in Manhattan and was to have been carried in by four waiters with a flourish at 5 p.m. There was only one problem. There was no cake.
"It was supposed to be here by 1 p.m. At 2 p.m. we called the state police to see if there was an accident. At 3:30 p.m., we got the baker. He said: 'Oh, no. Was that supposed to be today?'"
So, Kowalenko called around and found someone to bake a substitute.
And, for just 15 minutes-the time it took to tell the bride and groom-the chaos of summer catering slipped out of the back room.
The incident became just another spice to mix into the menu of East End catering, where creating a mood is as important as serving a unique hors- d'oeuvre.
"People in this business love being in this business," Kowalenko said. "It's like you're producing a movie, only there are no retakes."
© Hampton Event Management International