It’s 4 p.m., just a few hours before a $90-a-head Washington, D.C. dinner party to be hosted by the French ambassador, and a crisis has occurred. The fresh dill sauce prepared for the lobster appetizer has turned out white, not green as ordered. A waiter is sent to find food coloring but returns empty-handed. There is no alternative: Sauce blanche it is, even if the delicate white lobster medallions will disappear in a colorless sea. Quelle horreur!
Such a crisis may seem trivial, but lobsters—along with veal, crab, oysters, truffles and other delicacies—are bread and butter to Bruce and Jeff Ellis, 39, identical twin brothers who run Washington’s Ridgewells Caterer, Inc. The fact that they take details seriously, and personally, has helped make Ridgewells, which provisions more than 9,000 parties a year, a Cadillac among capital caterers. The twins and their 175 employees have handled everything from a shipboard picnic on the Potomac for Nancy Reagan and her friends to a formal sit-down dinner for 2,300 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “You see history being made at these parties,” says Jeff. As the Washington joke goes, the best way to find the powerful is to follow one of Ridgewells’ purple delivery trucks.
Planning starts with the all-important first step, date selection. “We’re a clearing house of party dates,” says Jeff. “We know of so many parties that people, even nonclients, call here months ahead to find out what’s happening.” Afterward, client and firm spend months working out party minutiae, from menu to color motif.
The party being hosted by the French ambassador, which had been arranged by the French jeweler Cartier, was held in the vast colonnaded hall of the old Pension Building (now the National Building Museum). Still, the French wanted an intime feeling, so Ridgewells seated the 425 guests 12 per table instead of the usual 10 per table. “If we have a really important event here,” says the Corcoran’s Elizabeth Punsalan, “then Ridgewells is the only caterer we would call. Their service is impeccable, and they’re absolutely reliable.”
It’s dawn on the day of the Cartier bash. Ridgewells staffers at the company’s Bethesda, Md. headquarters begin loading vans with tables, china and equipment destined for the shindig. The kitchen staff of 54 begins slicing and stirring a truckload of elegant edibles: one washtubful of South African lobster tails; $350 worth of truffles; 62 $12-a-pound veal loins; 425 servings of Parisienne potato pearls; 60 pounds of snow peas; and 12 cases of fresh asparagus. At the center of the storm is chef Maurice Dufour, formerly of Paul Bocuse’s three-star French restaurant, sighing with relief as fresh radiccio arrives, flown in from Italy for the salad. Dufour also oversees the food preparation for some 50 other events on the same day, not to mention a last-minute order from the White House for 200 fresh-baked cookies.
In their offices the Ellis brothers have been at work since 6:30 a.m. Born just minutes apart, they are a study in synchroneity: They suffer simultaneous headaches, and on separate shopping trips have bought identical neckties. Around noon they head for the kitchen, there to poke fingers into sauces and to sample goodies. Despite mounds of salmon and pâté, the pair opt for a quick lunch of Big Macs.
At the Pension Building, come 6 p.m., salad forks are in place and white wine is cooling in ice tubs. A police dog has sniffed the premises for bombs. Sixty waiters in black tuxes are given marching orders by a platoon leader: “Remember, this is Cartier. Serve smoothly, with reverence.”
The Ellises arrive, fuss with the table seatings, and double-check place cards (sometimes guests switch cards around so they can sit next to bigger VIPs). Once the guests arrive the brothers try to keep a low profile, which isn’t always possible. Once, at a party where Mrs. Gerald Ford was drawn up a driveway in a horse and carriage, Jeff trailed behind to sweep up the horse droppings.
That experience, no doubt, gave Jeff a unique perspective on life in Washington. But it was his 15 years of catering that led him to his anthropomorphic theory of partygoers. “It’s like a zoological park,” says Jeff. “There are the bears who are out there working the crowd for contacts; the giraffes who’ve come to rubberneck the VIPs; the leeches that go from party to party; and the elephants who come just to gorge themselves on food.” The most impressive of all, he says, are “the deer; they are the beautiful people, racy and fast, always in the mainstream. They are out there cautiously gaining points and prestige.”
Tonight the grazing has gone smoothly. By 11, the peach soufflé is but a memory. The Ellises make their exit. Cleanup crews will labor until 3 a.m.; three hours later the cycle starts again. “The catering business is like show business,” sums up Bruce. “When the curtain goes up, our players better be in place and know their lines.” Lights! Camera! Salmon mousse!