Clash of the Caterers

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

"We've already turned down a few [big balls]," Bartee says, offhandedly citing a 1,000-seater that coincided with the week of the Tony's restaurant reopening. "And a lot of the big spring parties are out in proposals now."

Hicks professes disinterest in challenges to his preeminence on the ball circuit. "It takes a certain size organization and focus to do those large seated things and do them well. People have come to rely on us, and we hope our reputation is such that people realize how consistent we are."

Yet Hicks is unmistakably moving to counter the Bartee/Vallone juggernaut. In the wake of Bartee's departure, he sent a letter to all of Bartee's personal clients, both praising his former employee and subtly wooing them. And he is redesigning Jackson and Company's core menu with a decidedly Italian accent.

"There's just a lot of interest in Italian food in Houston," Hicks explains. "Look at the expansion of Italian restaurants here. I try to create trends, not follow them."

But Hicks is undeniably having to work harder since his trusted aide-de-camp defected. Prior to Bartee's exit, "Unless you were talking about a major, bigtime party, Jackson and Company's clients never knew they were dealing with Jackson -- until they got the bill and his signature was at the bottom," cracks ex-staffer Slye.

Adds Bartee: "Some of the clients Jackson has called on personally [to solicit parties] were just shocked. He always delegated that before."

Bartee describes the rift as "an unfortunate situation" and says he has no hard feelings toward his ex-boss.

"If Jackson picked up the phone and said, 'Let's have dinner,' I'd do it today," he says.

But Jerry, say those familiar with the clash of the caterers, shouldn't waste time waiting by the phone.

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