Hosted by the Women's Committee of the famed Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the annual Corcoran Ball offers its guests — 1,000-plus invited museum donors — a rare chance to dine and dance among treasured artworks. With its grandeur, complicated decor scheme and service challenges, it also offers Washington's Occasions Caterers — the event's caterer for six years running — the chance to demonstrate its formidable skills to both current and potential clients. But that kind of showcase opportunity doesn't come without a cost. “There are a lot of restrictions,” notes Occasions director of sales Raz Nielsen. “And some of them aren't easy to understand.”
MIND THE MASTERPIECES
As in years past, many of the restrictions for producing the March ball hinged on protecting the precious paintings and other works of art in the Corcoran's collection.
“This is an unusual event,” Nielsen says. “Usually there are only two spaces at the Corcoran that [clients] are allowed to use for events. But for the ball, they allow us to set up tables in the galleries.” In order to ensure that the unusual setup passed muster, Nielsen and his team worked closely with not just the Women's Committee but also the gallery's curatorial staff to make decisions about the layout.
“It was a balancing act with the curators,” Nielsen explains. In anticipation of guests sipping red wine and waiters zipping around holding aloft plates of hot food during the French-service dinner, “They really did have to change their exhibits to accommodate the event,” he says.
Other restrictions included the demand that enclosed votives rather than tapers provide candlelight — not because of the risk of fire but because of the potential for soot. While Nielsen admits he wasn't wholly convinced that long tapers would produce more soot than their lower profile candle cousins, he says he was more than willing to defer to the curators on the point. “In the end,” he explains, “we're as interested in protecting the art as they are.”
HALL IN LINE
Working in the gallery space wasn't the only obstacle for Occasions — the catering firm's staff faced a tight squeeze on kitchen space. The crew had to make do with the loss of one of the three temporary kitchen spaces it had used in years past. With the former kitchen site recently transformed into a library, Occasions was consigned to a narrow hallway that had to be sealed off from a dining space with pipe and drape.
Getting food from galleys to galleries was no simple task, either. With each of the 13 separate event areas featuring different palettes, linen, floral and decor schemes, making sure that the right plates reached their designated tables was a top priority.
To aid in the complex choreography, Occasions implemented a system of discreet, colored lapel pins affixed to servers' tuxedos. The colored pins corresponded to color schemes in various gallery areas, providing “an easy way for a supervisor to visually verify that the waiters were each picking up the correct china,” Nielsen explains.
Guests making their way through the Corcoran were aided in their efforts by a two-hour cocktail reception — double the cocktail hour at typical dinner events, Nielsen says. The extra time was necessary, though, for taking in the breadth of design schemes in the various galleries, which included everything from contemporary stripes and polka dots to floral-embroidered silk and cherry blossom branches amid a palette of coral and turquoise.
Having worked on the Corcoran Ball for the past six years — and tapped to handle the event again in 2008 — Occasions recognizes the marketing value of the vaunted gala. “It's great exposure,” Nielsen notes.
But the ball itself isn't the only exposure Occasions enjoys. For the past three years, “We have been trusted to the point where we are allowed to use the setup for this event as a showcase for clients,” Nielsen says. That means the catering firm can use the hours before guest arrivals to take its top clients on a tour of the galleries.
And while the 2007 tour group didn't get to sample the Corcoran Ball's menu, the visitors did enjoy some sumptuous visual treats: “We show our clients all these phenomenal looks,” Nielsen says. “This is not an event we make money on, but the [tour] gives value to us.”
Occasions Caterers 5458 Third St. N.E., Washington, DC 20011; 202/546-7400; www.occasionscaterers.com.
Napoleon of Crab and Green Tomato with Spring Salad
Shiraz-marinated Loin of Beef with Alpine Pepperberries
Early Spring Vegetable Saute with a White Wine Veloute
Fingerling Potatoes with Toasted Mustard Seeds
Marquise of Extra Dark Chocolate with a Carpaccio of Spring Fruits
Jack H. Lucky Floral Design
Corcoran Gallery of Art