I get emails everyday during the summer months from wedding planners, chefs and caterers. This story is for you. Lord, I have lived the pain.
I'm not sure how actress Tracy Nelson found my catering company; I just remember that she was darling, tiny and so excited to be getting married. She was marrying "Billy" from Falcon Crest. Sorry, I can't remember if that was his character's name or his real name, and it doesn't matter -- the union would be a fabulous special worthy of primetime television. Tracy was born into television royalty. Between her grandparents, Ozzie and Harriet, and then her father, Ricky, Tracy had been raised in the spotlight. Her wedding was happening smack-dab in the 80's, when people still had money, shoulder pads and big hair.
After one meeting, I knew that Tracy had a very clear vision for her wedding. She had rented Catalina Island's Wrigley Mansion, a stately old manor with spectacular views of the harbor. It had become a fancy Victorian bed and breakfast, renamed The Inn on Mt. Ada. The mansion had been built around the turn of the century by the chewing gum tycoon.
Tracy had rented the entire mansion for the weekend, plus two big, plush yachts to take her guests back and forth from the mainland. Everything was to be the best. I had rented antique silver pieces to display the food, and Battenberg lace was everywhere. The florist decorated for days so the roses would be in full bloom. Not buds, not over. I got it: Tracy was to be a princess. No problem. Most days, sapphire blue water surrounds Catalina. It's as exotic as Capri. I was thrilled to have passed muster in the interview and to be her chef and caterer.
Innumerable lists were made, and months of preparation went into every detail. Ferrying the guests back and forth on the yachts, on time, became a military operation. Guests' shoes would have to be changed and carried from the yacht to the inn. Food and drinks were to be served the moment guests hit the decks, and then again as they arrived for the wedding. On the return trip, heart-shaped sugar cookies and coffee would be served. All in all, guests would be in for about an 18-hour day. For the staff, it was twice that.
My true concern was the food. As it turned out, the local purveyors simply couldn't meet the demands of the ultra-gourmet menu. Tiger shrimp, top grade filet mignon, wild rice, Beluga caviar, handmade lobster rolls tied with fresh chives and endive leaves with curried chicken... all of it would come from my commissary and be sent by barge to the island. The barge charged my kitchen by the pound. The thought of my expensive food for 150 guests bobbing in the hot sun and on the wild waves for an entire day was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Thank goodness for wine. I should also mention that there are almost no private cars on Catalina -- just a few cabs and one patrol car.
Once my 1,000 pounds of food landed, it had to be carted up the hill to the mansion. Eventually, I found a truck that belonged to the Department of the Interior, and the inn hired the ranger and his rig to transport the food. My sous-chef rode with the food the entire way from my kitchen to the back door of the inn as its escort. She made sure the coolers stayed cool. She was armed with her knives in case of a holdup. I'm not kidding. I told her to guard the food with her life.
Once I said bon voyage to my cases and cases of food, my coffin-sized coolers, my copper pots and pans, my sous-chef and my carefully packed silver trays, I assumed the worst was over. Ignorance is bliss.
The next morning, at 6:00am, I arrived at the helicopter pad to take my 27-mile ride across the sea to Catalina. It was a glorious morning. I had nothing to fear. I had planned everything and it was perfect. As I approached the helicopter, the whirling blades drowned out everything. I didn't hear the baker call out to me. I will never know what made me turn and see the screaming, frantic wedding cake baker and the endless layers of wedding cake. I couldn't understand: The baker and the cake were supposed to ride that morning on a shuttle boat, but the baker hadn't booked a reservation and it was the middle of summer, when literally thousands of tourists visit Catalina on a daily basis. There wasn't a seat to be had.
I ran over to her. She apologized profusely, but wondered if I could carry the cake for her on the helicopter. I would have strangled her, but she had already shoved the bottom layer of cake into my hands. I walked back to the helicopter, where the perplexed pilot and three other passengers, whom I had never met, were waiting. I handed off the big, heavy bottom layer to the older man in the back seat. And one by one I carried the layers from the baker to the other passengers. I never said a word to anyone. I think my silence and the perfect, pale pink rose petals said it all. Though it's a quick ride, you'd be amazed how long it feels in utter silence.
A cab was waiting for me at the Catalina heliport. I took each layer of cake from each dear stranger's arms and smiled sweetly.
To this day -- it doesn't matter whether I'm having a party for 6 or 60 -- I never have the dessert delivered. I like to pick it up the day before my party and peek at it in my refrigerator every chance I get.
Denise Vivaldo is an award-winning author and food stylist. This story and others appear in her cookbook The Entertaining Encyclopedia, Robert Rose Publishing 2009.