Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reminiscences of Max & Me Catering. Part VI

When I look back at my tenure with Max & Me Catering there are many amazing high profile events that stand out. There are two major events however that were the most exciting, rewarding and ultimately became career makers. One of them was the Bush Campaign Train trip following the RNC in 2000. After catering the craziest two weeks of all our careers, we had to pack up, load in and be ready to serve 200 members of the traveling international media on a moving train in Pittsburgh about 12 hours after our last event wrapped in Philly. How could we do this? Our operative mantra became "how could we NOT do this?" Figure it out. Create amazing menus. Try and anticipate every potential problem. Put our best people on it. Price it so we wouldn't lose money. Figure out how to return in one piece.

On the road with W. & the late great catering whiz Ariel Alejandro
Here are some of the details and itinerary. We would be serving 4 meals over the 3 days of August 4th to 6th. Friday and Sunday we would be serving heavy hors d'ouevres, and Saturday would feature a brunch and a late lunch. Also, we would have ultra premium bar service available at all times. The motivation for this trip by the Bush Campaign was to win over the international press by wining and dining them. We were selected to do this job by our clients at Union Pacific Railroad who when asked by the campaign for a recommendation they suggested Max & Me due to our somewhat flawless planning and execution of their convention parties. Max and I had spent much of the week at the RNC planning for the train job. The first piece of execution would be for Max and his hand chosen lieutenant, Matt Ivey, to leave our Gardenville kitchens Thursday evening, while our last parties were still going on in Philly, and meet the trains in Cumberland Maryland where they would load on 95% of the products we would be using. While this was going on, back in Philly we were wrapping our last party and I was loading our staff onto a luxury limo bus along with fresh baked goods and some other odds and ends. We headed off to Pittsburgh for the planned Friday noon rendevous with the campaign trains.
Near the base of the Duquense Incline is where our railroad odyssey began
There was a Hyatt Hotel adjacent to the train station in Pittsburgh where we were to meet the trains, and I had reserved rooms for our staff to sleep a few hours and wait for the madness to begin. We arrived around 6 am and there was no way I could sleep, so I walked the whole area rehearsing for our load in and the first catered event which was scheduled for two hours after the train arrival. The train pulled in as I recall about a half hour late, and seeing the train and our load in point for the first time I realized that we were not able to load in on the paved train platform which was accessible by carts, but instead we had to go about 200 yards forward of the platform into an area of loose gravel. The extra added load on time meant that by the time we were on and ready to cook we only had about 90 minutes until service. This was the advantage to bringing our best and brightest along for the ride. No problem. Here's the roll call for the trip. In the kitchen: Max Hansen, Matt Ivey, Michelle Pulaski and Jodi Schad. Front of house was Ariel Alejandro, Liz DeFrancesco and Joanne Catalanotto. On the bar was your truly and Dave (Party Dave) Kelly. Jon Spivak joined us in Chicago as he was running our clean up and "salvage" operation back in Philly. I am sure I am forgetting one or two people that were with us, please correct my omission if you can.
Philadelphia Inquirer article on our railroad exploits. Helped get the ball rolling.

So we load on, serve the first meal, clean up, then began our first time to relax since weeks before the convention started. First we got to enjoy riding through the Midwest and checking out each successive campaign stop. Me and a few other adventuresome ones went forward to an open rail car and checked out the folks lined up along the way to greet the potential president. Eventually I got in big trouble with the Secret Service and Union Pacific security for this and our outdoor time on the moving train came to an end. Dave Kelly thought this was hysterical. I didn't.
This is the type of car that was forward of our storage car. We liked hanging out on it
until the Secret Service  decided we shouldn't be there...
The train set up itself was interesting and here are more details. There were actually two exact train set ups to confuse potential attackers. each had about a dozen rail cars, some were sleeping cars, some were kitchen, storage, but the coolest of all were the dining and lounge cars that had glass domed roofs on the second level. These were all antiques and were leased from private owners. We learned about this whole mode of travel where the owners will contract with a railroad to go from place to place in their amazing rail cars. Very cool. Our kitchen, bar and service set up was in the front of the main train (not the decoy) and the storage area was four cars forward of the kitchen and two cars forward of the bar. Try carrying full 60 pound coolers of food or ice or other supplies down a narrow hallway with the train rocking side to side sometime. By the end of the trip our arms and legs were bruised from all the smashing into the sides while hauling stuff. I learned to do as much transport as possible when we stopped! The candidate and all his entourage were in the three or four cars at the back of the train so as to be near the caboose, as most of the speeches were given off the back.
Not our actual bar car, but it looked somewhat like this.
We never interacted with W, except the one meet and greet photo op. Our guests were the international press covering the campaign, and I remember Candy Crowley, Howard Fineman, Campbell Brown as the ones I had heard of, they were all very nice. The first days itinerary took us through Western PA, Ohio and into Michigan for the final rally of the Friday schedule. From there the press and the campaign entourage departed the train and left us alone to enjoy the leftovers as well as a most necessary sampling of the wines and spirits that we had to "learn" more about in order to help our guests with their beverage decision making. Hurtling through the Michigan cornfields in the observation car, enjoying our successes and getting a bit loaded was a sublime experience. We stopped to change trains and head to our sleeping births where we got plenty of rest before the next days feedings and campaign stops.

Video from C-Span on the train.

Saturday arrived bringing a hectic day of two meals, brunch and lunch and a schedule that took us from Michigan through Indiana and ending in Chicago, where we would spend the night and actually go out to dinner. The days events became a blur of similar mid-western cities and towns. As it was our second day on the road we began to run low and out of certain supplies so I became the guy that would sprint off the train at every stop looking for the nearest c-store or supermarket, head back with my arms full of stuff, and make the train just in time to pull away. That night in Chicago Max & Jon decided to treat the staff at Gene and Georgetti, a classic Italian Steakhouse and a favorite of Jon's from his CBOX trading days in the late '80s. We ordered great wines, and spent way too much money, but our staff most definitely deserved it, as did we. The most amazing thing happened as our meal was ending, a group of about 8 of the media that were on our train emerged from another private dining room and as they recognized us, they stopped and spontaneously broke into applause. I can't really describe the feeling that that produced in myself and the others, and thinking about it now still gives me goosebumps and great pride.
Great food, highly recommended.
We slept in the Chicago train yards that night and the final day had us going from Chicago to St. Louis with only an afternoon cocktail, heavy hors d'ouvres party. Ending at the Gateway to the west was kind of cool as was Union Station and the hotel there. The campaign actually asked us to continue on with them for a California swing, but we had had enough. The next morning Jon and Matt Ivey packed a rental truck with all our gear and drove back. The poor guys broke down in 105 degree temps about an hour outside St. Louis which added over 8 hours to their trip.
Final stop. Finally.
I flew back with the rest of the team, headed off to my vehicle, which was parked at the First Union Center, on my way to 3 weeks at the beaches of LBI with my family. As I turned the key and headed east, the past 3 weeks came flooding back and out of sheer exhaustion and sense of accomplishment I broke down and had a  great cry. The next phase of Max & Me Catering was about to begin, taking the story of the RNC and showing the Philly corporate event world that we were now a big time caterer with capabilities equal to any other. The first step was getting this Philadelphia Inquirer article done. Here is the text from the article, as it is hard to read from the image above.

Max Hansen has had a wide variety of experiences during his career as a caterer and restaurant chef, but until recently, he had never chopped vegetables while traveling at 65 miles per hour.
"I was happy to survive the trip with all my digits intact. We were lucky that nobody got cut," said Hansen, chef-owner of Max & Me Catering in Holicong, Bucks County, after a whirlwind three-day assignment on the Bush-Cheney campaign train that hurtled through Midwestern battleground states on the weekend following the Republican Convention. "The cars, when moving at high rates of speed, would shift totally unexpectedly," Hansen, 40, recalled in a telephone interview. "Pots of water on the stove could only be filled two-thirds full for fear of being scalded at any time. The work got easier as we adapted to the movement, but the crew was beat from working 20-plus-hour days [at the convention] the previous week."

The 13-member Max & Me crew did not cook for the candidates. That was done by another staff, in another equally cramped, swaying kitchen car. Instead, their job was to feed and provide bar service for the print and broadcast media people traveling with the campaign, as well as Secret Service agents, campaign staffers and Union Pacific Railroad employees. They did meet George and Laura Bush and Dick and Lynne Cheney before the tour of duty ended, and Hansen believes that some of their elegant fare was spirited off to the rear of the 16-car train, where the campaigners and their strategists hunkered down between rallies.

Preparing and serving food in a moving train car was just one of the challenges confronting the caterers. The planning, ordering and packing had to be comprehensive, because there was little chance of replenishing items en route. And the planning had to be done fast: Max & Me was hired just three days before the whistle-stop tour began, while it was in the midst of catering large daily and nightly parties for a host of convention groups.

Linens, buffet props, pots and pans, plastic plates and cutlery, and $400 worth of flowers were among the non-food items that Max & Me trucked to the departure point in Cumberland, Md., a six-hour drive from Bucks County. Perishables were packed into 30 48-quart coolers. Bags of ice were crucial, because there would be limited refrigerator space. Hansen and chef Matt Ivey arrived at the train platform at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night expecting to find a forklift to help get their cargo aboard. There wasn't one. So they lugged it all themselves, though not until after everything had been inspected three times by Secret Service agents and a quartet of bomb-sniffing dogs.
Another logistical problem soon became apparent: The baggage car designated for their props and nonperishables was separated from the kitchen and dining car by four other cars, each 100 feet long, reserved for the working press corps. Cases of beer and bottled water, among other things, would have to be carried down the 2-foot-wide aisle while the carrier dodged cameras and computers, reporters and producers.

"A big part of what a caterer does is set-up and breakdown - basically transporting a party to someplace else," said Harry Spivak, 41, general manager of Max & Me. "We knew the transportation issues within the train were going to be difficult." Spivak, the beverage manager for this trip, found that when beverage cases needed to be schlepped from storage to the bar car, it was easier to wait until the train stopped, unload them onto the platform, use a hand truck to haul them the necessary distance, then reload them onto the train.

The kitchen space looked workable. Tiny but extremely efficient, it boasted a six-burner electric oven with an overhead broiler, an under-counter steamer-cooker, a dishwasher, two sinks, a large reach-in cooler and freezer, and an adjacent pantry with storage space, counter space and additional refrigeration. In addition to Hansen, the Max & Me crew included five other chefs, a pastry chef, two managers, a bartender, and three service captains.

Other staffers, who had stayed behind in Philadelphia to finish up the convention work, met the train the next day in Pittsburgh. They brought pastries, more linens, and the company's best serving bowls and platters, which had still been in use until the very last convention function. Spivak had his beverage order in tow: 15 cases of beer, 21 cases of still and sparkling bottled water, 22 cases of sodas, eight cases of juices, plus California wines and high-end liquor. Exhaustive security checks prevented the group from boarding until just two hours before they were scheduled to begin serving. Working with a budget of $40 per head per meal, Max & Me provided substantial afternoon buffets of "heavy hors d'oeuvres" on Friday and Sunday, plus brunch and lunch on Saturday.
The company did not have to provide dinner, because the candidates and press left the train each evening and flew ahead to the next day's first stop, while the train rolled along and caught up with them. There wasn't much time to relax: the prep work was done for the next day's meals during these hours.

The press corps and campaign support staff, accustomed to a diet of grab-and-go doughnuts, sandwiches and bad coffee, were wowed by beautifully draped tables laden with smoked salmon napoleons with chive creme fraiche and sevruga caviar, herb-roasted lollipop lamb chops with a sweet garlic white bean sauce, mini Maine lobster rolls on toasted New England-style hot dog rolls, jumbo lump Maryland crabcakes with Creole sauce, platters of Jersey tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil oil, and New Orleans barbecued shrimp. At brunch, there were Eggs Benedict topped with smoked salmon and chive hollandaise on toasted brioche, petite filets with a wild mushroom sauce, freshly baked scones, and an assortment of danish and sticky buns from South Philadelphia's Termini Bros. Pastry.

The whistle-stop tour covered more than 400 miles, passing rallies as sparse as a few dozen people in Wampum, Pa., to one with more than 7,000 in Schoolcraft, Mich. Flag-waving party loyalists made up most of the crowds, but in Odell, Ill., a woman mooned the train, flashing the message "Raise min. wage" on her bare bottom. "When we asked people to get behind [George W.] Bush, this is not exactly what we had in mind," campaign communications director Karen Hughes told reporters.
Spivak, the self-appointed "convenience store commando," sprinted off to buy crunchy bar snacks and more bottled water during some stops. The train operators arranged for ice to be delivered to the caterers every day, so there was very little spoilage.

In St. Louis, the train's last stop, the gear was loaded onto a rental truck and driven back to Bucks County by Jon Spivak, co-owner of Max & Me, and one of the chefs, Michele Pulaski. The rest of the crew flew home. They'd been asked to stay on for the second three-day leg of whistle-stops - this one in California, Oregon and Washington, but the chefs and servers were exhausted.

Having met the candidate and heard his message, is Hansen ready to cast a Bush vote?
"I can't. I've been a Democrat all my life," he said.

Spivak, also a Democrat, may have been persuaded.
"I've never voted Republican in my life before, but I think I might this time," he said. "We've been promised some inaugural parties. It's a true case of voting your pocketbook, if there ever was one."

Friday and Sunday
Hors d'Oeuvres
Puff Pastry Crisps with Smoked Salmon, Chive Cream and Sevruga Caviar
Smoked Salmon Canapes on Black Bread with Fresh Dill
Herb-Roasted Lollipop Lamb Chops with Sweet Garlic White Bean Sauce
Seared Lamb Loin on Croutons with Spicy Tomato Jam and Fried Shallots
Mini Maine Lobster Rolls on Toasted New England-style Hot Dog Rolls
Jumbo Lump Maryland Crabcakes with Creole Mustard Tartar Sauce
Grilled Tuna Squares with Tapenade
Pepper-Seared Filet Mignon on Croutons with Arugula and Parmesan
Mini Corn and Poblano Pepper Muffins with Shredded Barbecued Pork
Wild Mushroom Tartlets with Creme Fraiche and Fresh Chervil
Seared Foie Gras on Croustades with Kippered Cranberries
Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits with Dijon Chicken Salad
Mini Corned Beef Reuben Sandwiches
Chilled Jumbo Shrimp with Spicy Cocktail Sauce
Seared Jumbo Shrimp Skewers with Mustard Sauce
Bruschetta with Jersey Tomatoes, Basil and Garlic
Russian Potato Chips with Creme Fraiche and Sevruga Caviar
Herbed Cheese Puffs with a Roasted Garlic Goat Cheese Filling
Display of Cheeses, Fruits and Vegetables with Dips, Crackers and Breads

Saturday Breakfast Buffet
Eggs Benedict on Toasted Brioche with Smoked Salmon, Dill Hollandaise
Omelette with Alderfer's Ham, Peppers, Onions and Jalapeno Jack Cheese
Scrambled Eggs with Spinach and St. Andre Cheese in a Tart Shell
Smoked Fish Platter (including Smoked Salmon, Sturgeon and Whitefish, Bagels, Black Bread, Cream Cheese, Jersey Tomatoes, Onions and Capers)
Petit Seared Filet Mignon with Wild Mushroom Sauce
Martin's Breakfast Sausage, Kuntsler Bacon and Kuntsler Turkey and Apple Sausage
Granola with Yogurt, Honey and Fresh Berries
Roasted Crispy Hash Browns with Poblano Peppers and Caramelized Onions
Gratin of Yukon Gold potatoes with Leeks and Boursin
Fresh Fruits and Berries
Scones, Fruit Muffins, Cinnamon Buns, Mini Danish

Saturday Lunch
Italian Antipasto Display
New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp with Black Pepper, Herbs and Sweet Butter
Grilled Sushi-Grade Tuna Steaks with Mango-Pineapple Salsa
Grilled N.Y. Strip Steaks with Ancho Chile-Porcini Mushroom Sauce
Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Artichoke Heart-Creole Mustard Cream Sauce
Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes with Caramelized Pearl Onions and Shiitakes
Wild Rice Pilaf with Sundried Cranberries and Toasted Pecans
Grilled Asparagus, Portobello Mushrooms, Peppers and Onions
Jersey Tomatoes with Fresh Mozzarella and Basil Oil
Sauteed Haricots Verts with Toasted Sesame Seeds

California Baby Greens with Mustard Vinaigrette

Quite a nice story, huh? I've got a hunch that the stories that will come out of the DNC in Philly next year will be at least as good as this one. I can't wait. Stay tuned.


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