Clash of the Caterers

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

For instance, you'll never see Bartee prowling about a major ball wearing one of those wireless telephone headsets Hicks uses to keep in touch with far-flung staff on busy nights.

"No, we won't do that," Bartee says firmly. "The headset is something Jackson is known for that doesn't always get the most positive review. We had one client specifically ask if we were the ones who do that."

Once close confidants, Hicks and Bartee haven't spoken since Jerry joined Vallone's organization early this year. Hicks contends there's nothing calculated about the absence of contact and says he doesn't take Bartee's defection personally.

"I don't see him much, but I've been busy," Hicks insists, with an air of studied casualness. "I'm not particularly bitter. Jerry was here, and now he's not. We were sorry to see Jerry go, and we wish him well. But frankly, I've been kind of busy taking care of business. Jerry's been quite busy, too, and I've not seen much of him."

That's not how mutual friends and acquaintances describe the split. They gleefully relate an incident in which Jackson arrived for dinner at the River Oaks Grill, only to hastily exit upon sighting Bartee's party already seated inside. And they snicker over the time Hicks and Bartee were both hosting small parties at Ninfa's on Navigation on the same night. Hicks' party finished first, but lingered for almost an hour after paying the tab, so as not to seem to be fleeing Bartee's presence.

"They just sat and stared at each other; it went on for an hour," gasps Slye, who was present at Ninfa's that inauspicious night. "Jackson was just not going to be the one to leave first."

For his part, Hicks denies those encounters ever took place. "I haven't even been to the River Oaks Grill since it reopened, and I've certainly never seen Jerry there," he says smoothly.

Bartee, however, remains unconvinced Jackson harbors no grudge over his departure. He notes that numerous mutual friends have been invited to gatherings at Hicks' new Montrose manse, yet he has not.

"I worked very hard for him, and we were great friends," Bartee adds. "It sort of hurts at a personal level. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it."

In addition to those snubs, Vallone confirms that Hicks, once a regular at Tony's, hasn't patronized that upscale Post Oak eatery since Bartee joined the scene.

Hicks loyalists point out that Jackson isn't completely unjustified in being miffed at Jerry. After years of working together, Bartee never gave Hicks the chance to counter Tony's offer, and Hicks reportedly had no idea Bartee was unhappy until he tendered his resignation.

"I was very honorable about how I left, and it was very hard leaving," Bartee explains, a tad defensively. "I'd already signed my [Tony's] contract before I talked to Jackson, because I thought it was cleaner that way. But I gave my 30 days notice, and I worked through Christmas. I think I was the only person [to leave Jackson and Company] who ever did that."

It has been suggested that Bartee would have never left Jackson and Company if Hicks had offered him a deal similar to the one Vallone made him. No one will discuss percentages, but Bartee has been given an ownership stake in Tony's at Home, something no employee has ever had in Jackson and Company.

"Tony has been very generous; he said if this works, we'll share the profits," Bartee confirms. "I do have a percentage. It's immediate."

Others who have worked for both Hicks and Vallone say Tony's operating style must also come as a breath of fresh air for Bartee.

"Jackson is very elegant, but he can be very tough to work for," Slye explains. "Jackson's office is always full of subterfuge, with people trying to figure out whose back to stab next. Tony is very straightforward. If he's got a problem, he will call you in, tell you about it and not say another word. If you made a mistake at Jackson's, he'd make you sweat." (See that light flaring on the horizon? It's Slye, burning his bridges.)

Hicks' track record shows that, like many artistic people, he can be petty when he feels justified. For instance, former staffing director Slye used to catch Jackson eavesdropping on employee telephone conversations from an office extension, claiming it was his right to listen in, since he owned the phone system. And when a downtown hotel outbid Jackson and Company on a major corporate party, the rebuffed caterer reserved the city's only set of gilded bamboo chairs for the night of the party, knowing full well the hotel had promised them to its client.

"The Four Seasons had to go through Jackson and pay a premium just to get him to release the chairs for the night," Slye swears. "He can be a very jealous person."

The exact depth of Jerry's Rolodex may become clear when the spring charity ball season swings into gear. For more than a decade, Hicks has had a death grip on the city's biggest arts and disease balls, but the Bartee/ Vallone combination reportedly is making inroads.

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