Clash of the Caterers

Was it one too many chicken empanadas? It's Jackson vs. Jerry in the battle of the high-society foodmeisters.

Houston society mavens and boldface types are twittering about the old-fashioned food fight going on between the city's two highest-profile caterers. Jackson Hicks -- long the town's reigning prince of parties -- is said to have his elegant nose severely out of joint over the upstart success of restaurateur Tony Vallone's new catering operation, Tony's at Home. It's not that Houston's answer to Martha Stewart can't stand the thought of another rival in the kitchen. The problem is that Tony's at Home is run by Jerry Bartee, Hicks' longtime right-hand man.

Bartee jumped ship to Tony's last February, with a whole flotilla of Jackson and Company clients bobbing along in his wake. To name only two prominent examples: Tony's at Home catered Mayor Bob Lanier's recent penthouse-warming at the Huntingdon for 400 of his and Elyse's closest friends, and it also handled the ultra-lux seated dinner for 400 that kicked off the Baker Institute's splashy lecture series with General Colin Powell.

"Elyse Lanier has always used Jackson and Company, and she steered lots of the city's social business Jackson's way," remarks one society watcher, who, as one can imagine, preferred not to be identified by name in this story. "When the Lanier party went to Tony, it arched even more eyebrows than the Baker dinner did, because Jackson used to own all that Rice University stuff, too."

"Jerry simply had a loyal client base that had nothing to do with Jackson; when he left, they went with him," explains Collin Slye, Jackson and Company's former staffing director, who ultimately followed Bartee to the Vallone organization. "Parties that have been done forever by Jackson are now being done by Jerry. Jerry's been aboveboard about all of it; Jackson is the one that's been bitter."

Hicks, however, dismisses talk of any rift between himself and his former executive as unfounded gossip.

"I don't know how that talk gets started," he says. "I guess things get a little slow, and people need something to talk about."

"But," he adds quickly, "we have more business than we've ever had. I haven't noticed Jerry's taking any clients with him. And I haven't noticed any drop in revenues, which is how you gauge things in this business."

When asked specifically about Bartee's catering of the Laniers' party, Hicks was gracious: "Mrs. Lanier has certainly done business with us, but my impression is she's used a lot of people. Jerry has been in this business for a long time and knows a lot of people. I'm not surprised if some would want to use him."

Bartee insists he never intended to cut his own swath in local catering circles. Rather, he says, he was hired away from Jackson and Company to head up the revamped Tony's restaurant. He only got back into catering out of necessity.

"My clients have always been extremely loyal," Bartee says with a smug shrug. "The phone has been ringing off the wall over here. Tony had to create a catering company because we had all this revenue and no place to put it. We've done well over 100 parties since February, and all we've done is pick up the telephone."

It's true: Tony's at Home isn't listed in either the phone book or directory assistance. Potential clients have to know where to call -- specifically Vallone Restaurant Group headquarters -- to book a party.

"It is embarrassing, but we haven't gotten around to it [getting a phone listing]," admits Vallone. "I never had the goal of getting into a full-scale catering business. I originally hired Jerry to run the new Tony's, but then all these private parties started coming to us. Catering became a must. We had no choice."

Vallone won't disclose sales figures, but he says his catering business has been "phenomenal" this past year. "It has been four times what we thought it would be, and we set an aggressive pro forma going in."

Friends who know Hicks and Bartee praise them both as highly creative and talented men who have much in common. One longtime mutual acquaintance describes Hicks as "tall, handsome, graying and pretentious," and Jerry as "tall, handsome and fussy like a mother hen."

Both caterers are also highly theatrical -- Jackson along the lines of a John Gielgud; Jerry does more of an Ethel Merman -- and a party produced by either man can be an over-the-top extravaganza. In truth, Hicks virtually invented the level of sumptuous European elegance many of the city's most celebrated hostesses have become known for. A Jackson Hicks party is recognizable from the moment you walk in the ballroom, whether from his trademark towering jalapeno topiaries or his rafts of divinely costumed waiters gliding about with silver trays of scrumptious morsels and flutes of champagne.

"But there are only so many chicken empanadas and spring rolls you can eat," ex-employee Slye points out. "With Jackson, it got to be so it was always chicken empanadas, spring rolls and the pepper cones -- always the same."

Bartee says he's chosen to take a lower profile in his productions, placing an emphasis on the chow.

"A lot of my clients don't need 'my' signature because they have their own style and security," Bartee explains. "Food is the signature of a Tony's at Home party. We've developed a repertoire of 40 hors d'oeuvres taken from the various restaurants -- Grotto, La Griglia, Tony's. Other than that, I'm the guy you don't see [at the party]. My gratification comes from not being the superstar."

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