November 13, 2005

A story of triumph against adversity... in a freaking long post

Yesterday was a huge birthday party for the 6-year-old son of a media mogul and his author wife. The mogul's photo is on billboards around town right now, so as I'm driving around I'll see his trademark poofy hair and I'll be reminded of this party for a few more weeks.

I don't want a reminder.... I want to forget.

There was a lot of unnecessary drama about this party from the beginning. I was hired by a party planner, not the ultimate client. It seems that her usual cater moved out of town, and she was stuck without a caterer. She promised (as they all do) that she's looking for someone with whom she can develop a relationship and continue to work with. She has several celebrity clients and this would be great exposure for me. I don't want or need any more exposure, but she seemed really desperate and I wasn't booked, and it was only supposed to be about 75 guests for a 6-year-old's birthday party, so no big deal, right?


The client, (let's call her G), doesn't give the party planner (who I will refer to as A) a final menu until less than a week before the event. (By the way, I had nothing to do with creating this menu, so please don't mock me for making this food, I had no choice!) So A and I are scrambling around trying to figure out how to budget and plan and everything, but we can't really finalize anything because we don't know what we're going to be doing yet. When G finalizes the menu, she chooses a batch of things she wants as tray-passed Hors d'Oeuvres, as well as items for a luncheon picnic buffet. Simply a nightmare of a menu:

        I am instructed where to buy the miniature hamburger buns. That adds a stop I have to make the day before the event. Nevertheless, I always get high compliments on my hamburgers, so that's ok with me.
        Why I am making these, I have no idea. I begged to have them taken off the menu several different times, but A said G had her heart set on them. I went to three stores before I found cocktail weenies that weren't the smoked kind. I had to raid the entire inventory of croissant dough from the Ralphs market by my house. The checkout guy made fun of me. I had to roll tiny pre-made hotdogs in pre-made crescent pastry that comes out of a tube. A CARDBOARD TUBE! Soigné, this is not. Not by a long shot.
        Seems that A thought I would be able to make these myself, from scratch, the day of the event. I told her no way! I've done from-scratch, hand-tossed personal pizzas as an entrée for a party of 15, but no way was I going to do this for 75! I would have to find a supplier for the crusts. Luckily, karma puts me in the right place at the right time, and I find one… but there's more to come on this one, my friends. Oh yes, much more, which I'll include below.
        "Here, make this. No, I don't have a recipe. No, I don't have technique. I will rent you a deep fryer, but that's all I know. The other chef made them and they were great. So just make them, ok?" This is shaping up to be the white-trash menu from hell, is it not? At least they aioli could have been redeeming. Unfortunately, the rent-a-chef (more below) that I hired and assigned to the aioli broke it, so I had to fix it myself. I have fixed more than my share of mayo, aioli and hollandaise in my day, because I'm surrounded by people who break them. Constantly.
        Steamed? Ha, you get blanched and you'll like it. Thank god for packaged baby carrots, and the peas were easy enough to wash and clean. I did find some of the sweetest jicama you have ever tasted. I was delighted with that!
Then, the entrées:
        What? I said from the very beginning that the moment fried chicken touches that napkin it is going to be a sloppy greasy mess. They had to change out the turquoise blue cloth napkin after every single batch. More stuff for the deep fryer (I bought 70 lbs of liquid shortening. What a mess that could have been, but it all turned out fine) Saturday was a beautiful day. The weather was just lovely, and I didn't mind being chained to the deep fryer since it was outside!
        Yes, you saw right, she's serving hot dogs as an appetizer AND hot dogs as a main course. After I got over the shock of that, I realized, "I'm serving hot dogs, after the last time where I swore I would never serve hot dogs again. Crap" it could be worse, I could be a Julliard-trained actor who has to pay the rent doing adult diaper commercials.
        This one is especially funny for two reasons. First, the recipe was given to me by A the party planner. She specifically said that I had to make this recipe, she's made it herself and it was great. All my kitchen staff thought it was terrible. Hardly any of the guests appeared to have touched it. Couldn't move it at all. The second thing was that it included sesame seeds and sesame oil… and Mr. P, daddy to the guest of honor, is allergic. Oh yeah, you know I'll be the one who is blamed for that. However, nobody said anything to me! I am going to have to add another line to my Letter of Agreement that includes an allergy-notification disclaimer. If you or any of your guests is allergic to anything, you are required to inform me of the allergy when you give the final headcounts. Otherwise, get some Benadryl and call 911, and leave me out of it.
        Again, we are re-chickened. Who was holding the crack pipe when they chose this menu? I saw the original full menu from which G could choose, and there were plenty of opportunities to avoid repeating proteins. Sorry, folks, if you don't like chicken or hot dogs, and you're allergic to sesame (which is in this recipe too, btw) you're screwed. Hope you like the potato salad. Otherwise, though, the majority of the guests seemed to like this one, so we made several batches of it.
        This was a shocker. See, I am a paranoid person, and I'm overly cautious when I'm putting out food that's going to be served outdoors, on a hot day. Especially food with mayonnaise as a primary ingredient. So I don't make bound salads for buffets. I simply refuse, citing possible food poisoning, and as soon as you say "food poisoning" people instantly envision their guests projectile vomiting and start having a few cramps themselves. I always get my way. So long story short, I made my own vinaigrette recipe for the potato salad and they ate it up. Literally. Nearly all of it. It was fantastic. I got compliments. It was vindicating.
OK, so let me fill you in on some of the juicy details, plus the footnotes I promised:

So the real thorn in my side through this was that I couldn't negotiate with the end client, G, at all. I had to ask everything of A. Most of the questions I asked, A couldn't make the final decision, so she had to call G and work it out, and then call me back. Did I mention that there was only about 2 weeks between when A contacted me and when this little shindig was going to throw down? Everything was a time crisis, from the get-go. Artificial crisis, though, of course, because this is Los Angeles and people thrive on drama. WHAT~ever.

THEN, to add insult to injury, I get a phone call from A on Tuesday afternoon saying that maybe the guest count was going to go from 75 guests to 150. huh? I make a few panicked phonecalls to try to get more staff, just in case this nightmare becomes reality. None of my people are available, and I start pricing out rent-a-chef companies and get a few people lined up. The company offers a 24-hr cancellation policy with no penalty, but after that, I will be stuck with whatever I say, for a 4 hr minimum per person. I get the final count late on Tuesday, LEFT IN A VOICEMAIL, that yes, the count is 155, firm, and that's what we're going to go with.

I wrote out a long, detailed e-mail to A, telling her that I'm going to need more staff, the estimate I gave her is going out the window, and asked, once again, for the love of god and all that is holy, can we please remove something from the appetizers, oh, I don't know, perhaps the pigs in a blanket??

See, I had arranged to be onsite at 8:00 am, to make food for 75 guests, with the apps out at noon and the picnic to start at 1pm. Now my headcount has doubled, but my prep time has not. So that means my staff has to double. I have to adjust my recipes and my shopping lists and packing lists… and holy shit: Not only is all this food not going to fit in my truck, I don't even have pans big enough to cook this much food! Gah! I request permission to drop off some stuff the day before. A balks, but I told her that otherwise, I'm going to charge her for a truck rental and for my time to deal with it… assuming I can even get a truck for Saturday if I call on a Wednesday. She makes a call, I get a call back and I'm granted permission as long as I'm there before 5pm.

Well, the pigs in a blanket were not going anywhere, but you can't blame a girl for trying. So now, I have to call the mini-bun company and double my order. I have to call the pizza company and double my order. I explained my situation, and they suggested that I could order them pre-sauced and pre-cheesed for double the cost, and I jumped on it. I picked up a couple samples the day I placed my order, and they included plain crusts plus a couple pre-cheesed ones. They were slightly manufactured-tasting, but passable. At this point, I confess, there was not going to be much love left in me to put in this food, so I was grasping for whatever help I could get.

So, jump to the day before the event. I spent 8 hours and a tank of gas driving all over Los Angeles to get the best possible products for the best possible prices. I found boneless, skinless chicken breast at the Asian market for only $1.88/lb. That's also where I found the mini-weenies, and I wasn't even looking for them there. More good karma at work, I guess. I go to a farmers' market store and buy the bulk of my produce for cheap. The shopping cart was totally full, and it only cost about $55.

Drive like a maniac back to the Westside, to pick up the teeny little burger buns. Drive to the pizza manufacturer, and pick up 80 five-inch cheese pizzas. Then head over to Costco for packaged goods like ketchup and mustard, ranch dressing, and hot dog buns. I'm not nearly done shopping, but I've got to make my 5pm deadline, so I drive from culver city to Santa Monica, put perishables in my fridge, put pots & pans in my car, and start heading up to the compound up on a hill north of Sunset Blvd. I meet N, G's assistant, and she hugs me on sight. I am never sure how I feel about that, but it's better than a cold-fish handshake. I empty the truck, with her help, and head back towards home. I called Kelly and asked if he'd be up for going out to dinner. He was, so we made plans.

(If you're tired of reading, imagine how I was feeling…and it wasn't even the day of the event yet!)

Before I catch up with him, I go over to Smart&Final, which is my last-ditch for bulk stuff. I don't really like Smart&Final, but they're more economical than the retail stores. I hate that they can have something one week, and you go in there the next week and they're totally out. It's a drag that you can't count on them! I met Kelly for dinner at Mama Voula's and sat down for the first time all day that wasn't in my car. I stopped at the Ralphs for those 28 tubes of crescent rolls and 10 cans of frozen lemonade. The cashier looked at me funny and cracked jokes. I am getting used to it.

I'm exhausted, but wired. I make myself go to bed, but set the alarms for 5:30. When I wake up, groggy, I put on clothes and Kelly gets up and makes me coffee. He helps me load the truck with my coolers and I'm off. I arrive at the client's house slightly after 7am, and two of my 6 kitchen staffers are already there. By 7:35, everyone shows up, and I start doing my official debriefing. I have printed up all the instructiosn, given everyone their assignments and explained how I do things. I explain that we've got a ton of food to be made, and only 4 hours to do it, so please stay on task and tell me if you get in the weeds. If you're not halfway done by the halfway point, I'll get you help.

My cellphone rings, and it's A, saying that G's assistant, N, was going to be late, so we had to wait; we weren't allowed in until N let us in. Period. So, N finally shows up at 8:30 (using up half an hour of our precious cooking time) and lets us in. The kitchen is still full of the household accoutrements, so she & I stash as much of it as possible in cupboards and cabinets. A shows up and tells me that, uh, oops, since Mr. P came home early last night, he told the rental delivery company to put everything behind the garage. So we had to waste EVEN MORE of our kitchen time moving the deep-fryer and the coffin/hotbox over this freaky Feng Shui driveway of cement and gravel, set up our Astroturf, and the prep tables. This all had to be moved through the house, and Mr. P looked like he was going to have a breakdown, so he left. There was no sterno for the coffin, and there were no leg extenders for the prep tables, so that make things complicated. Well, more complicated, because now I had 7 people crowded in the kitchen to work, and 90 minutes chopped out of our prep time. Fun.

As we were moving the stuff from behind the garage to the deck, and throughout the day, various people would come up to me and pat me on the arm or on the back and say, "How are you doing?" or "Are you ok?" or "Are you going to be alright?" One of the rent-a-chefs told me later that none of the 6 kitchen staff could believe I didn't blow up and freak out and have a breakdown of my own. For one, what good would it be to put even more pressure on my already stressed-out staff… and two, what kind of boss would I be if I lost it, set a bad example and created a negative tone?

I was on autopilot. I barely remember what happened, it all happened so fast. At one point, someone cracked a joke, and I laughed a little too hard at it, and felt myself slipping. It was the kind of laugh usually that turns into tears. Somehow , I got a hold of myself and pulled through it. I clung desperately to the person I wished I could be, and she emerged.

Somehow , I remembered to tell someone to fire up the grill in time to make the hot dogs.

Somehow , I remembered to fill the deep fryer with oil and turn the thing on, so it was hot enough to deep fry those godforsaken Mac & Cheese balls, and then the fried chicken.

Somehow , there were too many cans of sterno in the hotbox (ok, it was my fault) and the whole thing caught fire. There was a huge panic, but I kept saying, "It's no big deal, it's no big deal, it's fine, don't worry"… and eventually I was able put the fire out without using a fire extinguisher.

Somehow , my staff was able to put out the Hors d'Oeuvres at noon, and the entrées out by 1:15 - it was hot and heavy until 2pm, we just couldn't crank the food out fast enough. After I put out the ice cream, I insisted that my kitchen staff be allowed to take a break, We all grabbed plates of food and sat down on the gorgeous deck furniture, enjoyed our gorgeous view, and enjoyed a well-deserved rest.

Family meal is a little bit…sacred. When you sweat together, when you work as a team and pull an event out from the ashes like that, you share a bit of yourself with everyone else. People started apologizing for not being fast enough, or for raising their voices, or for coming across as bossy, or for whatever transgressions they felt they made. When you break bread (or in this case, fried chicken) your defenses come down. I always love stepping back and seeing how it all comes together.

After our break, we got down and dirty and cleaned. And cleaned, and cleaned. Try as you might, it's hard to work fast and clean at the same time. It's kind of a corollary to the saying "fast, cheap and quality - pick two". In this case, it's "fast, tasty or clean, pick two". And I'll choose fast and tasty every time. Cleaning can always come later.

I signed out the rent-a-chefs, because they're expensive. The rest of us loaded the truck (and Kelly's car, since I knew all those coolers wouldn't all fit in my truck), I signed everyone else out, and headed for home.

I am leaving out the details of my personal interactions with Mr. P, because he was rude and I don't want to relive it, not because of any respect for his privacy. G, his wife, thanked me personally with a handshake and tipped us all generously. I think A was impressed with how smoothly this potential disaster went, but I don't know if I could work with a party planner as a middleman again.

Today I slept until noon. Had something to eat, took a shower and went back to bed. After I got up the second time, I went to wash out the coolers and unpack some more of my truck. We went out to dinner at Caffé Roberto in Culver City, and had a very nice little dinner.

A little while ago, I got this e-mail from one of yesterday's staff:

You're the Bomb! Thank You for letting me be on your staff. Great party, you sure pulled it off due to the time delay. I just want you to know I am proud to say, "I work for Chef JoAnna." I'm ready for the next one. Let me know when the next event is. I AM there for you. Great party I think.
Lots of compliments.
Wow. That's what it's all about.

Last thing I ate or drank: a nice glass of Columbia Valley Riesling by D. Ste. Michelle.Technorati Tags: in


  1. Loved reading this post Joanna. Sorry that your drama makes such entertaining reading, but it kinda does. :-)

  2. JoAnna, you had me hyperventilating and exhausted 1/2 way through the story....also rofl.

    Half Baked - Chef2Chef


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