“We’re going to do a wall of glass panes with beehives in it,” explains Los Angeles–based caterer Kathleen Schaffer of a culinary spectacle she has recently pitched to a client. “So the bees are working behind this wall of glass and on the table in front of it there will be all these different versions of honey, like honey-soaked cheese and honey-glazed ribs and chicken and waffles with honey, and people are eating this honey while the bees are making it. I was like, ‘It’s going to be really cool!’ and the client was like, ‘Yes!’ and then they signed a contract. Everything’s good and then I had to turn around and wonder, ‘How are we going to get honey hives?!” She laughs.
“So now we’re calling around to different beekeepers to have them come do this installation. We do stuff like that a lot,” she says, referring to her over-the-top ideas that are often easier said than done. “I think a lot of clients come to us for that kind of creative input.”
Schaffer’s artistic flair is made obvious by the art hanging in the offices of her Pico Boulevard catering kitchen. An entire wall is covered by a black-and-white mural by Schaffer’s friend, artist Bisco Smith. Schaffer studied fine arts and art history at New York University.
“When I was trying to have some sort of career in art, I quickly realized that I couldn’t be a starving artist because I like to eat and I like food. It just kind of made sense as an extension of that kind of creative process to channel that energy into food and events,” she says.
It’s this double-header that has made Schaffer one of the more popular caterers working for Hollywood’s elite. “They come to us to help contribute ideas. Our approach is really from design and it’s really integrated with the food, but my husband and I are both chefs, so that’s our background.
“You get to the point where you’re just kind of jaded about it,” she says of the extremely extravagant and over-the-top events she’s witnessed over the years. And when it comes to the celebrities themselves, she’s seen it all. That said, her entire staff is often required to sign NDAs and check their phones at the valet, leaving much of what goes on behind the scenes at these parties to the imagination.
“You’re standing there and there are 300 guests and every person is famous. And that’s kind of amazing but there’s nothing you can do it about it,” she laughs.
“I don’t get starstruck. But at the premiere for The Handmaid’s Tale,” Jon Hamm arrived, presumably to support his Mad Men co-star Elisabeth Moss. “We just got giddy. I have to tell you, he’s dreamy.
“Then there’s other moments when David Beckham turns to you and says, ‘Your food is lovely!’ My husband was like, ‘He’s not interested in you.’”
Before becoming a caterer to the stars, Schaffer worked in several restaurants in New York City, launched a successful high-end lunch business that catered to fashion photographers, and eventually worked her way up to executive chef positions in restaurants and catering companies.
“I was executive chef at a resort in the Caribbean, which, you know, is just an excuse to move to the West Indies. Which was awesome.”
Schaffer met her husband and business partner, Charlie Schaffer, in New York in 2004 while they were working as cooks at the Republican National Convention. Charlie, a Culinary Institute of America alum, has worked with Alain Ducasse, Pedro Subijana and Lidia Bastianich and served as executive chef for Patina Group.
“It was under duress that we met,” Schaffer says. “We always tell people that was the only good thing that came out of that convention. It’s just so ridiculous. We both had friends who were being arrested outside (for protesting).”
“And then, by 2004 and the convention and how the election went, I was like, 'I have to get out of here. I’ve had it!' And we moved West. We’ve been here since 2005.”
In 2008, right as the economy began to tank, the Schaffers founded their catering company, Schaffer.
“Everything changed and people became a little more aware about food and what they liked, and clients also got more sort of restrictive in terms of budgets,” she says.
“Companies still had marketing budgets that they had to use. But they were much more conservative about how they spent money. I think probably because they didn’t want their shareholders or their investors and guests to think they were being too extravagant,” Schaffer says of the vastly different culture of event catering in Los Angeles in the late aughts compared to what she had witnessed in New York in the ’90s.
“We would do events where there was no discussion of money,” she says of the million-dollar-plus events she catered in New York. She recalls a time, setting up pounds of Beluga caviar on an ice bar, held up by two life-sized carved-ice polar bears, that she realized the hired musicians warming up behind her were the entire New York Philharmonic Orchestra. At another event, 500 guests were served intricately painted teapots that had been made of out of sugar, inside of which a perfect little dessert had been placed.
“You could eat the teapot! And that was just dessert. It was stuff like that all the time.”
Here in L.A., decades later, “People are a lot more casual. Service is more casual,” she explains. And one of the most challenging aspects of modern-day catering is the influencer effect.
“A lot of clients will see something on Instagram or they’ll see something on Pinterest and they’ll want us to do a sort of variation of an idea they saw.” Sadly for Schaffer, this sometimes means requests for rainbow bagels and unicorn cakes.
“They have a lot of power. All the companies, all the major lifestyle brands and fashion brands are all catering to influencers. It’s a completely different market. So every company we work for, tech, gaming, lifestyle brands, Nike, Adidas, Activision, Facebook, YouTube, everybody really values the influencer. So many of the events are geared toward their opinions and their participation.”
But the Schaffers approach it with an open mind. “I’ve seen a lot in the business in 25, almost 30 years,” she says. “You can adapt to it, you can participate or you can just kind of stay stagnant and die. You have to constantly evolve and change and participate.”
A big part of participating in the Hollywood catering scene today means accommodating special requests and having vegan, gluten-free and raw-food options.
“We get a lot of that. And then the food isn’t touched. Because they’re not there to eat. I mean think about it. Those women do not look that way because they eat everywhere they go.”
She mentions the exception of a recent party at a celebrity's house in the Hollywood Hills where the host provided bowls full of marijuana joints. “I was like, 'I like this guy! He’s generous!’ And everybody ate.”
When it comes to specific requests from the rich and famous, Schaffer believes that the A-listers are the most easygoing and most likely to drive themselves to events, whereas B-listers tend to be more high-maintenance and have handlers. She mentions A-listers like David Beckham just showing up on a motorcycle and a “very nice” Emma Stone leaving through the kitchen the other night. “Most of them are nice. But you know the super B-list, you’re like, 'All right, simmer down.'
“We get their riders, which is hilarious. The riders aren’t necessarily directives from the celebrity themselves. It is what their sycophantic agent or manager believes that they want. They love to stir it up into this frenzy of, like, 'Now, she only eats this!' and 'He wants steamed brown rice and this particular type of chicken.' But I believe a lot of that is verbal and not based in any sort of fact. Because by and large most of the super, super A-listers aren’t like that. They’re not high-maintenance.”
In terms of what exactly is on those riders, Schaffer mentions that since a lot of celebrities have sponsorship deals, they can publicly drink only certain brands of water or types of vodka.
“You’re just privy to all of the personal details of people. Like if they’re sober and not having wine or alcohol served to them,” the Schaffers find that out beforehand so they're sure not to ask.
“We’ll be doing something for athletes, and their wives will come up to the bar and say, 'Please don’t over-serve him!'”
And, according to Schaffer, celebrities tend to frequent the kitchen either to exit the event without fuss or to eat where they won't be seen.”They show up and they always leave through the kitchen. It’s amazing how many times I’ve been brushed up against by, like, Jennifer Aniston or Reese Witherspoon.
“Nicolette Sheridan one time was standing in the kitchen and eating while the cooks were trying to put hors d'oeuvres on a tray. She was sampling it. She was like, 'Oh! What is that?' She was really nice.
“I don’t know if Kevin Hart likes chicken wings. We were just told he needed baked chicken wings in his dressing room and I don’t know if anybody touched them. And we were like, 'OK.' And he was super nice. He drove himself. He’s really nice and funny. Snoop was at that party. There was like a cloud around him.”
When asked what sets Schaffer apart from the myriad other high-end catering options in town, the answer is simple. “We don’t put our ego in front of anything.”