I had been catering for many years by the time Macy's asked me to work on their big AIDS Fundraiser. The event was called Passport, billed as the biggest fashion show in the world, held in San Francisco and Los Angeles annually. One year I was hired to provide the celebrity talent "green room" food. The green room is where talent waits until they are brought on stage. At Barker Hanger in Santa Monica, the green rooms were actually "honey wagons" (fancy trailers). When you do an event the size of Passport at an empty airport hanger, it's all about transformation. You build the event. Or in plain English, it's camping; you have to bring everything with you. Imagine the glamour.
The celebrity talent that year was Elizabeth Taylor and Magic Johnson.
Don't be confused, the celebrity talent eats the best at this party. The models, the vendors, the underwriters/sponsors, the volunteers, a weatherman from a tiny local affiliate channel who is thrilled to be invited -- they all pretty much get celery sticks and Costco pinwheel sandwiches. Sticking to the budget in fundraising is everything, as it should be.
In those years there was also a sit-down dinner served to people who bought the expensive tickets to the show, but even that was pretty much what you would expect: Bland food because the underpaid caterer was trying to please a lot of people on a very thin dime. And it's hard to cook fancy schmancy when you are camping! God knows several famous LA caterers tried. It's weird to see a kitchen set up on an active runway. I prayed that the local pilots had all gotten the memo.
When you are feeding celebrities, or working with them, you almost never speak to them directly. You speak to their people. And when it's a big star, their people have people. A handler (another Hollywood term for one responsible for the handling of the starlet, the parrot or the dog, depending on the gig) will call you. In this case it was a VP at Macy's who was very "involved" (translation: annoying) in what he thought necessary for each star's green room. In the case of Elizabeth Taylor, three or four extra people wanted to get into the act. Everyone wanted to wait on Liz. And who could blame them -- I wanted to wait on Miss Taylor. I only wished my mother was still alive so I could tell her.
Like everyone else who is middle-aged (though at my age I'd have to live to be 120 to be truly middle-aged) Elizabeth Taylor has been the world's biggest movie star all my life.
I've seen her through her movies, her marriages, her illnesses, you name it... I always felt like I knew her. I love her. I like her fat, thin, sassy and happy. I love her the most because when my gay friends were dropping like flies in the 1980's and no one cared, she threw her fame, money and power into the public arena and said let's help these people afflicted with AIDS. I worship her honesty and candor. And her spirit! I've been married twice and I'd never be brave enough to do it again, let alone eight times. She's one hell of a woman. And with eight husbands I certainly know why she drank.
I got zero direction on the food. I had asked the handler if there were any requests from Miss Taylor, but he was too busy worrying about himself and trying to look good. I'm sure he couldn't afford those new Gucci loafers he was sporting!
I decided on several trays of fancy finger food. I've fed a lot of stars and very seldom when they are all dressed up in formal wear do they want a big old plate of ribs. My feeling was that several delicious small bites would work.
I made freshly poached Maine lobster salad. Big chunks of diced lobster in a fresh Dijon and lavender mustard. I served the salad on crunchy endive leaves with chopped chives as a garnish. Baked off miniature Beef Wellingtons and served with a creamy horseradish dipping sauce. And the last tray was huge strawberries dipped in dark chocolate and then dipped again in crushed walnuts. I like to cook foods that I like. I cook bold, classic tastes of freshness.
When Miss Taylor arrived she was traveling with an entourage of eleven friends, relatives, youngsters and who knows... it didn't matter, the trailer was full. There was drinking, laughter, a true party spirit. I assigned a waiter to each green room to serve and bus the room for glasses, napkins -- whatever needed to be done. When the trays come back empty and the waiters ask for more, it's a good sign.
Never expecting to talk to Elizabeth Taylor after being introduced months earlier at a pre-production meeting, I walked into the trailer, and there she sat, with a sweet little dog, looking like a queen. I was carrying another tray of strawberries.
I heard a breathy little voice, "Are you the chef?" Oh my God, that would be me. And as sweet as she was pretty, she went on to tell me that the food was delicious, and she loved really good food, and how nice I was to make all of this, and thank you. Elizabeth Taylor made me speechless. Her good manners and kind words made me speechless. I thought of my mother always saying that good manners never go out of style. I stood there stupidly. She went on to tell me that she had never been able to go to the grocery store in her life, because she had always been famous. I told her she hadn't really missed that much. I went to the grocery store almost every day, and Safeway would always be there.
With that, the handler appeared to escort her to the stage. But not before she smiled and said "Good-bye, Chef, and thanks again."
Denise Vivaldo is the author of the Entertaining Encyclopedia, Robert Rose Publishing,
where an edited version of this story appears. She can only imagine the entourage waiting for Miss Taylor in heaven.