- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

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,” said Susan Lacz, chief executive officer of Ridgewells Caterers in Bethesda, which has been catering the presidential balls since 1961.

Think 400 pounds of cheese, 1,000 pounds of beef tenderloin, 10,000 poached shrimp, 25,000 minicookies and 20 pounds of sugar crystals for coffee for a ball with 5,000 guests. Those are just some of the fare 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, said 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, Mr. Rathbun loaded up two 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,” he recalled.

In the days before the ball, Mr. 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 said.

Mr. Rathbun said 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,” he said. “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 waiters 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,” Mr. Rathbun recalled.

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.

It is rare for the president and first lady to actually eat anything at the balls, Ms. Lacz said. “They are too busy dancing and dashing to the next ball. I think they may get sandwiches to go, if they want.”

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