Small Is the New Big (How a Wedding Caterer Survives Corona)
All my life, I’ve yearned for the big things.
When I was a kid, adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Especially teachers. That seemed to be the chosen greeting for grammar school teachers, “and what do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer for many years was the same, “I want to be president of the United States!” Back then, I believed, as many of us did, that president of the United States was a job for which you needed qualifications and experience. I figured I’d start with local politics and work my way up. I’d go for mayor of our little New Jersey town first.
When I was a tween, I’d watch the Academy Awards with my family and dream that it was me winning the Oscar for my brilliant acting. I’d acted a teeny bit in community theater. I was anything but brilliant, but that didn’t keep me from dreaming big. A few years later, after the writing bug bit, I dreamed of winning an Oscar as a writer for best original screen play. When I started writing my memoir, I dreamed it would be a New York Times bestseller, adapted for the screen and then win the Oscar for best picture.
When I decided to cook for a living, I did time for a year in culinary jail, working low-paying, supremely crappy internship jobs while I learned. As the lowest on the rung in a big commercial kitchen, I got to do delightful things like skewering 3,000 shish-kabobs and forming 3,000 crab cakes. I dreamed of snagging the job of the head chef, who mostly seemed to sit with his feet on his desk, drinking whiskey and looking over order forms. I managed to skip over many years of low-paying servitude and lied my way into a chef job at a small catering company. I spent three years as head chef hiring sous chefs to work under me who actually knew how to cook and then learning from them. I would look at the petite, bouncy woman who owned the company and seemed to be perpetually out having cocktails with friends. Yes. I could be the owner, not the employee, of a catering company.
When I opened my own very small catering company, I shared commercial kitchens with other companies. I cooked this way for well over than a decade while my small business grew. I dreamed of having my own super swank kitchen with all the perks the shared kitchens did not have. Air conditioning was on the top of the list.
Sixteen years ago, when I came upon a supremely dilapidated out-of-business pizza joint that had been vacant for years, I heard the Oscar Goldman voiceover from The Six Million Dollar Man in my head. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.” It took a year of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at long last, my beautiful Shangri-La kitchen was ready to fly.
From the moment I signed that lease, the first 25 weddings I catered a year were just to pay the overhead. Luckily, business was booming. We struggled to get through the 2008 economic dive and Hurricane Sandy. Unlike corporate caterers whose budgets can rely on the stock market, weddings continue in down economies. The budgets were lower, but the weddings marched on.
Over the years, as I’ve adjusted to how expensive it was to bring in kitchen staff and pay for food and fuel, I realized that just to open my gate, I had to establish a food minimum. Gone were the days I’d travel to Jersey to cater dinner parties for four people. We were catering elaborate affairs for 200.
When it came to catering, my mantra was “Bigger is better.”
In March 2020, after Corona swept over life as we knew it, the CDC made the announcement barring gatherings larger than 50. I knew we were sunk. Our 2020 wedding season evaporated overnight. We didn’t have a single event booked that was smaller than 100 guests. That’s when the unsolicited advice started pouring in.
“Why don’t you do deliveries like the restaurants are doing?”
Factoring in my food and labor cost, I’d have to charge about $50 for an order of pasta. Taking on an entire new profession as a take-out joint was not an option. There was no way for us to compete with the thousands of eateries willing to make pasta for a whole lot less than the 50 bucks it would cost me.
The only way forward was to keep with who I am, and simply think small. Thinking small goes against my DNA. I’m an Oscar-winning, former president of the United States, for crying out loud! But to push through and keep my company alive, I’d have to see small as the new big.
I’d have to come up with a name for my mini catering venture. My company is called The Raging Skillet. I decided to call our new tiny dining experience “Mini Skillet.” First step was a gorgeous eblast to all my favorite friends, clients and followers.
Almost immediately, two gay male couples whose weddings I catered years ago wrote back. One of my grooms asked if I could cater their anniversary dinner for just the two of them.” Another of my grooms asked, “Could I cater a special birthday dinner with 8 guests?” Lordy. I love my gay boys. When the going gets tough, they are still up for a fabulous dinner. Then came an email from a fantastic party planner who I’ve worked with for years. Could I cater her birthday party in her Brooklyn apartment? Hell yes! Tiny dinners mean tiny budgets. There would be no waiter, no dishwasher and no prep cooks. I couldn’t bring anyone to help me except my sous chef Glory. Trust me, Glory lives up to her name.
We prepared a beautiful tasting supper of mini plates: Moroccan tomato soup with zaatar croutons, heirloom tomato, burrata and basil salad, black cod ceviche in blood orange, jalapeno and lime with pearl onions, “Pasta Rustico” with oven dried grape tomatoes, grilled Creole shrimp, Korean barbecue beef with cucumber mint salad, a palate cleanser of grilled peaches with balsamic glaze and the finale, sea salt and caramel ice cream with pretzel garnish. I don’t think I ever put so much love into a meal. Just beautiful.
My birthday boys wanted to have an amazing meal outside in a park, so I prepared a picnic menu. Grilled Santa Fe chicken, black bean and barbecued corn salad, rustic pasta with oven dried tomato and fresh basil, churrasco Portobello steak with chimichurri rojo, Rice Krispy tahini treats and yummy chocolate chip cookies, plus a large gourmet cheese display of triple-cream, savory and farm-house cheeses. I threw in a trashy favorite, peanut butter and bacon tea sandwiches. We packed up everything to go. After years of cooking for hundreds of people, I simply do not know how to cook for 8. I sent them off with enough food to feed Pittsburgh. They were thrilled, of course. Everyone enjoyed the picnic and then took home lots and lots of leftovers.
The food and love for our first week of Mini Skillet was overflowing, but alas not the money. When I added up my expenses, my profit was less than I would have paid my dishwasher if I’d hired her. But at least there was a profit. It was a beginning.
In 32 years, I don’t think I’ve ever prepared better food. Even with budgets 100 times higher.
In the last two decades I’d been so busy selling and running my business, I had to delegate a lot of the cooking to my chefs. Now, I have the time and the mental clarity to truly throw myself into it; a little more toasted coriander to the tomato soup; a bit more garlic in the Korean beef marinade, sprinkled with apple smoked sea salt and imagination.
So what’s the moral of this story? Oy vey. Who has times for morals in this day and age? We’re too busy trying to stay alive and relatively sane. (I said relatively.)
Losing a year of business has been painful, scary and surreal. It’s also been humbling. But I find a layer of myself has peeled away. Leaving something fresh and alive underneath.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the first few years I was cooking. I was giddy with excitement every time I learned how to make something new. I was open to the all the possibilities of food; where it came from, how to prepare it, how to cook it, how to serve it. I felt like a wide-eyed kid entering the first grade.
My eyes are wide again. Not sure how long I’ve been sleeping. But I am awake now.
And for the record, pretzels are fabulous with sea salt and caramel ice cream.
Rossi (aka Chef Rossi)
Rossi has written for The Daily News, The New York Post, Time Out New York and Mcsweeney’s. She is the writer of the “Eat Me” column for Bust magazine, hosts a hit radio show on WOMR in Cape Cod called “Bite This,” has been featured on “The Food Network” and “NPR” and is a popular blogger for “The Huffington Post.”
She is the owner and executive chef of “The Raging Skillet,” a cutting-edge catering company known for breaking all the rules.
In 2015 Rossi’s first memoir; The Raging Skillet/The True Life Story of Chef Rossi was published to rave reviews. “The Raging Skillet” was adapted for the stage in 2017 and has been touring the country ever since.
Rossi has just completed her second memoir “Queen of the Jews.”
She has written two full length plays, a bounty of short plays and has just completed her one-woman stage adaptation of “Queen of the Jews.”
In 2020 in answer to the Covid 19 Pandemic, Rossi created the podcast Raging and Eating. https://anchor.fm/chefrossi. It can be heard on Itunes and Spotify.