cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Real Thing

Hello friends, I thought I would stop by and report how the catering event went last weekend. What event? I mentioned it in the last post. Didn't read it? well, fine. The event was a lovely in-apartment 40th birthday party for over fifty people. The menu included hot and cold appetizers and overwhelmingly large bread plates. How did it go? Well, it was fantastic.

Unfortunately I didn't get any photos, i didn't even take my camera. I had my friend, Rita, who i hired as my waitress get this shot with my phone. It shows a few of the cold appetizers set out on the table. The food was really well received--especially the hot appetizers i served throughout the five hour party. The sesame salmon lollipops and the fried spinach and gouda arancini di riso balls were a big hit. I did all of the prep work at home; made all the spreads, cheeses, bruschetta mixes, rolled a billion shrimp and pork  spring rolls, mixed a Vietnamese green papaya salad in a large plastic tub (party size!) and rolled and breaded all the risotto balls. Literally it took the entire day Saturday morning and most of Friday. I was in a bit of a freak out thinking that i hadn't gotten enough done by the time i left for the event at 6h30pm. I was nervous. I admit. Extremely nervous to the point where i hadn't eaten anything since my breakfast egg. But once i got there, set up the plates, met my kitchen helper and started prepping for the hot items I finally started to relax. I arrived at seven and the first guests didn't arrive until after nine. I staged the hot food so that there would be something served at about 20 or 30 minute intervals. The apartment was a gorgeous venue--multimillion dollar open floor plan which allowed me to watch (and be watched) the party and see what was getting low on my table trays. I hired a good friend to be my waitress and offer the hot appetizers around the room, but in reality she turned into the wine-wench--my client took cake of the wine but fully expected my waitress to keep the guest's glasses full at all times. And jesus christ did she. She scurried into the kitchen to open a new bottle of white every five minutes. The crowd was drunk off their asses after the first half-hour (crowd age-range was a respectable and classy middle-age). It was a real bacchanal. Most of the guests were very pleasant, courteous and had very nice things to say about my food. The crowd, I knew, would be welcoming of non-Brazilian food, which was in fact the case. My favorite critique of the night came stumbling off a whiskey soaked tongue complimenting the food as "telling a connected story, and, and, and so spicy!!"

Honestly though, no one even considered talking to me until my client pointed out that the chef tonight was American. Then i had everyone cosying up to the breakfast bar stools to watch me cook and ask me questions. A truthful side note: all non-native English speakers love to practice speaking English at any possible moment, especially when tipsy. Though, Sao Paulo being the international city it is, many among my kitchen company were foreigners from far off distant lands such as Montreal, Portugal, Rio de Janeiro (awk awk) and the East Coast. A person cooking at a party in Brazil isn't so exciting. But an American cooking at a party in Brazil is pretty exciting. As stupid as that may sound to you, it is an advantage I tend to run with.

The biggest part of the night was that I learned that there is no way i could do a cocktail party this size alone. Meaning, without my waitress or kitchen helper it would have been impossible. My client had her maid stay throughout the party in order to keep the kitchen clean--and she did. The second i dirtied a spoon it was clean and put back on my station. She was a machine. She also helped me assemble plates, assemble tartines and bruschetta--literally she did anything i needed an extra hand with. It would have been hell without her. I really regret not getting her telephone number so that I could hire her for my future events. Rita, my waitress, was also indispensable. Large parties like this definitely require a competent team. So i'm building my team. Oh, and not to forget-- also on the team was dear H who helped with the prep (i don't think he will ever want to de-pit and chop olives again), delivery, and stayed up until 2am eating crappy order-in pizza waiting to collect us from the event at our beck and call. So, go team!

Our next event isn't for two weeks, it will be smaller, a fifteen person lunch. The menu isn't set yet but when it is, hopefully i will finally get some bloody photos!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tasting & a Market

  Tasting. Early last week i was contacted by a client, actually a former boss here in Brazil. She knew i was into different food and asked if had any gigs yet for exactly two weeks out. I didn't. Great! Her cousin needed a caterer for her 40th birthday party for seventy people. Luckily, standing room cocktail. I cannot cook dinner for seventy people, but i can do appetizers. The only requirement was that I offer a tasting of all the possible choices. Tastings make perfect sense, especially when you are going to be spending a lot of money on large quantities. I know tastings are common place, but for a cocktail party--less usual. But i saw it as a perfect way to try and really impress. Dinner-time cocktail parties should offer at least ten appetizers per person along with non-numerical snacks. So, projecting ten different appetizers, i decided to offer fourteen during the tasting. It will be easy I thought, i only need to make two of everything. My appetizer ark, however, turned out to be quite the task. 

The tasting was last Thursday at 9pm. I started prepping my menu items that morning around 9:00. My tasting menu was split down the middle between Asian flavors and more classic Italian. To bore you with a list I presented: green papaya salad with fried plantain, tandoori chicken in mint sauce, curry tea sandwiches, Vietnamese pork spring rolls, tomato bruschetta, tartines with homemade ricotta, honey and bacon; spinach and gouda arancini di riso (fried risotto balls), sesame salmon lollipops, zucchini panzanella, fresh pea salad with apple and mint, creme brulee, dark chocolate truffles and a few other things that are slipping my mind. Damn it is a lot harder to create two of each in one day than i had thought it would be. I am continually underestimating how difficult it is to prepare such a variety. The greatest thing about this tasting was that literally it was a "run through" for the event, which give me more of an idea the time needed for each component.

I admit, I was extremely nervous when i arrived at the tasting (the venue of the party - a gorgeous apartment in one of the fancier districts of Sao Paulo). Luckily, my lovely clients offered me a glass (or two) of wine. Getting two women to eat fourteen small dishes in a timely manner after 9pm proved to be somewhat a difficult task. I felt like an Italian grandmother shoving pasta down their throats. Eat this one now, it's hot, stop looking at it, eat it! I jest, we took our time. The tasting lasted two hours and though i was exhausted, i was thrilled. They loved each and every dish. We decided they would look over their notes and decide which dishes to put on the party menu by Monday. Fabulous. They chose seven of the fourteen and I will be serving them this Saturday night. I also took charge of the party rentals - no paper or plastic forks at this gig. Ceramic plates, forks, wine glasses and serving trays. I will be hiring one waitress to serve the hot appetizers throughout the party - yes things are getting serious! Let's hope it all goes as planned.

The day after the tasting I had to start preparing for my third run at the Sao Paulo Night Market which was held on Saturday from noon until 9pm. I usually make savory food for the market as i honestly believe it sells better than sweets, however, this time around the market organizers asked me to do sweets since there were already three other food vendors and only one dessert vendor. I took it as an opportunity to advertise dessert tables for parties, so i set my display as top priority. I made a 4 layer ombre cake, creme brulees, cheesecake squares, brownie cake pops, Irish cream chocolate truffles, sandwich cookies and chocolate chip cookies. All of this in one day? Let's just say my kitchen was a sticky, sugary disaster by the time i left for the market. 

I didn't sell out. The creme brulees did sell out though -- torches usually draw a crowd. Usually not selling out isn't a problem as i view the market as more of a publicity event than anything else, so i usually just aim to cover my costs. Unfortunately this time the registration fee to sell at the Market was more than double the usual price since the event was celebrating it's one year anniversary and offered free admission to market goers. Was a bit more of a stretch to cover the costs. But on the bright side i've already been contacted by two possible clients i met at the market, so definitely worth the investment. And! i won a giant basket of New Zealand kiwis! Random? Yes. But so is a Sao Paulo market organized by gringos. My caipirinhas are set for the week. 

That's all we have for now, I must be off to bake white fish for dinner (St. Peter to be exact, which is in the tilapia family. Did you know there are more than three hundred types of tilapia? Now you do.) We hope to be back here promptly with the results from the cocktail event this Saturday -- hopefully good results. Until then, wish us luck. à bientôt.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Hey guys. Yeah, I did it again. What can i say. One month. But i really tried this time. My post was ready last week. Two weeks ago actually. But unfortunately the subject matter sat in my mouth like a stale dirty peanut. My catering business finally had a big event a few weeks ago, an event for someone we didn't know (for a change!) a baby birthday party with nearly three hundred little tea sandwiches (more difficult than that sounds!) and a ton of cupcakes! Sounds like the perfect subject for a blog post, no? A triumph finally for our new company here in Sao Paulo. The problem was not the food, my food was well received both in flavor and presentation. Great feedback on that front. The problems arose from the fact that i offered both of our services at once--meaning both catering and photography. Yeah, i shot the party as well. Sounds a bit odd but really the catering was make and deliver only--no presence during the party. When consulting with my client she mentioned that she really liked my photography and asked if i would shoot the party as well. Now, let me say that i really wanted this catering gig. So i offered to photograph for less than a quarter of the market price as a way to entice her to go with me for catering. She accepted. Big. Dumb. Move. on my part.

We had a thorough catering consultation with dozens of emails back and forth. The party was for a one year old baby and there would be no other children at the party, only around fifty adult guests. easy. After prepping the sandwiches and cupcakes for an entire day, i woke up very early on the morning of the party to assemble everything. As per usual i went through the "im not going to finish!!" crazy freak out, but of course everything was packaged two hours ahead of schedule (thank you husband sous chef). The party was a big hit. It was beautiful, the decorations were stunning for a Brazilian party and the baby was awfully adorable. The entire family was beautiful, and my food was very well received. It was a hit. So I relaxed and started photographing; the job that i'm used to.

That night H and I went out to dinner where i beamed over a steaming plate of ribs how i pulled off a big catering event, and how i took some pretty good photos with flash (i usually am terrible with flash). Overall, i was beyond happy. Then the next day happened.

My client emailed me early the next morning asking for the photographs. I thought it was a little funny, as in, oh it's cute, she has never hired a photographer before. I sent an apologetic email explaining how it wouldn't be possible to send her the photos right away, nor within the next few days. Professional photographers almost never deliver within the week because photo processing and editing requires a lot of work etc. She explained how she was so anxious to see the photos so i gave in and spent nearly the entire day monday selecting and editing photos for her. I had them uploaded by 5:30pm. Success?


Later that night i received an email from client telling me how much she loved the photos, how the lighting and style were exactly what she was hoping for. Then came the line---the line i have heard other photographers complain about and dread---the line that goes---- "can i have the rest of the photos now?" boom. Finally happened to me and i kicked myself at that moment for not having had "you will not receive all photos shot" signed in a contract. I explained, as professionally as i could that i do not give all shots to the client, that i select the best that are non repetitive. She wasn't having it. Long story short i received a series of very angry emails telling me how she expected (because it is common in Brazil) to receive all photos, because everyone has a different eye for things. At that moment i began to feel professionally insulted. To tell your hired photographer that you would like to view the raw images because you have a different "eye" is an insult to the artist. in any country. I then wrote an apologetic email explaining my reasons and that i would not change my policy. I told her i would go through the photos and send her more photos that i deemed acceptable. Which is a big concession i might add. So two days later i went through and edited another one hundred photos (mostly repeat scenes) and uploaded them. Job done. Closed. Bad experience over. Was happy I handled it well.


Late afternoon, middle of a cupcake shoot for another client, hands covered in buttercream--i receive a call. It's the client. What on earth could she possibly want now. What happened was the most disgusting, utterly rude and inappropriate interaction that i have ever had to go through in my professional life. My client called for no reason other than to lecture me. To lecture me literally by telling me how i "just got off the boat" and do not know how things are done in Brazil. How, while my photos were good, i did not deliver the amount she expected. How i didn't hand over all raw, unedited photos, how i took too many photos of the baby and didn't get candid photos of every guest drinking a beer and a shot of the front door. I'm not a mind reader. I was told that in Brazil, photographer are expected to hand over all photos for the client to take and get edited. I will tell you, after living here four years, working and conversing with other photographers this is a complete and utter lie. It is absurd to even think any photographer in any country would do this. I was beyond insulted. I was insulted as a photographer and as an immigrant. The treatment was that of a bourgeois speaking to their maid about a subject they clearly were completely oblivious to. It was disturbing behavior and honestly it shocked me. Who would treat someone they don't know in this manner? It was very puzzling and disappointing.

I listened to her ten minute lecture while saying very little. When she finished i told her that unfortunately i would still not change my policy and to have a nice day. I then hung up. Obviously it hit me. I was very upset. I was so proud of the event, so proud of the service. I couldn't wait to post all the photos here on the blog. But afterward the sour taste wouldn't leave my mouth. I decided not to post any pictures on the blog nor to even talk about it. I just wanted to move on with my next projects.

Now don't get me wrong, i'm not a photography saint. Not everyone has to be pleased with my work and I am not perfect. Yes I should have taken a photo of the door, yes more photos of guests drinking beer. but I didn't. and I can't go back in time. At that point the only thing to do is to apologize for disappointing them and move on. That's exactly what I did - I apologized and it should have ended there. but it didn't.

After speaking to three different Brazilian party photographers (born, raised and schooled in Brasil) i was reassured that this client was out of control and wrong and severely misrepresenting Brasil.  Looking back i feel a lot better, calmer and am actually quite happy with how i handled the situation in a professional manner even though i was insulted in every aspect possible. Talking with fellow photographers here, i know it is imperative to have the clause of not receiving all photos and of accepting what the photographer gives in the contract. My big error here was thinking that this party was a small, inexpensive event that wouldn't require the precautions as say a wedding shoot would require.

Lesson learned.

Moving on, we had a huge photo shoot last week with one of our favorite clients, Sophie & Theo's Cupcakes and are currently working on a big cocktail party two weeks out! Do you think we can manage over 700 individual cocktail appetizers? At the moment i have no idea...but we think we can. And what after? Already booked for a luncheon! So we had a bad experience, but it taught us a lot. And we are prepared for the next event. Hopefully you will stick around to hear about our next adventures!