A word of advice for anyone attending the inaugural balls scattered throughout the nation’s capital on the night President-elect Barack Obama takes office — eat before you go.
Washington caterers say it’s no night for haute cuisine and Cinderella-style glamour. More like long lines and finger food.
“It’s just cash bars and cheese cubes. The food is not glamorous at all. It’s all about dancing and celebrating,” says Susan Lacz, CEO at Ridgewells Caterers in Bethesda, Md., which has been catering the balls since 1961.
Think 400 pounds of cheese, 1,000 pounds of beef tenderloin, 10,000 poached shrimp, 25,000 mini cookies and 20 pounds of sugar crystals for coffee for a ball with 5,000 guests. That’s just some of the items Design Cuisine, a Washington-area caterer, has served in the past.
So how do you throw a party for thousands? Kent Rathbun, a Dallas chef, says experience helps, something he lacked in 2001 when he catered two balls running simultaneously with 22,000 people at the Washington Convention Center.
Teamed up with Dallas barbecue chef and caterer Eddie Deen and eager to please, Rathbun loaded up two semi tractor trailers with tons of meat and cases of vegetables.
“It was the most massive food I have ever seen in my entire life. It was insane,” Rathbun says.
In the days before the ball, Rathbun oversaw 150 cooks barbecuing 10,000 pounds of various meats. They cut corn off the cob for a grilled corn and black bean avocado salad that required about 120 cases of avocado.
“We didn’t use anything out of a can. We never slept more than four hours,” he says.
Rathbun says he was so attentive to the quality of the food, he never realized the logistical nightmare that lay before him — from the size of the crowd to the security involved with having the president and first lady attend.
“I would have done it differently had I known,” Rathbun says. “But the people who did get food, who weren’t waiting in massive lines at the food stations, really enjoyed it.”
It took 10 minutes for wait staff to get from one end of the convention center to the other when it was empty. With the place filled with people, restocking food stations took at least 30 minutes.
“It was a war-zone. We couldn’t get the food out fast enough,” Rathbun says.
Then add the complications of security: Every waiter, bartender and chef must go through a background check and get clearance in time for the balls.
The Secret Service supervises food preparation and an agent remains in the kitchen throughout the event. There’s a “sweep” before the ball when they go through everything and screen each worker before they can prepare for the night ahead.
Several of Washington’s large catering companies have been handling balls for decades. And as with the presidency itself, the incumbent knows the drill.
“It’s orchestrated chaos,” says Karen Feketis, director of catering at the Washington Hilton Hotel, which has hosted inaugural balls every election since Nixon. This year it will hold the official Youth Inaugural Ball for people aged 18 to 35.
Food at the balls is traditionally American with slight nods to the incoming president’s tastes.
“Bush was a big meat and potatoes guy. With Obama, maybe it would have a Chicago or Hawaiian feel to it,” says Lacz. “We know he loves pumpkin pie and chili.”
There are only two things one can count on with every official inaugural ball taking place on the night of Jan. 20, says Feketis. There will be a cash bar and food offerings will be minimal. “It’s not a great sit-down dinner,” she says.
Like a marathon, preparation and training for the Inaugural Balls begins months in advance. Kathy Valentine, CEO of Design Cuisine, which has worked the last eight inaugural balls, began recruiting wait staff long before the election, drawing in temporary help from Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia.
“It is not status quo because of all the security and secret service, which is magnified 100 times more than any other presidential visit,” says Feketis. “There have to be sweeps of the building and background checks to a level that we don’t deal with every day.”
Lacz said it is rare for the president and first lady to actually eat anything at the balls.
“They are too busy dancing and dashing to the next ball. I think they may get sandwiches to go if they want,” she says.
In the days leading up the Inauguration, the marathon becomes a sleep-deprived sprint. The caterers are involved in the plethora of other events, including a sit-down candlelight dinner the night before for thousands of supporters and usually attended by the president-elect (where the food is delicious), the inaugural breakfast and lunch, as well as events along the parade route.
For all the stress, it’s hard to pass up a chance to be part of history.
“I would not relish cooking for another 20,000 people, but I would do it again in a New York second,” says Rathbun. “We all learn so much and it’s great to be involved in something like that.”