The Secret Best First Job You Can Have: Catering

How to start and grow companies.
Nov. 1 2011 7:32 AM

I'm Here To Serve

Why catering is the best first New York job you can have.

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Towards the end of the night, I noticed one guy who had especially flirty and loud earlier in the evening hunched over in his chair, with his face buried in his hands. I walked over to him and asked him if I could get him anything. He didn’t respond. I thought he might be drooling. I walked away self-consciously. Fifteen minutes later, another caterer walked passed me and said, “Did you hear? Some guy puked all over the hallway and passed out on the bathroom.” Ten minutes after that, the ambulance arrived, and carted the once boisterous hedgefunder off on a gurney, passed out and open mouthed, tie gone, with vomit on his shirt. “Alcohol poisoning” was the word at the party. His date walked beside the paramedics, clutch in hand, looking at the ground.

While I enjoyed observing the decadence, I found some parties over the top. At an ad agency’s Christmas party, the focal point of the event was a large ice sculpture/luge down which we poured shots of Jaegermeister and Red Bull. Attendees would have to crouch at the bottom, standing on their knees in their suits and tight cocktail skirts, mouths opened onto the plastic dispenser. I think we had a cloth to wipe it down between shots.

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In addition to Christmas parties, among the more memorable events I worked were nonprofit galas. I quickly learned that personally agreeing with the causes for some of the fundraisers I staffed didn’t make for a better work night. One of the parties with the rudest, most demanding guests was a benefit for the Nation Institute. The people attending this high-priced affair asked accusatory rather than inquisitive questions about the food and managed to treat us more like “the help” than people at other events did.

I chatted with interns who were helping out with the party by checking people in and giving gift bags. After dinner was served and we caterers were eating our leftover staff meal, I asked whether there was any extra food we could take out to the interns as they sat outside the gala ballroom. The serving captain said there wasn’t enough. I later saw that they’d ordered pizza, and Alice Waters, who was one of the hosts, came out and saw the empty pizza boxes. She began lecturing them that they we eating junk food, and that they shouldn’t be eating such terrible things when it was so easy to eat delicious, healthy organic food. I wondered whether she’d considered providing them with any.

Ultimately, one important lesson I got from catering was from the people I worked with. I greatly admired that for the most part, they were committed to their art. Catering was about economics for them, and the job was attractive because of its flexibility—a sign that you were doing well in your chosen field was that you hadn’t needed to take any gigs for a while. It was perhaps the only social scene I was ever apart of in which what you did for money in no way defined you. I had such a tunnel-vision focus on becoming a successful writer as soon as possible that it made me realize that a lot of people are committed to what they love and toil away at it in obscurity for years. Just because I wasn’t writing for the New York Times by the time was 23 didn’t mean I was headed for failure. It was comforting, but also motivating. I also knew that I wouldn’t want to be still catering 10 years later.

In post-crash New York, I’ve often wondered how some of my former co-workers fared as those parties got scaled back in future years or canceled altogether. Though the money was good for what it was, I knew that it would be a hard long-term hustle to create and sustain a middle-class life. I ended up working for a couple of different catering companies to get enough party work and also pieced together other kinds of freelance jobs. Everyone I know had a crap job in their 20s. It’s a frustrating, “welcome to reality” experience for perky college grads, but I think catering was a better experience than most. Because there was little commitment and I had no illusions that this job was going to advance my career, it was easy to say goodbye as soon as better offers came along.

While I doubt I’ll ever host a party that involves throwing $1,000 worth of green-market garlic shoots on the ground for decoration, I’ve nonetheless taken some of my catering tricks with me. Whenever I have people over to my apartment, I twirl the cocktail napkins, with my perfected technique, to make a pretty circle just like the one you would have been offered if I were in a black uniform, serving you crabcakes on a silver platter.

Katherine Goldstein is the editor of Vanity Fair's website, VF.com. Follow her on Twitter.