The catering business heats up around the holidays. Next to the summer season, with its rash of weekend weddings, this is the craziest time of year for the crisis-managing, Subaru-driving, Tupperware-savvy food artists who specialize in gourmet meals-on-wheels.
On a recent Saturday morning, Chef Bill Allen of Let's Pretend Catering was prepping for seven events simultaneously, working off menus posted on the cabinets in the company's kitchen in the basement of Burlington's Champlain Club. He's a savory Santa. Among a million other things, he has to make sure the swordfish involtini and Thai beef satay show up in shape for a holiday party of international doctors, and that the senior citizens at the McClure MultiGenerational Center have enough butter for their snowflake rolls.
But first up -- before the Christmas crush -- is a bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai in South Burlington. Into a massive cooler Allen is packing everything you could ever want on a bagel sandwich: Nova Scotia lox, whipped cream cheese, hurricane-resistant tomatoes, sliced red onions, capers.
In the days leading up to this gig, he made chicken, tuna and egg salads, and a delicious pasta-and-meatball casserole. He also prepared several trays of miniature pigs-in-blankets, little beef wieners wrapped in his own homemade pastry. "I sit in front of the television, watch 'Columbo' and roll 'em," says 44-year-old Allen, who used to be the executive chef at O on the Burlington Waterfront. "I kind of like it." Judging from the way they wolf them down later, the adolescent eaters at Temple Sinai do, too.
Cooking in a restaurant is stressful, but bringing fresh food to a remote location is the culinary equivalent of working in a M.A.S.H. unit.
"You don't want to be in the islands and realize you forgot something," Allen notes. "Also, sometimes you go into these homes, and they're beautiful, but the oven's this wide."
The absence of overhead is what makes catering profitable. Many restaurants -- City Market, India House, Greenstreet's, New England Culinary, to name a few listed in the phone book -- take on outside jobs to make extra money. Minus the food and labor costs, it's all gravy.
But for Let's Pretend, catering is a full-time endeavor. The company's fixed costs are minimal. Owner Barb Bardin, Allen and an office manager are the only full-time employees. From a rented kitchen and Bardin's Lakeview Terrace condo, the company turns out food for some 300 events a year. Clients range from the Sisters of Mercy to Burton Snowboards.
In 25 years, Bardin has nurtured the company from a hobby business to the largest catering operation in the area. Revenues have been growing "about 25 percent a year," she says with a big grin. The smile's still there when she reveals that "word of mouth" is her only form of advertising. Let's Pretend isn't even listed in the phone book.
Her marketing strategy appears to be working. In the summer, when Allen typically works 100 hours a week, it's not unusual for the company to have 11 gigs on a weekend. He recalls one Saturday with five weddings. A 400-person dinner in Manchester is also etched in his brain. Ditto a last-minute dinner for the Dean campaign. He had to work most of the night before to pull it off. Afterward "Barb said, 'Now you're officially in the catering world.'" Allen deadpans, "I do remember her saying no to someone -- once."
Bardin is a natural saleswoman -- for years, she peddled bras with unbridled enthusiasm at Bertha Church. She spends hours talking with her catering clients. "That's part of the price. I'm a psychologist first, an Allied Van mover second, and then maybe I'll get around to catering," she offers, laughing at her own line. She's on hugging terms with Carol and Barry Stone, who are paying for today's bar mitzvah. They're repeat customers.
And likely to stay that way, judging from Barry's reaction to the dessert spread at the synagogue. The entire on-site catering crew -- five servers and a chef -- are in the Temple Sinai kitchen when he breezes in and proclaims, "You can talk about Viagra, but this is the best brownie I've ever tasted in my life."
Bardin is also there to hear the unorthodox compliment. She shows up in person at almost every Let's Pretend event, toting her famous "la di dah" red plastic toolbox packed with serving spoons and other elegant items. One minute she's slicing bagels and challah, the next she's schmoozing with the guests. "The people want to see me," she says. "Besides, I'm a lot of fun."
Bardin likes to take a theme-based approach to food presentation. Let's Pretend was the inspiration behind a barbecue birthday party last year for Big Joe Burrell, complete with saxophone-shaped cake. For the sneak preview of "Windy Acres," she rolled out cookies shaped like farm animals and miniature shepherd's pies. She always caters Rich Tarrant's New Year's Eve Party. One year the theme was "Cotton Club"; the next it was "Casablanca."
"Barb does a great job on the front end -- she's all about tchochkes," Allen says. He prefers working behind the scenes, alone. The former NECI instructor doesn't miss being "Chef Bill," or all the social obligations that go with it. But he does like meeting clients in a catering context, like the nuns who recently feasted on his vanilla-poached lobster tail served on a foie gras cookie with red onion marmalade. After the bar mitzvah, he'll be serving beef tenderloin with mushroom demi-glace at a holiday party for real-estate agents.
That's a far cry from pigs-in-blankets. Even if he's in jeans and a T-shirt, it's easy to imagine Allen facing 15 or 16 dinner-order tickets on a summer night at O. The high-end restaurant didn't survive, but Allen doesn't sound bitter about it. A lightning-fast prep cook, he seems happy playing the role of uber organizer. He also digs the cost-analysis part of his job. Anyone who claims not to be a control freak usually is.
"I'm so tired, but I can't remember what I'd rather be doing," Allen says. He takes a few weeks off each winter to unwind in the Virgin Islands. Last year that put him front and center at Bardin's own wedding on St. John.
Catering events in New England is a little more challenging. Inclement weather made last summer particularly difficult. Bardin recalls one wedding in Hinesburg that almost blew. The bride and groom were on a nearby hill, saying their vows, when the wind picked up and nearly capsized the operation. "We were dodging silverware," Bardin recalls. "Later, I found a fork stuck in the tent." Within a matter of minutes, however, everything was back in place. The only casualty was the salad dressing. Allen, ever the improviser, whipped up a new batch on the spot -- just in time for dinner.