“Fifty-four hundred strawberries in a vacherin glacé,” he said.
Peppered with a sly, sweet smile, a pair of oversize, architectural black-framed eyeglasses, not especially tall or thin but intensely graceful, Sean Driscoll, the droll and beloved co-founder of the Manhattan-based catering firm Glorious Food, was leaving a Met Gala one Monday in May some time ago when he was asked for his assessment of the evening.
For the past 50 years, the esteemed catering firm has offered exquisite nourishment at the top-ticket fundraisers, elegant weddings, and leave-town-if-you-weren’t-invited private dinners and receptions in New York. From 1976 to 2018, Glorious Foods catered the Met Gala every year save one (in 1996, event sponsor Dior wanted to go all-out French).
“Fifty-four hundred strawberries in a vacherin glacé,” he repeated.
From a Cottage Industry to a Juggernaut
For the second year in a row, New York is making do without its first-Monday-in-May social ritual, the Met Gala. (A scaled-back version of the fundraiser is scheduled for September, with a full return expected in May 2022.) And New York society is also making do without one of its most valued players. Sean Driscoll died in January 2018, age 77. The cause of his death was pancreatic cancer.
“A small paid notice appeared in the New York Times, but we were surprised there hadn’t been a full obituary by the paper, given how extensively it’d covered his work during his lifetime. He was so discreet and private, perhaps he would’ve preferred no fuss; still, his central role over the decades in building the catering business from a cottage industry into the juggernaut it is today seemed noteworthy,” Matt Lee and Ted Lee write in Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, published in 2019.
The intersection of food and fashionable society is complicated. Those with the most like to look like they have consumed the least. No one understood this better than Sean Driscoll.
“Bread is not our friend,” the late Jayne Wrightsman would unreservedly caution if she saw a lady’s hand reach for a nip of brioche at a charity dinner. She meant no insult; she was mentoring—mothering, if you will—comme il faut, in a certain Fifth Avenue way.
But society has to eat; your significant other deserves a meal during a long evening at a black-tie party; your hosts will say you ate anyway. Therefore the thinking has been that you might as well hire Glorious Food to make your meals, well, glorious. Everyone will admire your food, whether they eat it or not, as if it were some kind of vitrine of exquisite accessories on display.
“Bread is not our friend.”
When Glorious Food started, in 1971, its critical success was almost immediate. The retailer Geraldine Stutz, social figures Lily Auchincloss and Louise Grunwald, and designers Bill Blass and Halston helped put the company on the map, although it took a few years for it to become a $10-million-a-year business, as has been estimated.
At the time, a gentleman named Donald Bruce White was the go-to caterer in town for dinners and drinks parties. Most of the private clubs in New York were restricted and wouldn’t welcome a mix of people. Since hotels had kitchens large enough to prepare meals for hundreds of guests, large events were held in their ballrooms. The expression “rubber chicken” came into the social vernacular thanks to the many lackluster meals, undercooked or overcooked, served by hotel waiters who couldn’t wait for you to go home.
“Whether because of the recession, inflation, Vietnam, campus unrest, the desire to get closer to nature, a new introspection or simply boredom with the old extravagances, a new life style is emerging, and emerging quickly,” Charlotte Curtis wrote in The New York Times in 1970. She also observed that spaghetti parties for eight were becoming much more popular than formal dinners for 24. Glorious Food was ready. “It was all beef and chocolate mousse,” Sean recalled in an interview. “Our most popular dishes are simpler.”
“Homey. Unpretentious. No foam, no spew, no pyramids, no overly decorated food, just good old meat loaf and mashed potatoes,” Louise Grunwald said recently, describing Glorious Food cuisine and remembering Sean Driscoll, one of her closest friends.
“Their caviar pie,” she continued, “or throw it on spaghetti, and lots of it.” Throw the caviar, that is, not the pie.
Friends of Sean’s, and his clients at Glorious Food, exclaimed over his perfectionism, a perfectionism born of gracious simplicity, the kind you find in great Savile Row tailoring or in decorating. Deeply stylish and extensively simple, it’s the Bunny Mellon aesthetic; it reminds you of the time when the decorator Sister Parish, extolling the virtues of the uncomplicated, described one nouveau riche former client, saying, “It will take a generation for them to understand wicker.”
“No foam, no spew, no pyramids, no overly decorated food, just good old meat loaf and mashed potatoes.”
“If you saw Sean at a dinner, whether it was a big fundraiser or a small dinner at home, you knew it was going to be delicious. He knew how to do everything the right way. People never knew, because they weren’t supposed to know how hard he worked to make the simplest dinner perfect,” said Blaine Trump. In the mid-1980s, she enrolled Sean to support God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that provided meals to homebound people living with AIDS and H.I.V., among other health challenges, when it was just getting started. Sean would become a longtime, dedicated member of the God’s Love board of directors.
“Sean knew all the secret ingredients. I think he knew as much about entertaining as Babe Paley did,” said Gayfryd Steinberg, who worked with Sean on many events for the New York Public Library as well as small dinners in her vast apartment at 740 Park Avenue back in the madcap meringue days of the gilded 1980s.
“When I was organizing my first fundraisers for the Maria Droste Counseling Services on a shoestring budget, Sean came to the venue with a tape measure and measured the space, and the tables, and came up with such a great formula for seating and for what went where. I was exhausted just watching him,” said philanthropist Elizabeth Peabody. Established in 1982, Maria Droste Counseling Services provides mental-health care by licensed psychologists, clinical social workers, and mental-health counselors to all people regardless of their ability to pay. As well as being a trained social worker at the agency, Peabody is also the president of its board of directors.
Sean Driscoll knew who was allergic to certain foods; he knew who was allergic to certain people, which couples should be separated when they went out, which best friends had fallen out, or gotten back together, and advised hosts to beware. He consoled nervous hosts and showed his clients how to delight people so they would return for the next year’s event.
Nancy Chilton, chief external-relations officer for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remembered meeting Sean for the first time, a 7:15 a.m. meeting to plan the following year’s event for a Paul Poiret exhibition in 2008. She was new on the job, and nervous, not to mention on camera as a film crew for The September Issue documentary was shooting the meeting.
“He was buttoned-up and calm, sharing recipes from Poiret’s 1928 cookbook, which he’d filled with Post-It tabs and laid out on the table,” Chilton said.
For the next 10 years, they got to know each other at these sunrise meetings. “He was like a conductor—of orchestras and trains—creating beautiful experiences that ran on time. He did his research, so the gala menus always related to the exhibition themes. For “Superheroes,” in 2008, he did a Spider-Man-inspired “Spider Web”—a fettucine nest with caviar. He served Jello shots for the Punk exhibition, in 2013, and Japanese treats for Rei Kawakubo, in 2017, and in 2010, for “American Women: Fashioning a National Identity,” individual down-home chicken potpies in a star-shaped pastry with a serving of foie gras on top.
“I did not grow up eating cassoulet,” Sean wrote around 2012, when working with me on a memoir that was ultimately not published. “My mother’s cooking: put the lamb in the oven Sunday morning, go to church, come back from church, take the lamb out of the oven and eat at four p.m.”
His first glimpse of gourmet cooking came when he was studying broadcasting at Emerson College, in Boston, and a friend invited him to visit her family during vacation in New York. Lunch was delicious. He turned to his friend’s mother and said, “This is the best beef I’ve ever eaten.”
The friend’s mother replied, “It should be, but it’s a leg of lamb.”
The memoir wasn’t completed for many reasons. First there were concerns how an honest depiction of his romantic life would impact his family, especially his mother, who was still alive. She died in 2019. He told me he was confident that his family knew he was gay, but as was the case for so many gay men of his generation, he wasn’t comfortable sharing details with them. A “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to serve the family—and especially Sean—most comfortably. The next challenge for the memoir was his deep discomfort at the prospect of telling stories and sharing anecdotes that his clients, and friends, might feel betrayed any of their confidences and trust. Even good things—his admiration for Annette de la Renta, for example, or the joyful details of the lunch he organized so that Brooke Astor and Bill Cunningham could spend quality time together, away from the hectic social life where their paths crossed so many times over many decades.
A “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to serve the family—and especially Sean—most comfortably.
When I proposed that he include recipes and celebrate his food, he demurred. He said he couldn’t cook, with the exception, maybe, of a decent meat loaf and that credit for the deliciousness of the Glorious Food cuisine went first to Christopher Idone and then to Jean-Claude Nédélec, who still serves as head chef for the company. The recipes were theirs, not his, he said.
In Rye, New York, Sean Driscoll grew up with a father who was an alcoholic of the hopeless variety. Despite their devout Catholicism, his parents divorced. His mother remarried, and Sean, who remained loyal and close to his mother and family all his life, often said that his stepfather saved his family. As a child, Sean was a champion at Irish step dancing. As Sean Gallery—Gallery was his stepfather’s last name—he tried to make it on Broadway, auditioning every chance he got. At one point, he settled for a job as a busboy at Grossinger’s, in the Borscht Belt.
In 1962, after Emerson, he was drafted into the army and stationed in Washington, D.C., doing special services. When he left the service, a friend connected him with Gilbert Marketing, which excelled in getting young people to buy brands that their parents had bought. One client was the Ford Motor Company; Sean became the advance man for the Ford Caravan of Music, driving the latest-model Ford Mustang convertible, getting musical groups of the time—including the Kingston Trio, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and George Shearing—to perform on college campuses around the country.
The experience, he said, “really got me comfortable talking to people and learning how to produce and stage events. That’s so much of what I do for Glorious Food as the front man and [being] conciliatory.”
His next job offered even more experience interacting with people. He worked in the publicity department at Columbia Pictures, a job that included helping Tallulah Bankhead when she was promoting Die! Die! My Darling in 1965. After that, wanting to return to New York, he found his next job through the classified ads in The New York Times, as a production assistant at the advertising company Benton & Bowles. He spent the next several years going from agency to agency and from earning $125 a week to $50,000 a year, a lot of money back then for a fellow in his mid-20s.
Fired from his last advertising job, at the Gray Group advertising agency, soon after his 30th birthday, Sean had severance as well as some seed money from selling an apartment he owned on 88th Street. He’d met his romantic—and, soon enough, business—partner in 1966. Christopher Idone was a young chef and culinary author. His dream at the time was to open a restaurant in the then emerging neighborhood of SoHo. To prepare for the restaurant, Christopher would try out his recipe ideas on the couple’s friends. Invitations to their dinners were soon in demand.
“Fresh and glorious,” a friend described Christopher’s food. That’s where the name for Glorious Food came from when the catering firm opened, in 1971. The business was the idea of their friend Sally Obre, the beauty editor of Glamour. She was so keen on the food Idone served that she offered to launch them as caterers by hiring them to do a promotional party for Glamour.
“I don’t want to be in any business where the food has toothpicks in it,” Christopher said.
Sean told this to Sally. She responded, “O.K., so tell big mouth to do hors d’oeuvres without toothpicks. Something new! That’s why I want him to work for us. Let him show New York that passed food can be done without a toothpick. Everyone wants something new. We don’t need a new restaurant. We need a new caterer.”
Christopher finally agreed. Sean remembered from his days auditioning that very often at the bottom of actors’ résumés there might be a little sentence that read, “Waiter and bartender services also.” He contacted some casting-agent friends and assembled a good-looking, capable, young, and very agreeable wait staff. That was in itself something new—casting calls for waiters? Glorious Food’s wait staff was so good-looking—see Andy Warhol’s diaries for more details—that one society doyen (if memory serves, it was Jerome Zipkin) coined the term “staff infection” to define what happens to the average socialite when she goes to a dinner catered by Glorious Food and is intoxicated by the waiters.
Soon after the party for Glamour, Glorious Food took off. When they needed to find someone to make an ice sculpture of an eagle for an event, Sean remembered that ice sculptures were one of the Plaza Hotel’s signatures. He looked for the person who designed them, chef Jean-Claude Nédélec. After a few years freelancing on special evenings, Mr. Nédélec joined Glorious Food full-time. He is still there, as is another longtimer, Don McCoy, the firm’s accounts representative who runs the operation.
“I don’t want to be in any business where the food has toothpicks in it.”
Sean bought Christopher out in the early 1980s. Until Christopher’s death, in 2016, theirs was always a complicated relationship. Besides co-founding the company, Christopher’s Glorious Food legacy includes the illustrated cookbook he wrote, Glorious Food, published in 1982, one of the first glossy coffee-table books about food that created a new genre in book publishing. Its cover image perfectly encapsulated the Glorious Food brand: an elegant, simple salade niçoise, beautifully composed and ready for its close-up—if someone didn’t eat it first.
When Christopher left the company, Jean-Claude Nédélec was named executive chef and became the co-owner of Glorious Food. Matt and Ted Lee credit the successes of modern catering in large part to Jean-Claude. He was a genius when it came to perfecting, in the early 1970s, the art, actually the science, of “meals on wheels,” or “hotbox skills,” that meant a dinner or event could happen anywhere, any field, any museum, any disco, without a kitchen.
Jean-Claude figured out how to turn aluminum transport cabinets into working ovens, with different zones of heat, using Sterno cans. Before he did this, one was obliged to entertain wherever there was a kitchen large enough to cater a meal for more than a couple dozen guests. Libraries, museums, theaters, and, in the 1970s, even discos were now possible venues for entertaining. Endless possibilities for location and novelty that satisfied fashionable society’s ever present hunger for something new.
“We catered many dinners for Halston at home before everyone went on to Studio—the scene at his house was like a mini–Studio 54—and we catered many dinners at Studio itself,” Sean told me. “We had this funny little kitchen that was really just a hallway that we’d set up and take down as soon as the meal was over so everyone could dance. Sometimes, it was seated tables on the dance floor for 300 guests.”
Food was not the main attraction at these dinners at Studio 54. “But presentation was important,” Sean said. “Handsome wait staff, and nouvelle cuisine, sliced beef, chicken, vegetables, rarely, if ever, fish. Fish smelled.”
“You’re Only As Good as Your Last Soufflé”
A few months after Sean died, in 2018, a memorial celebration for him was given at the God’s Love We Deliver offices on lower Sixth Avenue. His mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law attended, among other family members. Guests included a Who’s Who of those left standing in New York society, including Ed Schlossberg. Mr. Schlossberg is hardly a social butterfly, but Sean was very well liked by his late mother-in-law, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Glorious Food catered the Kennedy-Schlossberg summer wedding on Cape Cod in 1986. (Cold pea soup with mint, shrimp, and apples; roast chicken with rice; cold sirloin of beef; a four-tiered yellow butter cake with chocolate filling and white icing; and vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice cream.)
God’s Love We Deliver began in 1985 when a hospice worker named Ganga Stone delivered a meal to a man living with AIDS. He wasn’t well enough to prepare the packaged food that she had brought earlier, so she enlisted Restaurant Claire, a place popular with gay diners, to make a meal she could bring to him. Soon other restaurants pitched in, and some 50 meals a day were being delivered to AIDS patients around the city. But the need to feed more than just 50 people a day was tragically obvious. Enter Blaine Trump, who heard about the nascent organization, housed then in a church basement on the Upper West Side. When she saw that there wasn’t anyone at the organization who knew the ins and outs of the food business, she telephoned Sean Driscoll.
“We know nothing about ordering food on such a large scale. We need your help,” she told him.
Sean provided the leadership, the how-to-order, how-to-store, how-to-keep-warm, and how-not-to-go-broke-in-the-food-business information that helped God’s Love expand and deliver some 10,000 meals a day, as it currently does.
At Sean’s memorial service, Anna Wintour talked of their long friendship, about the many fundraisers they’d done together over the years. He was no sycophant, she said, and he always spoke his mind, which she liked. She read “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” a poem by Joy Harjo that she felt expressed the essence of what was always in Sean Driscoll’s heart when Glorious Food catered an event.
“The world begins at a kitchen table … / Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last / sweet bite,” she read.
For Sean, everything had to be perfect, Wintour explained. If something goes wrong, he once told her, all you can do is apologize the next day. In his catering, there might be tastings prior to the event, but there were no dress rehearsals.
Sean Driscoll, guests at the memorial learned, had two mottoes: “Every night is opening night” and “You’re only as good as your last soufflé.”
The title of his unfinished memoir? In the Backdoor, Out the Front.
William Norwich is a journalist, novelist, and the commissioning editor of fashion and interiors at Phaidon