All those politicos duking it out to become the newest resident of the nation’s capital could drive a girl to drink. But candidates take note. As Carol Joynt, the Washington columnist for New York Social Diary, whispered to me recently, “No matter who you are, if you move to D.C. and host a party catered by Susan Gage, you might just have a chance of making it in this town.” The founder of Susan Gage Catering, Susan (pictured above with her husband) has been catering – literally – to Washington’s rich, connected and powerful for the last thirty years. Grab a glass of barrel-aged bourbon – D.C.’s hottest new cocktail trend – and join us as we chat with Susan about everything from serving tea to Prince Charles to whether Republicans or Democrats eat more.
How many events do you cater every year?
Anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500.
How would you describe Washington, D.C.’s entertaining style?
Culturally diverse, high powered and with an understated elegance.
What are three qualities that the best party hosts in D.C. share?
They have a great sense of humor, are thoughtful and are good at connecting people.
A Susan Gage catered event at the Library of Congress. Photo: Rodney Bailey
You have been catering parties in D.C. for more than 30 years. How has entertaining in our nation’s capital changed over the years?
Entertaining in D.C. tends to follow the mood of the country and match the boom or bust of the economy.
What percentage of the parties you cater have an agenda associated with them versus being purely social?
Most social events in D.C. have some connection to an organization, and 80 percent of the parties we do promote a political or business agenda.
It must be daunting for your staff to serve so many powerful people. What do you tell them before each event?
To always be discreet, respect every guest’s privacy and remember that everyone loves thoughtful service.
Susan confers with an associate at her 32,000 square foot warehouse. Photo: Carol Joynt
Now for a fun question: who eats more? Republicans or Democrats?
When you get down to it, all politicians are people and, when you deal with them on a one-on-one basis, they aren’t any different from each other.
What is the most often requested cocktail at parties?
Cocktails tend to be very seasonal and always changing. Vodka was the spirit of choice for years, but more and more people are requesting craft barrel-aged bourbons.
What food trends are popular among those in D.C.?
We get a lot of requests for organic, local and seasonal food. Since D.C. has so many events, and people eat out so much, they like having healthy options.
Susan Gage Catering’s popular mini sirloin burgers
What is your most requested food item?
Our mini sirloin burger hors d’oeuvre.
What was your biggest catering challenge?
The logistics for the many inaugurations we’ve catered is definitely our biggest challenge every four years. Dealing with the security alone takes months of planning.
What is the most unusual catering request you’ve ever received?
A tea for Prince Charles. The English really know how to do proper tea so it was like bringing coal to Newcastle. It was held in the Japanese screen room at the Freer Gallery of Art so it was an English tea in America using a Japanese venue.
The handwritten menu cards for the Thomas Jefferson dinner at Monticello
What do you consider to be your greatest event triumph?
Working with Alice Waters to create an historically authentic Thomas Jefferson dinner at Monticello for 250 guests. It was challenging to serve that many guests while doing everything authentically – cooking over an open fire without electricity and refrigeration.
Who are some of your favorite florists and event planners to work with in D.C.?
The Ociana Group, Allan Woods Flowers and Amaryllis for flowers and Michele Hodges Events, Pineapple Productions and Capital City Events for event planners.
Who are your favorite caterers to work with outside D.C.?
Olivier Cheng in New York and Betty Zlatchin in San Francisco are both wonderful.
The tabletop scene at a summer wedding catered by Susan Gage Catering
What event or party that you haven’t catered would you most like to cater?
The President’s Inaugural Lunch.
What party in history would you most like to go back in time to attend?
Truman Capote’s “Black & White” ball honoring Katherine Graham.
You are known for your attention to detail. What’s the most overlooked party detail?
Lighting. Lots of candles and dimming lights go much further than people think towards making an amazing event.
What items would you recommend party hosts keep in their pantry so they’re always party ready?
Wine or champagne, cheese and other easy snacks.
A picnic catered by Susan Gage
What will be the major food trends this year?
Healthy, seasonal dishes with an emphasis on local vegetables, Middle-Eastern and Asian spices and less of a focus on proteins.
What is your favorite brand of:
a. Dinnerware: Arte Italica Bella Bianca Beaded Stoneware
b. Glassware: Reidel
c. Linens: Sferra linen napkins
d. Serving pieces: Annie Glass
Given that you cater parties for a living, do you enjoy hosting parties when you’re not working? If so, what’s your favorite way to entertain?
Dinner for six or fewer.
What is your favorite dish to prepare when hosting your own dinner parties?
San Francisco Cioppino with homemade sourdough bread. [Download Susan’s recipe here.]
Do you always prepare the food for your own parties or do you bring in other caterers?
I like to prepare the food when I’m entertaining. It brings me back to my roots and gives me a chance to try out new ideas that I can eventually introduce to our clients.
You’re a self-taught chef. What advice would you give someone who loves to cook and wants to start their own catering business?
Start small and offer to do parties for your friends for free. You need to make sure you have everything figured out before you start charging people.
Thanks, Susan, for stopping by and, of course, for keeping those in the country’s power center so well fed and happy. For more information about Susan, visit her site here.
Top photo source: Amy Deputy. All others: Susan Gage Catering unless otherwise noted.