I once got a taste of what it takes to cater the Oscars. Six years ago, I helped pastry chef Sherry Yard — who again will be making the desserts for this year’s Governors Ball after the March 7 Academy Awards ceremony — churn out desserts for 1,800 people. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. Here’s what I remember:
Oscars’ behind-the-scenes army gathers
It’s the Sunday of the Academy Awards in 2004, and I’m winding my way through Hollywood, trying to get to the Kodak Center by 2 p.m. to help Sherry Yard, Wolfgang Puck’s executive pastry chef, prepare desserts for 1,800 people. The streets are closed for several blocks in all directions; fans are already gathering to watch movie stars walk down the red carpet on their way into the theatre. But I have my parking credential and my badge, and barricades magically open up for me as I drive slowly along Hollywood Boulevard. I find a parking place on the second level of the facility, where hordes of red-vested parking attendants are already at their stations. Other armies also are on the march: black-uniformed ushers, security guards and wait staff.
Wolfgang Puck has catered the Governors Ball, the elegant dinner party that follows the Oscars, for years. (His catering facility is only an escalator away from the ceremony.) It’s Sherry’s job to create and produce a dessert that incorporates a pastry representation of the Oscar statuette. Her design for 2004 is a multilayered, flourless chocolate cake filled with hazelnut cream and topped with shattered croquant (hard caramel that has been ground to coarse dust). It is accompanied by coffee ice cream and very thin Oscar-shaped tuiles. The cakes are hidden inside edible round boxes painted Louis-XIV blue with gold borders and fleurs-de-lis, the ice cream set into ruffles on the box top.
I make my way up to the fifth floor of Kodak Center and peek into the ballroom. It is sumptuous, everything blue and gold. Versailles is the theme. Hundreds of tables, each with a huge centerpiece of pale peach-colored roses, are set with gold-rimmed china, elaborate stemware and gleaming silver. Everything is ready in this room, which feels eerily still.
In the pastry tent, I find Suzanne, Sherry’s next in command. The soft-spoken, talented pastry chef is painting gold fleurs-de-lis onto 1,800 plates. There are six long rows of tables, each row two tables deep, and tables around the periphery of the tent. This is our staging area. When dessert is served five hours from now, a parade of silent waiters will move among the tables, picking up a finished plate in each white-gloved hand. But now the plates are empty. They line the tables, four deep. Those that have not yet been painted are covered with long strips of plastic (Sherry keeps the plastic wrap companies in business).
My first job is to turn the plates that have been painted, so that the fleurs-de-lis face the same direction on each plate. That’s so waiters picking up the desserts will be able to set down all of the plates facing the same way when they serve. I move up and down the tables twisting the plates. I feel like the old champagne turners in Rheims, wondering whether my forearm will develop a muscle before this task is done.
Sherry appears from the red carpet, where she and Wolfgang Puck have been talking to Oprah about the menu, and assigns my next job: Reverse the plates from front to back, so that the plates in the back row can be painted. Then we set to work attaching gold-leaf suns to the little edible boxes that will go over the cakes. The delicate suns have been piped onto edible paper and must be glued onto the sides of the boxes with royal icing.
Suzanne dabs a bit of blue icing onto the back of the suns, then I very gently press them onto the boxes. If you lift the sun by a ray or press too hard, it breaks (many break). The boxes and the suns are on sheet trays stacked in large rolling racks, which we use to shelter us from the wind. We’re basically outside on the roof, by the adjacent hotel pool, and it’s freezing (though I’m glad it’s not raining). As we work, we hear cheers from the street below: the actors and actresses are arriving on the red carpet.
The assembly line continues
Once all of the suns have been pasted, we start attaching the scalloped tuile-shaped bowls that will hold the ice cream to the box tops. Again, a dab of royal icing, then you stick on the bowl and set it back onto the tray. Time is passing but we’re OK. My hands are freezing.
As the trays fill with finished boxes, workers wheel them away and set them carefully over the painted design. As the sun sets, the room fills with blue, gold-rimmed ruffled packages placed on white, gold-rimmed plates, and it is heart-stoppingly beautiful, like an army of 1,800 identical blue and gold presents.
Next up: Addressing the racks and racks of multilayered flourless chocolate cakes filled with hazelnut buttercream, each of which will need to be placed neatly inside a box. Each cake must be sprinkled with hazelnut croquant. A new assembly line is formed. Sherry’s parents, who come every year to help her at the Oscars, place gold cardboard rounds (her dad has spent hours cutting them out) onto sheet trays. I sprinkle cake with croquant. Gunther, a chef just over from Vienna transfers the cakes to the gold rounds, and another worker places them on the plates.
It is now dark and the Oscars are progressing. My freezing hands are caked with croquant. Wolfgang comes in periodically to give a heads-up on time: “At 8:40 p.m., the antipasta goes in,” he calls out. We are sharing the tent with the antipasta team, which is assembling the appetizers on platters. On each platter they arrange a few Oscar-shaped smoked salmon canapes; triangular stacks of beets and goat cheese; fat asparagus spears, peeled, blanched and wrapped with prosciutto; marinated artichoke hearts; roasted peppers with fresh anchovies; croutons with tapenade. I get hungrier and hungrier.
The caterers are now placing the boxes over the cakes and others are putting the Oscar-shaped cookies on plates. Sherry comes through and says the tuiles have to be moved to the rims of the plates because they’ll smudge the design when lifted. They are so thin that if you aren’t careful they break when you move them. I break many. Luckily, there are many.
No time for Academy Awards’ star-gazing
At one point, some waiters come into the tent and Sherry shoos them out. She doesn’t yell much, but when she does, you listen. I am so afraid of obstructing waitstaff and kitchen people that I stay in the tent and don’t go star-gazing as the crowd emerges from the Kodak Theatre and ascends the escalator to the Governors Ball.
Sherry takes me into the kitchen, just when all the Culinary Academy students who are helping at the event are taking their stations. Matt, one of the three head chefs, bellows: “LISTEN UP EVERYONE. FROM THIS MOMENT ON, THERE WILL BE NO TALKING. THERE ARE THREE PEOPLE WHO ARE ALLOWED TO TALK IN HERE: CHEF LEE, MYSELF, AND CHEF WOLFGANG. TAKE YOUR STATIONS.”
Waiters keep coming back for refill antipasta platters, but the meal goes quickly. Is anybody actually eating? The first course of foie gras and baked potato with caviar goes out, then the upscale “surf and turf” main course of filet mignon and lobster.
Back in the pastry tent, we double-check that all of the cake boxes have the suns facing in the same direction and all of the plates are facing the same way. Then we set the ice cream balls into the tops of the cake boxes and place the tuiles straight up in the ice cream. They break so easily when you stick them in. I swear a lot.
Down to the wire
We are working a little too fast, and the ice cream is getting too soft. But suddenly the white-gloved waiters begin to appear. Sherry is now the martinet. The waiters are directed into a line down an aisle between tables. Sherry announces that there will be no talking. She shows the waiters what to do: “One plate in each hand, set the plates down with the sun facing the guest. Say ‘Presenting Oscar ’76′ and lift off the ice-cream-topped boxes to reveal the cake, setting the tops on the fleurs-de-lis.”
The line begins to move. As the first waiters return for more, they report that the cookies are falling down. Sherry commands us to stop placing cookies, as they’re resting in the ice cream for too long — once they soften, they flop. We pull them out and wait, then start over as the line speeds up. But our edible Oscar has a lot of time to get soggy and sag between the tent and the ballroom. Nothing can be done.
Now requests are coming in, for to-go desserts, and desserts without ice cream. But all have ice cream in them! Sherry is upset that the staff didn’t anticipate this, and workers are frantically removing ice cream from some of the tops. Renee Zellweger, who won the Oscar for best supporting actress in “Cold Mountain” earlier in the evening, wants 20 desserts to go. There’s a scramble to find the to-go boxes, and staff madly begins to pack them up. She thanks us, and I am impressed by her Texas drawl.
By 11 p.m., things are winding down. Waiters are still coming through, but it’s definitely the end of the event. You can see the celebrities lined up right outside the pastry tent at the limousine call-for table (I’m finally in the right place for star-gazing). The caterers pass baskets of gold-dusted chocolate Oscars, each in a cellophane bag tied with a ribbon, to guests who are on to their next party, where another team of frenzied caterers is hard at work.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photos, from top: Edible gold and chocolate Oscars prepared for the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010. Credit: Todd Wawrychuk / A.M.P.A.S.; Pastry Chef Sherry Yard hard at work on the 2010 Governors Ball desserts during a press preview of the event. Credit: Elise Thompson / LAist.com; Yard’s dessert from the 2004 ceremony. Image from the 2007 book “Desserts by the Yard.” Credit: Ron Manville.