Party Poopers

March 2, 2012 9:58 am by

Recently, a wedding started with the guests relishing 100 kinds of dessert before they had the mains. “I didn’t believe it, until I saw it myself,” said chef Farrokh Khambata. The event was catered by Khambata’s company Catering & Allied, which owns and runs the restaurants Joss and Amadeus. There were five types of sandesh including a rose variety, five types of rasgulla, several types of sheera and ghee mithais, and candied petha (pumpkin) as well as a paan made from it. But not all the sweets were Indian. There was also Joss’s chocolate cigar, tiramisu, vanilla mascarpone ice cream, and Cointreau jalebis, in addition to a large selection of Thai fruit.

The quirks of Mumbai hosts and their seemingly endless menus aren’t what bothers Mumbai caterers. It’s gatecrashers, scavengers, misbehaving guests, and the lack of infrastructure at party venues that really gets their goat. At weddings and large-scale parties, food service and preparation offer a set of challenges that are completely different from those of the restaurant business. “Ninety per cent of the weddings we cater to have over 1,000 people and approximately 100 dishes,” said Somnath Bhattacharya, the general manager at deGustibus Hospitality, which owns the Indigo brand of restaurants, Neel at Tote on the Turf, and the catering company Moveable Feast. “We have four or five sets of tastings with the hosts in the months leading to the event,” said Bhattacharya. “But the actual cooking begins about 12 hours before it starts.”

The problems begin then. “Most of the grounds that have (the room for large) wedding banquets make no provisions for a kitchen in the space,” said Ketan Kadam, owner of Two One Two Bar and Grill. “The events earn them revenue, so it makes sense to provide a place that is covered on four sides” to protect the food. If the caterers haven’t put up a makeshift tent with bamboo and cloth, chances are the food will end up containing dust and dirt—and if it’s at the Race Course, possibly particles of horse shit. “Sometimes outdoor venues turn the lights off before we have a chance to pack things up,” said Bhattacharya. “And then scavengers come and pick up whatever they like.” Khambata said that most often, groups from surrounding areas come to pick flowers off the décor that the hosts and organisers leave behind. If they can, they also make away with some of the caterer’s wares, including flatware, vessels and equipment, in the hope that they will be able to resell them.

But scavengers are hardly a problem, when compared to a group of gatecrashers that have made a routine of it. Imtiyaz Sayed, a manager at Catering & Allied which once served up 400 dishes for a party of 2,700 people, has identified a network of people who keep track of weddings happening all over the city. The moment word spreads among the group, all of them show up to crash the party. They wear suits, look polished, and walk in with complete confidence. They hit the bar first, then they eat. “I have been in this business for 12 years, and they have been around for 10 years at least,” said Sayed. “I went up to one once and asked him who had invited him, and he handed me a card and said ‘My friend has invited me, I have his card. His name is Imtiyaz.’” It was Sayed’s business card. They also pick up mobile phones and wallets, according to Sayed. Now that Sayed recognises them, they avoid the parties that he manages.

Food that gets ruined at the last minute, platters crashing to the ground, drunk guests that need to be escorted out, and hosts asking for dishes that are impossible to serve at buffets (such as steak and chocolate fondant), are all part of a catering manager’s daily life. “This business is very high risk, and not everyone can pull it off,” said Khambata, who has had to sometimes set up 80 LPG cylinders for live cooking stations. “Every wedding has its own nuances, you can’t take anything for granted.” Bhattacharya said that at one wedding at Cooperage Grounds, all the vessels conaining food were checked by sniffer dogs and bomb detectors, to ensure that the site was secure for certain high-profile guests.

The most common problem, say caterers, is that of hosts arguing with them about how many people ate. Many companies have started keeping a couple of employees at the entrance to count the number of people who walk into the event. “We have lost money because of this,” said Bhattacharya. “At one wedding, the hosts insisted that we were charging for 200 extra plates and refused to pay us for them. We pursued them for 60 days, and then we just wrote it off.” This discussion becomes especially tricky, both for hosts and caterers, on days that are considered auspicious, when there are weddings all over the city. With guests mandap-hopping, it becomes impossible to calculate the number of guests who will dine.

However, there is sometimes an unexpected bonus to be reaped from the business of catering. Occasionally, restauranteurs that offer catering services get to use what they learn from the intense experience of managing massive weddings at their establishments. For an event catered by Two One Two, the hostess developed dishes with the restaurant’s chefs. Not one of the items was from the menu. Instead, they included such unique offerings as the unlikely combination of Parmigiano-reggiano and balsamic vinegar in ice cream. The dish worked, and is now available for customers at Two One Two.