by Amy Tarr
job in food catering may seem like a standard alternative
to restaurant kitchen work. But in our humble opinion,
it holds its own as a Cool Career, especially if you’re
David Ziff and Alan Bell, partners in David Ziff Cooking,
Inc. - one of New York City’s top catering companies.
David mans the kitchen; Alan pretty much takes care
of everything else. They have catered over 7,000 events,
including cocktail parties, buffets and seated dinners
for all occasions and number of guests. Their prestigious
client roster ranges from high-profile New Yorkers
like Tom Wolfe to corporate clients like Goldman Sachs,
to lofty non-profit organizations like the New York
City Opera. In the interview below, David answers
some questions about getting into the catering business
and what it takes to be successful.
Amy Tarr: For
people embarking on a career in food, what are the
benefits of catering as opposed to joining the kitchen
crew of a restaurant?
David Ziff: I do
not have a restaurant background, so it is hard to
answer. In catering there seem to be very busy and
very slow times, so during the slow times there is
time to spend learning skills and creating familiarity
with routine and recipes without too much pressure.
I like to start new employees during that phase of
work. In a medium-sized firm such as ours, an employee
gets to do a wide range of tasks depending on level
of skill, which I think contrasts well with what I
hear is the typical restaurant experience. I think
it might be more personal and less sink-or-swim in
AT: Is culinary
school training required to be successful in catering?
that I never went to culinary school, I would have
to say no. I do find that general skill levels and
ability to follow orders are something that a lot
of culinary graduates seem to have. But I have had
great employees without that background who, through
desire and perseverance, have been terrific.
AT: What particular skills, talents,
and personality traits are helpful in your job?
got to be heads-up in general. Good knife skills,
neatness, ability to follow instructions, ability
to think for yourself, ability to ask questions when
necessary, ability to get along with people. Basically
good life skills.
is the most satisfying part of your job? What about
the most difficult?
DZ: The satisfying
part includes coming up with good recipes and the
vision of me looking out at a sea of people eating
my food and having a good time. The most difficult
is making sure those things happen and dealing with
the times when there is not enough work to keep us
humming along. We tend to do our best work when it’s
AT: What advice
would you give someone wanting to enter this field?
DZ: Just start
doing it. If you can’t afford to go to school,
just get a job with a caterer. Apply just before busy
season, and work your butt off. Everyone wants a really
hard worker who is willing to spend whatever time
is necessary on the job.
AT: What was
your all-time favorite party? Why?
DZ: Many years ago
we did a party for A Chorus Line (Party # 806) when
it became the longest running show on Broadway. We
took over two theaters (one for prep) and fed a thousand
people. The bars had tons of waiters dressed up like
Chorus Line people. The food was great and plentiful,
and the joy in the air was magic.
AT: What new
trends are you seeing in the industry?
DZ: There is more
of an organic orientation, more influences from Asia,
and maybe a bit more informality – all of which
are great, as far as I’m concerned.
AT: I read that
you don’t make clients sign contracts. Have
you ever gotten burned?
DZ: It is our policy,
and we have never gotten burned. And I’m a lawyer,
so go figure it.
AT: You have
been at this for more than 25 years now. What are
your tips for running a successful catering business?
DZ: Love what you
do and spend all of your time doing it – at
least for the first ten years.
AT: How do you distinguish yourself
in this crowded industry, especially in New York?
DZ: I don’t
know. We just do what we do, the best that we can,
and wait for people to call.