When Richard Lawrence Stein holds an initial consultation with his catering company’s clients, he presents his services in cathartic terms.
“When I talk to people, I tell them that I am Advil,” he said. “I will take away the headaches, I will take away the pain of you having to do your event. It’s my headache, it’s my pain.”
Well, maybe the pain reference is a bit of an exaggeration. Stein’s Bridgeport-based What’s on the Menu Event Services has been operating for 24 years, catering to a wide variety of corporate, family and private events from northern New Jersey across to the eastern section of Connecticut.
Stein came to the food trade as a teenage busboy and waiter, supplementing his youthful income with work as a personal trainer. Food preparation came about by accident: a friend needed a bartender at a catered party and Stein volunteered, only to discover upon arriving at the event that another person was hired as a bartender. Not eager to walk away empty handed, Stein asked if there was another job at the event that needed filling.
“Next thing I know, I am behind a six-foot-long, almost four-foot-wide flaming hot grill, cooking chicken and steaks and all of the things that needed to be done for the party,” he recalled. “I was on-the-job apprenticing.”
When Stein’s initial career goals of advertising and film production did not pan out, he swung back to catering, confident in his abilities as a self-taught chef.
“I never went to culinary school,” he said. “If you ask me what recipes are, I’d say they are things in a book because I don’t have any recipes. I just make things. Am I a chef? I guess so. After all, a chef is really just a fancy cook.”
Stein’s approach to catering is to first determine the client’s budget for the event and then working on an approach that can exceed expectations without fraying the client’s wallet.
“I am somewhat of a MacGyver magician, but if you want me to pull a rabbit out of a hat, I’ve got to have the rabbit,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got to know what I will be working with and dealing with, which will help me find the things that will work.”
Stein is also not shy about offering suggestions that the client may not have considered. He noted a recent event he catered that mixed a 40th birthday celebration with Cinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby. The client considered a traditional Southern fried chicken feast, but Stein was apprehensive about the mess created with guests using their hands to eat chicken off the bone. Instead, he offered a unique alternative: fried chicken breasts coated in Cap’n Crunch cereal, complemented by cheese and jalapeno biscuits.
“It was regular Cap’n Crunch,” he said. “I could have used Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, but that would have created a real taste overload.”
What’s on the Menu Event Services fills its staffing needs based on the parameters of each event and Stein values attitude over food trade experience in his hiring.
“I don’t necessarily need professional servers,” he said. “I need courteous, efficient and wise people who are looking to make people happy.”
Using the online Thumbtack service and word-of-mouth referrals, Stein keeps busy with a variety of events. And he doesn’t limit himself to producing catered events.
“If someone needs staffing, I will arrange staffing,” he said. “If someone needs bar service, I will arrange bar service. If it is a quiet day for catering, I freelance in New York City, where I’ve had the opportunity to cook for Vice President Joe Biden, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. I’ve worked with teams of other people at star-studded events, where I get to see how other people do things.”
As he approaches his quarter-century in business, Stein remains grateful for what his company has created for him.
“Catering and food, as a whole, is a really great balance for me,” he said. “It’s physical, its artistic, it’s creative, it’s thinking inside and outside of a box, it’s marrying things that you don’t think would be marriable, and it keeps you on your toes. And it’s nice to interact with people who appreciate your work. I’ve gotten standing ovations and I’ve gotten toasted. People can go through life knowing or not knowing if they touched somebody. There is nothing more humbling than leaving a party knowing you’ve made their holiday or made their event.”