I took my first catering job because it was a too-good-to-be-true proposal. It was Fashion’s Night Out, the frat night of Fendi, where all the stores stayed open late to lure customers and club kids in with DJs and free booze. I’d gotten an offer to pour wine and beer at a store in Soho for 30 bucks an hour. Cue my double take, and my immediate acceptance. I admit to feeling a bit wary; I had met the owner of the company by chance, and for that kind of pay I was expecting there to be a jarring catch, but I hadn’t made that much money in the past two weeks, so I figured it was worth at least a one-night shot.
Instructions were to wear a black dress and heels, which I didn’t find out of the ordinary since caterers often wore uniforms and it was a fashion event. The night was frantic; there was water and beer down the front of my dress, and my beloved Miu Miu clogs had gotten spilled on a few hundred times. However, I quickly forgot about the water stains when I saw the full tip jar and had the check in my hands as soon as I finished my five hours of “work.” My apprehensions quickly evaporated. I’d take my shoes to get cleaned, and I had a new dream job. Were catering companies the hidden gold mine in New York? Was everyone who carried trays at galleries and events ending the night with more cash than I got in a week at my job?
It is a backwards success story unique to New York, where those who catch a wave of dumb luck or fantastic timing always make it big, while the hard-working seem to rarely reap their earned benefits. Though the same industries here exist everywhere else too, the successful ones often operate with a twist that can only propel them to prosperity in the city. Everything has a gimmick, and catering here was not just catering: The twist at this company had nothing to do with the food.
For my second event, the instructions came via text message; location, time and attire: black dress, high heels, hair tied back, red lipstick. Getting on the subway in that outfit just before five p.m., I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortably self-conscious, almost illicit at the fact that I was going to work, getting paid $25 an hour no less, dressed as if I was an escort.
This event was larger than the last, and there was a big group from the catering company in the kitchen when I arrived. It was a scene of such contrast it could have been a magazine spread: a cluster of tall, thin girls in teetering heels and small black dresses, crammed into the narrow hallway of an industrial stainless silver kitchen, towering over and trying to stay out of the way of the chefs, who were variably annoyed or delighted. While the cooks prepared trays of bite-sized burgers and stuffed mushrooms, everyone glanced at their compacts, touching up lipstick and fixing stray hairs like we were in line for a photo shoot casting call. It became clear that the role was a purely aesthetic niche to be a nameless black dress with a tray of miniature food attached, yet even the food was often ignored.
While I worked during the holiday season in New York, parties and events were plentiful. It became my routine for two or three nights a week. Two black dresses were kept to the front of my closet; my most comfortable pair of heels started to wear at the soles and my bank account bulged. Most of the girls were struggling models, many of them also working as bartenders or waitresses. I would always have to check the labels they wrote if there was a buffet involved at the event. Even I can barely spell baba ghanoush, but there are few justifications for misspelling vegetable.
The best events were the ones thrown in large venues with big kitchens in the back. Here, we could swipe food off our tray and chew it on the way out, or have a glass of champagne in the back. We usually hated the parties at apartments, where we could never eat and always felt a bit useless walking around with food none of the girls would touch, in spaces too small to justify having five employees passing food. At events there was a set ending time when we could leave, but at apartment parties the host and guests would get so drunk they’d forget that we were still there, waiting patiently with growling stomachs to be dismissed. We all wanted to be the ones carrying champagne, not cheeseburgers or cupcakes. The thinnest, tallest women always fixed us with glares of hostility and sometimes razor-edged remarks when fattening foods entered into their proximity, but no one ever turned down champagne.
* * *
The last event I worked with the company was undoubtedly the one that sticks to my mind. It was someone’s birthday party in Columbus Circle, and we met at a coffee shop around the corner. When we walked over to the apartment building’s freight entrance, we laughed at our reflection in the mirrored buildings as we passed: 10 young girls in black dresses and heels, heading for the freight elevator of some billionaire’s apartment. I hadn’t changed yet and was still wearing jeans and Converse sneakers. “You can be the madam,” someone said.
Off the elevator, our casual conversation was suddenly hushed, and we received immediate and fervent instructions to remove our shoes. I got a scolding look for not being dressed yet, and I tried to scurry into the bathroom to change, but was subsequently shooed away from the main hallway’s bathroom and into the “staff bathroom,” through a corridor in the kitchen. Hanging in this hallway, reserved presumably for their housekeeper and nanny, was a signed original photograph of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. After I changed, I was given a pair of slippers. There were no shoes allowed in the apartment. We were all walking around in black cocktail dresses and red backless velour slippers. When the guests started to arrive, even they had to swap their Jimmy Choo’s for Chinese slippers.
The apartment was extravagantly regal and overwhelmingly intimidating. There were entire unseen wings we were not permitted to step foot in and a view that spanned the entirety of Central Park. The shelves so meticulously organized and detailed that there was even a typed sticker reserving a place for their kids’ dinosaur Plates. It was the host’s birthday. His wife was pregnant and looked over our heads each time we spoke, delegating to her assistant to tell us that we could only pass food in a certain direction and could not walk into the room with the bar. One caterer came back into the kitchen looking worried. “The wife just ate three pieces of tuna tartare…Isn’t that not allowed if you’re pregnant?” Allowed or not, we weren’t about to correct her. We’d just seen her spout fire at the chef because the sit-down dinner was served 15 minutes later than written on her itinerary.
Less food than average was taken by the attendees of the party, and we kept returning with a helpless shrug with half-full trays of food. When an Oscar-winning actress showed up, she alone was allowed to keep her heels on, and she was surprisingly the one who ate the most. For dessert, they pulled out a magnificent cake, with a foot-sized frosting reincarnation of the husband meticulously curled into a yoga pose with his three kids crawling on top of him. It was truly incredible, but it went untouched — everyone marveled over its beauty, but no one cut themselves a slice.
Toward the end of the party, the guests were sedated with drinks in the three living rooms, and we stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window, looking down in awe at the clear, light-inflected view below us. As we rode the elevator down, someone said, “Back to the real world!” Surprisingly, none of us walked slowly. The restrictions and rules carved into each marble tile of that apartment had been suffocating to all of us, even if it came attached to the most beautiful view we’d ever see.
* * *
At the end of December, I took the train out of New York to attend a family Christmas party. When I noticed the team of caterers show up, I couldn’t remember if these annual parties had always been catered or not. I felt strangely out of place to be walking through the kitchen and yet not being the one to pick up a tray. If you work in coat check, you will forever tip the person getting your jacket. If you work as a waiter, you’ll always leave at least 20 percent. Apparently, if you work in catering, your behavior as a guest changes as well. I accepted each hors d’ouevre passed my way, since I was always annoyed when I had to walk endlessly with the same tray when no one would eat. I tried to stay out of the kitchen so they wouldn’t feel needlessly formal, because we felt unable to talk when the guests were around.
However, much more affected than my behavior was my newly crystalline view of the oceanic difference between suburban events and those in New York. The caterers also wore uniforms, but they were both male and female, and their uniforms were oversized white chef’s jackets with large buttons; there was no red lipstick, uncomfortable heels or tight dresses. There was no suggestion of sensuality inherent in this catering company, and honestly, it seems that should be standard protocol. Why should the person offering you a glass of wine or an appetizer and a napkin be overpaid just because they are dressed as if they are hosting the party, not working at it?
Once I asked my boss why he would hire any girl he thought was pretty, without regard to whether she was qualified. He shrugged and said, “The clients like it.” He was right, really. I knew the most challenging part of these events was either conversing with drunk patrons or maybe balancing trays. I couldn’t begrudge him for his superficial view, because for him it was working. He kept getting rehired and signing contracts for parties for huge corporations. It is an inherent theme of New York that if you are willing to pay for it, almost anything can be custom-made or adjusted to fit your taste, and here, some will pay just about anything for a surface that sparkles.