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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Passing hors d’oeuvres was one of the fun parts of catering

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

The first priority, on arriving in New York in September 2006, was to get some kind of job. I was 22. I knew that I should try to get my foot in the door with a position, no matter how lowly, in my field of interest: publishing. But my attempts to find entry-level work fell flat, and it was time for some quick thinking.

During college summers, I had done restaurant and catering gigs, so I created two résumés, one for “professional” work and one for food service. I sent the latter to a New York City caterer that specialized in local and organic food. As luck would have it, that fall was a very busy time for parties, so the company was hiring. The starting rate for a waitress was $20 an hour, plus a portion of the tip. I was thrilled. It turned out to be one of the best introductions to New York anyone could ask for. For a year or so, I made good money, met new people, and gazed into lavish windows onto an aspect of city life that I would have never seen as an office temp.

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I grew up in the South and had wanted desperately to live in New York since I was 5 years old. I came to the city convinced that it was a place where so many fascinating and glamorous things happened, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I was sure New York was brimming with people I’d want to be like “when I grew up.” At first, I thought that the parties I worked at would provide me with some kind of aspirational road map of what “making it” would look like: One day, I would be a guest, rather than a worker, at events like these. While I worked the occasional soiree with a well-known author or two that I admired—is it appropriate to tell Eric Schlosser that you love his work while serving him a canapé?—for the most part, I learned that the people working at the parties were actually much more interesting than the people attending them.

I liked how social catering was. I quickly saw the same fellow workers over and over at gigs and made pals. They were all almost exclusively artists of some kind, mostly actors, some painters or conceptual artists, which I quickly realized was the kind of boho New York I wanted to be a part of. People would ask what I did, and I answered that I was a writer. This was an aspirational declaration at the time.

It was always hard work, exhausting and physically demanding, doing things like setting up big tables or carrying crates of glasses or plates. Sometimes, I was assigned to come around noon and spend hours folding napkins, moving centerpieces, and unstacking chairs, or sometimes I’d be part of the reinforcement crew that would come at 4 p.m., gearing up for when the party would begin. Once the party started everything happened so fast, with so much focus and adrenalin, that I didn’t get bored. It was 2006, the pre-crash era, and there were a lot of opulent Christmas parties. Despite fatiguing work, it felt fun and voyeuristic to get to see dazzling events with centerpieces made with crystal-ball topiaries, flickering candles, and copious flowers.

My favorite jobs were passing hors d’oeuvres and doing coat check. Walking with hors d’oeuvres was fun because you got to scope out the guests and interact with them as you told them what you were serving. We weren’t allowed to present too empty a tray to any guests, and sometimes you could pop the last tuna tartare or sweet potato samosa in your mouth when you got back to the kitchen.

Coat check was great, because it wasn’t very demanding and you often got tips. Usually there was a lot of downtime, where you could chat with the other servers or even sit down. The people who would make a big show of thanking you for getting their coat were the ones that wouldn’t actually tip. There were also all sorts of strange and unexpected perks. Sometimes we’d get to take leftover lamb chops, rolls, cookies, or flower bouquets home, which added excitement to my fridge and a flair to my shared Crown Heights apartment. I once got an expensive blanket that was one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things” from a benefit. I use it to this day.

Whether it was witnessing a Jersey bride spit out bright neon gum right before she walked down the aisle or attempting to serve a birthday dinner party when the guest of honor was in the back doing lines of coke with his friends for extended stretches, I reveled in the bizarre scenarios and considered them my evening entertainment. One distinctly memorable Christmas party I worked at was for a hedge fund. When the guests arrived, they seemed a bit different than usual. The men all looked as if they could have been athletes with their big chests and broad shoulders, but their faces had started to get doughy and filled out in the years since college. The guys immediately huddled around the bar and instead of getting a beer and mingling, they parked themselves there, demanding shot after shot before the main event got started. Their dates mostly looked alike, with straight blond hair; short, form-fitting dresses; and very high heels.