Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Three Wheels and a Brick
“Like the theater, offering food and hospitality to people is a matter of showmanship, and no matter how simple the performance, unless you do it well, with love and originality, you have a flop on your hands.” James Beard’s words of wisdom could have been uttered by Don Strange, the amazing man I married, as they so aptly describe his theory on the presentation of good food with a huge dose of showmanship. Don would probably add, “The real gist of it all is that the people have a great time, so I make every party the greatest one the host has ever been to.”
It seems that Don and Mr. Beard thought very much alike on the subjects of food and hospitality. The quote is even more significant when considered in the context of the story of Don Strange of Texas. In the fall of 1976, we had the distinct pleasure of entertaining James Beard in our home. The occasion was the first in a series of “celebrity chef” cooking schools, fund-raising events hosted by the San Antonio Junior Symphony and planned by a committee on which I was a member. In conjunction with his appearance, Don and I agreed to host a cocktail reception honoring Mr. Beard.
During the evening Don and Mr. Beard discovered that they had many things to talk about. Don was immensely impressed with the man we all know by the moniker bestowed on him by his contemporary, Julia Child: “The Dean of American Cooking.” And it seems the admiration must have been mutual. A few months after the reception Mr. Beard wrote one of his nationally syndicated newspaper columns about Don Strange! Titled “Party a la Mexico,” it appeared in newspaper food sections nationwide on May 19, 1976. A few of the passages provide a fitting introduction to this book about Don Strange:
Occasionally you go to a party done with such thought, planning and imagination that you wish everyone would entertain as well. One such party I recently attended in San Antonio was given by two delightful friends, Don and Frances Strange. While one of the factors that made it a success was that Don is in the catering business, there are very few caterers who have his flair. I just wish I had him near at hand whenever I give a party.
Being in San Antonio, the party had distinct Mexican overtones, but though the thinking was Mexican, the style was pure Strange. . . .
Everything I tasted seemed to have a new twist, . . . [a] feast of varied and interesting tastes and textures. If I have waxed enthusiastic over this most delightful party, which had a little of Japan, a lot of Mexico, and a tremendous amount of Don Strange in it, it’s because it is as much of a joy to recollect as it was to attend.
What an honor it was to Don to have his hard work and creative efforts extolled by a man of such great stature. I believe it was a turning point in his life—like being told “Fabulous job, Don. Keep up the good work!” by America’s leading food authority. Knowing that a person so steeped in knowledge and experience thought he was doing an admirable job seemed to give Don the confidence to expand and grow the company, using his endless innovative and entrepreneurial skills to create ever greater events.
In the company’s beginning there wasn’t much money for fancy and expensive new equipment. Don would buy used equipment, which often was not in the best shape. A number of portable steam tables were among his found bargains. Many had only three wheels, one wheel or another having broken off and been lost. Don would maneuver the carts into place at events and lodge a brick under the corner that was missing a wheel. It became one his can-do mantras over the years, remembering the days of “three wheels and a brick.” He always said that it served as a reminder of how he’d started and that the only way to sustain the company’s growth and maintain its reputation was to make every new event as good as or better than the preceding one. It’s a story that perfectly illustrates his knack for overcoming challenges.
To those who knew Don, it comes as no surprise that he loved to tell stories. And while there was always some basis of fact to his stories, his embellishments were often grandiose. Our son Brian says he was in high school before it occurred to him that his dad never really did play for either the Boston Celtics or the Green Bay Packers. For much of the boys’ childhoods he would begin a story with “Back when I played for the Boston Celtics” or “Back when I played for the Green Bay Packers.” The day after a party, he might have talked for thirty minutes about a conversation he had with someone at the party, and it was, as often as not, the bus driver who drove the partygoers to the ranch, or one of the security guards, or maybe just a couple who came by to say they were having a great time. My brother, Ben Singleton, adds, “And if that couple happened to mention that they were from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, then Don would come up with some obscure fact about Sheboygan to share with them, and after thirty minutes, after their tenderloin sandwich had gotten cold, they would move along, with everyone happy. They had just had a surprisingly engaging conversation with the famous caterer, and Don had just met a couple of very nice people and learned yet another obscure fact about Sheboygan.” Our family has often joked that there are probably a few telemarketers out there who never dreamed they’d be looking for excuses to get off the phone until Don answered their dinnertime call!
During most of our married life I was a stay-at-home wife and mom to our three sons, Brian, Matt, and Jason. Don managed to build the humble enterprise begun by his parents into one of the largest catering companies in the state; yet he wanted to play a very active, hands-on role in the raising of our children. As the business began to really grow, I found myself taking on more roles. In addition to making a home life for the boys that was as normal as possible, I strived to make our home a place where Don could leave the stress of the job behind him. I was the disciplinarian to our three boys, making sure that they grew up to embody the values, work ethic, and positive attitude that both Don and I held dear. The boys went through life with their dad telling them how wonderful they were, and with me going behind him and telling them not believe everything he told them!
Because Don usually worked all night and often slept until long after they had left for school the next morning, I found unorthodox ways to create family time for Don and our three young boys. I would often bathe them at night and get them ready for bed, then drive them to wherever Don was catering a party that night. At a prearranged time, Don would come out to the car and spend some time with the boys, talking about their homework, hearing about their day at school, and telling a few stories about his experiences that evening. Then I’d drive home and put them to bed. They recall those evenings much more vividly than most of us who were tucked into bed at night by our parents.
Don Strange of Texas has catered events from the White House to the Hollywood hills, countless weddings, corporate functions, private parties, and myriad other events for numbers ranging from 6 to 35,000. The big events the company has done were some of Don’s greatest challenges, but he amazed me anew each time he rose to a new level of accomplishment, meeting each of those challenges head on and turning them into amazing events.
Don had more energy and stamina and worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. I’d say he was driven to work, a trait he most likely got from his mother, who was a very rigid taskmaster. Her credo was that if you weren’t doing something involving work, then you were wasting precious time. I always called her “Mrs. Strange”—and was never invited to address her in any other manner!
One of Don’s qualities that contributed to both the success and popularity of the company was his remarkable creativity. He figured out a way to make every event totally innovative and spectacular. When Don saw a unique concept or idea, he immediately found a way to give it his own spin and to incorporate it into his repertoire of catering razzle-dazzle.
Don was the first caterer to break free of the traditional styles of catering around which the industry had thrived for years—the buffet meal line or the formal seated dinner. He began to customize each event to fit the client’s wishes, even their personalities, stopping only at the impossible to make an event sparkle. And there weren’t many “impossibilities” in his bag of tricks. He was a can-do person. Those who have witnessed events that Don catered were often amazed that what he started with ended up looking and working like it did! It seemed that Don worked his most memorable magic when things went wrong, as they often do in the catering business. At Don’s memorial service my brother, Ben, mentioned in his eulogy that “Don could turn a broken chafing dish into a centerpiece that was so creative that future clients would demand it be a part of their event!” And one of hallmarks of a Don Strange event was that it exuded his captivating Texas spirit.
I’ve heard him tell our staff a hundred times, “I want every party that we do to be the best party that host has ever attended.” Our son Matt so simply and eloquently summed up his dad the morning after he passed away: “To Don, it was never about Don. It was always about you.” While Don certainly attracted the spotlight, he never sought it. Catering was his craft, but his talent was in focusing on what would make you feel that you were the most important person on the planet. The thousands of accolades he received and the fame he garnered were not because of self-promotion, but because of that determination to make every event the most memorable experience you could dream of. Whether the event was the Congressional Barbecue on the White House lawn, a Hollywood birthday bash, or feeding 2,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina at Kelly Air Force Base, this was your event, and he wouldn’t relax until it was perfect.
If you ever had the opportunity to watch Don at one of the events he catered, you noticed two things. First, he was always watching, scanning the event to see how things were flowing—and he never missed even the most minute detail. Second, it was always a given that he was going to change something, generally at the eleventh hour. If you worked at his events, you learned to try to stay out of his line of sight when he had that look; otherwise he’d give you an assignment, and it wouldn’t be an easy one like “go pick up that fork off the floor.” It’d be something more like “let’s you and me move all those cars over to the north pasture” or “let’s you and me put up eight banquet tables over there and set up a coffee service.” But without those changes, it wasn’t a Don Strange event. It was never possible to argue with genius. The staff became adept at scanning events through Don’s eyes, anticipating the changes he would most likely want and then making them before the last minute.
Don introduced the concept of serving stations, creating elaborate settings for serving one portion of a dinner. At Don’s parties guests graze from station to station, selecting hand-patted and grilled gorditas with various toppings at one kiosk; then they mosey to a bar station for beverages, to another location for grilled beef tenderloin, to yet another for avocado halves with a choice of fillings, plus much more, with desserts interspersed at stations around the event.
The inspiration for the station concept came from the colorful two-wheeled carts of Mexico’s street vendors, which Don’s father had discovered. Don eagerly sought someone in San Antonio to fabricate similar carts to his specifications. They were equipped for cooking and serving, with canopy tops that could be changed to match the color theme of the client’s event. Don would transport the bright, festive carts to events by trailer, along with a caravan of refrigerated food trucks, other trucks full of props, grills, and various equipment, and vans carrying the staff. While traveling to one event, he heard two truckers talking on their CB radios, one trucker exclaiming, “Look at that! Do you suppose it’s some kind of carnival going down the highway?”
All of the foods served by Don Strange of Texas are made by hand. Freshness was always Don’s priority, long before it became a national trend. He was proud to say, “We make our foods from scratch so our clients know what’s in the food we serve. We buy locally grown produce whenever possible—wherever we go. We source all of our meats from Texas, and all of the fish we serve is wild-caught.”
Don was definitely a person who thought outside the box. Come to think of it, I’m not sure he ever knew where the “box” was!
Don Strange of Texas was one of the caterers selected to prepare food for the grand opening of San Antonio’s Alamodome in 1993. Subsequently, the company has catered many events there.
I remember when the company was asked to present a proposal for catering the Harley-Davidson Dealer’s Conference at the Alamodome in 1996. Don really wanted this job. So he flew to the company headquarters in Milwaukee with his assistant, Dan Schmidt, and one of his best cooks, Bea Rapelo, to present his proposal along with a few tastings. It was his intention to give the folks from “up north” a taste of Texas smoke, which is the company’s signature flavor. They were given an eight-foot table on which to make their presentation. But the only place to create a little fire was outside in the park next door. It was a bitterly cold and rainy day there in Milwaukee, but Don was determined to smoke his renowned chicken and shrimp teriyaki roll-ups, a strip of bacon folded around a shrimp, wrapped in a thin chicken strip, marinated in a teriyaki glaze, and then grilled. So Don and Dan seared them on one of the park’s charcoal grills under an umbrella, shivering in the rain, just long enough to give them that smoke flavor, and then finished cooking them in a skillet in the company’s kitchen. Bea told Don that that he and Dan looked like a couple of hobos out there cooking on their little fire! But the Harley people were impressed, and the company got the contract.
Then there was the time in 1991 when Don contracted to cater the food for the National Lutheran Youth Conference, held at the restored village La Villita in downtown San Antonio. There would be 19,000 hungry kids from all over the world waiting to be fed. I thought surely he’d overloaded his capacity this time. Not only did he pull it off like he’d done such huge jobs hundreds of times before, but he was asked to cater the conference in subsequent years in San Antonio as well as Dallas.
For the 1991 conference, the company transported to the site 25 ice storage bins, 200 portable kitchens, 80 restaurant fryers, 200 twenty-gallon containers of lemonade, and a staff of 475 professionals along with hundreds of local volunteers! The city blocked off the street so the crowd could spill over to St. John’s Lutheran Church across from La Villita. There was a famous rock band playing on the front steps of the church, and the kids danced all night. Don had plotted the locations of the various food stations and then rented several hotel rooms overlooking the entire event. The individual stations each had color-coded flags. He had “spotters” with binoculars in the various hotel rooms. When a station needed more food delivered from the supply trucks, the staff member would raise the flag and the spotter would radio a message: “Blue station needs more ground beef for tacos” or “Red station needs more corn dogs.” The spotters could also watch for bottlenecks and long lines.
In 2004 the National Lutheran Youth Conference returned to La Villita, only this time there were 35,000 kids attending! Don was asked yet again to cater the event. The kids were divided into two groups of 13,000 and 22,000 to make it possible to get them all fed. This time Don had separate tents for each food, with big signs on each tent stating what type of food was inside.
Two events that were very special to Don were commemorative parties at two of Texas’s oldest and most famous ranches—the YO Ranch and the King Ranch.
In 1980, Don Strange of Texas was asked to cater the 100th anniversary of the legendary YO Ranch, located west of Kerrville just outside Mountain Home. The ranch was owned by Charles Schreiner III, whose grandfather had acquired it a century ago and who is best known for his efforts to bring the Texas Longhorn cattle breed back from the brink of extinction. The black-tie affair for 3,500 guests was planned a full year in advance. Don remembered the party well. “On April 15th, the day before the party, it was in the nineties. But on the morning of the event, the weather began to head south. It never really got warm in the morning. By afternoon the temperature was falling. As guests began arriving in every conveyance from helicopters to pickups to limos, it began to rain. The ranch headquarters was eight miles from the entrance gate. Eight miles of rain-soaked road was the only entrance for the 3,500 guests. The traffic heading to the ranch house was bumper to bumper for hours, and there were many “emergencies” along the way. (Those were eliminated in later years by the positioning of portable toilets along the road!)
“As the party was getting into full swing, the rain turned to hail and sleet, and it was freezing cold. Imagine women dressed in elegant gowns scrambling through the mud to get under the food tents. And food there was! There were whole sides of beef hung on big grilling racks to be served with barbecue sauce on pan de campo, gorditas and quesadillas, satay, venison crepes, grilled beef tenderloins with our signature sauces, and chicken teriyaki. Lots of smoke and great aromas. There were bars set up everywhere. Charlie Schreiner III rode into the great hall of the ranch’s main lodge on Ranger, his giant pet longhorn steer, parting the crowd in its wake with its four-foot-long horns. There was dancing and drinking all night, with every kind of liquor imaginable. At midnight, Charlie demonstrated his authentic Gatling gun. If anyone thought the party was winding down, that certainly rattled it back to full swing! About 2 a.m. our crew began to serve breakfast, which included omelets made from chicken and ostrich eggs from the ranch. It was quite a sight as the guests began to file through the breakfast tent in their bedraggled formal attire.
“By the time we finally got packed up to leave, the road was slushy with hail. As our caravan headed down the road to the gate, the headlights spotlighted the most beautiful Colorado-style snow we’d ever seen. Only in Texas could it be 90 degrees one day and snowing like it was Colorado the next!”
Our son Brian recalls the YO Ranch party well as the most grandiose party that he’d worked on with his dad. Now, Brian was not the most disciplined student, and his eighth-grade earth sciences teacher at the time had mentioned to him that she’d love to work with Don at one of his events. Brian figured it might benefit his grade average if he could make this happen, so he discussed it with Don, who said that would be fine. Don actually suggested that they take her to the YO Ranch party to really impress her. Of course, when the weather went south, the entire staff was miserable, wet, and freezing, including the poor teacher, who told Don she couldn’t see how he could possibly do this for a living! Brian was really worried, but he was relieved the next month when he did, in fact, get to be a ninth grader!
The memorable party at the famous King Ranch, near Kingsville, took place in 2003, when Don Strange of Texas was invited by the owning families to cater the ranch’s 150th anniversary. The party consisted of five separate events—breakfasts, lunches, and an evening party for 1,000 to 1,500 guests. Beef was served at each meal in homage to the cattle-ranching industry from which the King Ranch derived its fame. There was plenty of wild game (nilgai) from the ranch, grilled quail, gorditas, pan de campo, and other traditional South Texas foods.
Catering parties and meetings attended by thousands of guests became Don’s forte. In August of 2001 the company catered the International Rotarians Convention at the Don Strange Ranch for 7,500 Rotarians from all over the world. Don recounted that when the guests arrived, it was a sight he’d never forget. I remember when he called me from the ranch.
“Can you imagine 250 buses pulling into the ranch, and the people from those 250 buses walking across the dam? I asked myself what we had gotten into, and with my caterer’s mind I began to crunch numbers in my head to be certain we were going to have enough food! We’ve got everything for a real Texas barbecue—six sides of beef, six huge barbecue pits piled high with sausage, and all the trimmings. We’ve got four bands and a full rodeo with five rodeo events, which we’re presenting twice to be sure everyone who’d like to see it gets to attend. And we’ve set up four circus tents to provide plenty of shade. This will be a party to remember.”
In 2002 Don Strange of Texas catered a USAA company picnic for 10,000 employees and their families at the company’s facilities in San Antonio. It was a great picnic with barbecued beef sandwiches, roasted corn on the cob, grilled chicken, and funnel cakes. A different food was served at each station, so there weren’t huge lines of people waiting to get a plate of food. They could graze around, eating in a leisurely manner.
In 2004 Walt Disney Studios filmed a second version of the iconic movie The Alamo, this time starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. Like the original, the Disney version premiered in San Antonio, but this time at the Majestic Theater downtown. Don Strange of Texas was contacted by Disney’s marketing arm, Buena Vista Marketing Group, and asked to cater the premiere party for the cast, crew, and invited guests—a total of 1,700 people—after the screening. The theme was to be “Authentic Texas and Spanish Colonial Cuisines—Reminiscent of the Birth of the Republic of Texas.” The party was held at Alamo Plaza, and Don put on an event they’ll likely never forget. Houston Street was closed to traffic from the theater to the plaza. Don had a bright yellow carpet laid down the middle of the street, starting in front of the theater and going all the way to the Alamo. He waited outside the theater with Rio Bravo, his favorite Texas longhorn from the Don Strange Ranch, and led the entire party down Houston Street to the plaza, where they were greeted by large mesquite fire pits on each side of the plaza. The plaza was flanked by huge lighted tents with four antique chuck wagons and six more longhorn steers, which were handled by ranch personnel. Don had a real cedar split-rail fence built around the plaza, and a spectacular stage was erected in front of the Alamo for the entertainment. Each food station was built of native flagstone and decorated with live Texas and Mexican cacti. As the guests arrived at the plaza, Don Strange of Texas waiters were passing out prickly pear margaritas and Texas wines. The party had all of the flair of the movie itself!
There was never a dull moment in my life with Don Strange. Some cliffhangers, to be sure, but never without great resolutions, plucked from his psyche at just the right moment!