This past week my friend Carol here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, hosted a reading in her home for my new book, the historical novel Jamie’s Muse, and she had the lovely private event catered.
Along with a selection of drinks, there were large platters of beautifully prepared hors d’oeuvres for the guests to savor before I stood up on a platform beside the fireplace and launched into my presentation. To give you an idea, here are some of those hors d’oeuvres:
That same afternoon, by coincidence, I received in the mail an envelope from a friend in New York containing photos from my days as a caterer there. For ten years (1986-96) I had a small catering business called Bonnie Fare Catering that specialized in at-home parties and celebrations in Manhattan. Here are just two of the many photos I received this week:
So I’ve had catering, past and present, on my mind in recent days.
As I wrote in my memoir-with-recipes How to Cook a Crocodile about that time and that life phase:
“’Everything is fresh and homemade,’ my [Bonnie Fare] advertising copy read, and this was completely true. I made everything myself, for the joy of it really, because I loved to cook. I had changed careers at forty, going from being a well-paid writer/editor in the New York corporate world to being a self-employed caterer in the New York food world, because I was hungry for what a new, culinary career had to offer.
“I wanted to work with my hands in the realm of the tangible and meaningful. I wanted to immerse myself in the colors, flavors, aromas, and textures of the dishes I created. I needed to pretend my clients were my family and I was cooking for them out of love” (How to Cook a Crocodile, p. 6).
I’ve been thinking lately, then, about that catering experience – how exciting (and exhausting) it was – and how much I learned, which I’m sure I could not have learned any other way. I’ve been thinking of my catering takeaways.
Of course I learned how to be a better, faster, fancier, and more creative cook than I’d ever been before. But I don’t cook that way anymore. Serving in the Peace Corps for two years in Africa subsequent to my catering decade certainly cured me of any desire to fix fancy food for well-fed people.
No, I’m thinking about the other, more meaningful and longer-lasting lessons I learned – such as how to be an effective leader, how to plan and prepare carefully for every event, how to be utterly reliable always, and how to love your staff like family (or the way families, ideally, should be).
This was seat-of-the-(chef’s)-pants learning for me. I didn’t have an MBA. This was simply the golden rule put to the test.
For example: How would I have wanted to be treated if I were in my staff’s shoes?
Before each event I’d call a meeting and tell them all sincerely, “You are the face of Bonnie Fare Catering. You have the power to make sure each guest has a good time this evening. So you are more important than I am. I’ll be in the kitchen watching the stove. I’m just no good at schmoozing.”
And these enthusiastic and hard-working young people – all aspiring actors, singers, and dancers freelancing to pay their rents – rose to every occasion. They never let me down, and my clients were always pleased with how well their parties went.
And planning? Even now, when I look at a full calendar page with large, fill-in-the-blank squares, I remember how I learned to plan each event, how to break down the ultimate task (the client’s party) into “bite-size” assignments, writing out each sub-task into the day-squares preceding the big date. I learned that no summit is insurmountable if it’s approached in small, steady steps.
Reliability? Is this a quality found in our natures alone? Or can it be learned? I believe the latter.
Slowly, slowly, as my client base grew, mostly through word-of-mouth, friend-telling-friend, my clients knew they could have their doormen let me in to their apartments even before they themselves got home from work so I’d have time to complete the cooking there. They knew I could be trusted implicitly. They knew my business was about more than food; it was also about integrity.
And, too, ten years of catering stretched my mind and heart in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.
Here is one true scene:
It is 1987, during the time when NYC was the hub of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. I’m sitting in the back seat of a taxi with one of my wait staff who’ll be helping me unload my catering cases when we arrive at the client’s place downtown. We’re stuck for a while in traffic on the West Side Highway. To fill the time, I turn to him and ask a personal, naive question, knowing we’ve grown close enough in our working relationship that he won’t be offended. He is handsome and strong, smart and talented, and I love him like a younger brother.
“Why did you choose to be gay?” I say. “It must be such a difficult life….”
For the rest of our taxi ride downtown, he enlightens me.
Especially now, during Pride month, I am grateful above all for this, my biggest catering takeaway.