White’s staffers are told the customer is always right—and to ignore passes
His blue-gray eyes roll toward the ceiling, but caterer Donald Bruce White’s telephone voice is unfailingly polite. “Could you just tell me,” he finally sighs, “if anything went right last night?”
White is grateful that such complaints are rare. “Thank God,” he says, “that for every call like that—the nuts and the coatrack arrived late—there are plenty of nice, satisfied customers.” Among them: First Ladies Jacqueline Onassis, Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter, philanthropist Mary Lasker, socialite C.Z. Guest and actress Dina Merrill. Not to mention the scores of corporate clients like Norton Simon, Inc., Lord & Taylor and Monsanto that account for most of White’s $750,000-a-year business.
Clients such as Jackie (“always gracious, no more than 40 guests and very simple food”) and sister Lee (“lunch for three almost every Saturday at her home”) have opened the doors to Manhattan’s most exclusive homes, White concedes. Understandably reluctant to gossip about his customers—”It would ruin me”—White prefers to discuss their tastes. “The trend is toward simpler food,” he says, “fewer sauces, less beef. Veal and chicken are the most popular entrées. You’d be surprised how much fried chicken I serve.” As for liquor: “There’s much less heavy booze. Half my clients drink white wine. But the idea that people have given up rich desserts is ridiculous. Everyone wants one.”
A sign of White’s success is a newly renovated twin townhouse in New York’s East 60s, where he supervises a full-time staff of 28—14 of whom cook—and a free-lance platoon of waiters, mostly young actors and actresses. He has more orders than he can fill. White personally handles every important client, making suggestions as to menu and staff. He admits to his own idiosyncrasies: No salad course because “it keeps people at the table too long.” No choices for the guests because “for that you go to a restaurant.” And no more crepes, once his specialty. “That was in my show-off period,” he grins. “I flambéed everything in sight.” White now worries about overexposure. “I see many of the same people at the same parties,” he says. “I have to stay innovative.”
At 52, White has the boyish look of the actor he once was. He was born and grew up in Brooklyn, where his mother ran a nursing home. “Good food was important,” he concedes, “but salt was considered an exotic spice. I didn’t really learn to cook until I left Brooklyn and discovered seasonings.”
White at the age of 18 headed straight for Manhattan and the theater, where he survived for 14 years in such hits as Life with Father and Kiss and Tell. “Then,” says White candidly, “I got too old for juvenile roles and jobs weren’t too frequent. All I could do was cook.” He converted a tiny First Avenue vegetable store into a casserole caterer called Telephone Chef, which provided inexpensive dinners on short notice.
Then, in 1963, he was asked to prepare dinner for the 1,400 who attended Manhattan’s Winter Antiques Show. “That and a few clients like Mollie Parnis and business took off,” says White. “From Mollie came Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, the Hal Princes. I still can’t believe how it happened.”
White credits his success to an attention to detail and to flexibility. “There is nothing that can faze me now,” he declares. “Nothing. Once Woody Allen gave a New Year’s Eve party for a thousand people. At 5 a.m. I was still there—cooking scrambled eggs. The waiters were on double time but Allen didn’t care what it cost.”
The chain-smoking White wears a perpetually harried expression as he oversees 10 dinner parties a day, year-round. “The client is always right,” he says. “If they want finger bowls or white gloves, that’s what they get.” That philosophy extends to White’s female staffers, who are instructed to ignore the occasional drunken pass. Still, there are a few things he won’t do—”like serve pistachio ice cream for dessert. Can you imagine?”