News & Politics

The Insider: Christopher Otway

As head of sales and catering for the Marriott Wardman Park, Christopher Otway oversees events from the Black Tie and Boots Ball to luxurious private dinners.

As head of sales and catering for the Marriott Wardman Park, Washington’s largest hotel, Christopher Otway oversees many of Washington’s largest events, ranging from association conferences to inaugural balls. Otway was born in Grenada before moving to DC’s Kalorama neighborhood as a child; he attended Catholic University.

I got into this by accident. Most of my training was in the arts, music education, dance. During school I worked for Marriott. I started out as a dishwasher, working my way up to waiter, and got into catering as a banquet waiter and then a banquet captain. After college, nothing really panned out in the arts, and I was offered a management role at Marriott, making good money.

I loved it. Catering is basically an art form. It represents a theater in some way.

For a big event, we’ll often sign a contract a year out. About six months out, you really start planning. It generally starts with lights, decor, staging, floor plan. Then we set up tastings for the food and beverage.

When meeting a customer for the first time, you have to figure out whether it’s a “you event,” a “me event,” or a “we event.” “We events” are the hardest because then there’s a committee, and not everyone agrees. “You events,” like when a husband is planning his wife’s birthday, are different from a “me event,” when someone’s planning their own birthday and want the event to reflect themselves.

It’s all about timing. For dinner for 1,000 guests, it’ll take 45 minutes to an hour to plate everything. The food is cooked at a temperature that allows it to keep warm or keep cooking in the hot box.

If you think 1,000 is an issue, try 2,000 or 2,500.

For a seated dinner, we can do about 2,800. For the Black Tie and Boots Ball, we had 14,000 for the reception. For something like that, the planning starts even more than a year out.

Dinner generally runs $90 to $150 per person and up. If you have Cristal and caviar, you could be talking $300 or more per person.

We’ll do 75 to 100 events a year of upward of 1,000 people. There are events here every single day.

We do 15 guests per server, and we try to do service in teams, so we have two people serving three tables of ten. That keeps one person on the floor at all times.

We can serve just about anything with the right preparation. Chicken and beef are always big, but veal’s coming back. Everything is prepared here fresh, cooked here, and plated here. For a big dinner, we’ll do at least 10 percent vegetarian.

We have plating belts. You know the I Love Lucy assembly belt? It’s the same thing. Depending on the numbers, we can do three belts, two belts, or one belt.

It starts with the plate, then you do the meats, then the vegetables or the starch. You have one person putting one thing on. The belt has to be at a certain pace so the catcher at the end can put the cover on and then put it in the box. The hot box holds 100 to 150 meals, and the covered plates are stacked into the box.

To avoid having a lot of leftovers, the banquet manager will get an accurate count of the number of guests and communicate that to the chef. Any leftovers are usually donated at the discretion of the client or the hotel.

Usually we’ll have a day to set up big events because events today are getting very technical with lights and video.

Events have grown in size, too. What was a 500-person event 15 years ago is now a 1,000-person event or even 1,500 people. As you get more people involved, it gets more technical. Lighting adds the atmosphere, the drama.

My biggest disaster was a dinner for about 300 guests. We decided we’d do bubble bowls as the centerpiece—big glass bowls with rocks, flowers, and goldfish. At the last minute as we were opening the doors, the florist decided to add some atmosphere and put dry ice in the bowls. All the fish died. We had the servers go in, white gloves, pick up the bowls and walk out with them. That wasn’t a pretty sight. I haven’t used fish since then.