THE SMART dinner party was progressing nicely - the champagne was flowing and everyone was munching the starter - when one of the guests turned to the hostess: 'This roulade is absolutely exquisite.' The hostess smiled graciously. A pause. 'What did you put in it?'

The silence seemed ominous. And had the questioner glanced at the scarlet face of Edwina Rickards, a fellow guest, he might have guessed something was up. He did not, and Ms Rickards, a professional cook and the true architect of the meal, was left to rescue the conversation. 'Didn't you use cheese and basil?' She looked meaningfully at the hostess, who nodded quickly. 'Then, of course, the chicken and asparagus.' The dinner party continued smoothly and the hostess's secret remained safe.

'This kind of thing happens all the time,' says Ms Rickards, who cooks lunches in the City as well as making small dinners for the 40-60 age group. 'You just have to laugh.'

The number of women hiring private cooks for dinner parties has risen over the past 15 years, she says. And so has the number of hostesses who try to give the impression that they have cooked for their dinners parties themselves.

'Women in their thirties, who cannot cook, do not wish to be shown up in front of their female friends,' she says. 'They feel the need to give the impression of industry in the home, especially if they are not working. Those who do work, on the other hand, tend not to care.'

It is precisely because of such foibles that caterers these days have to be far more than just good cooks. They need to have humour and patience - in huge quantities. For, just as every hostess has a tale to tell about 'those simply disastrous caterers I hired', so all caterers have their own about an impossible hostess.

'Every day is filled with drama,' says Jane Lloyd-Owen, who runs By Word of Mouth, a company based in Wandsworth, London. 'Last week a client rang up two hours before a lunch for 270 people, and said that suddenly she had 40 more people coming. We had to find 40 more portions of everything in no time at all - but that's just par for the course.'

Temperamental clients are an accepted obstacle. In the middle of one grand dinner, an elderly man refused to eat Ms Lloyd-Owen's food and insisted that someone fetch him a McDonald's. 'We did it.' She actually laughs. 'It's all part of the theatre of the day.'

If the client is not the problem, the venue probably will be. The marketing director of one of England's more famous old London caterers, who asked not to be named, explained how his company once had to cook the soup and vegetables for a dinner on the back of a lorry.

'We took the only parking space available,' he said, 'until, that is, the owner of the building turned up and needed it. Someone then had to drive the lorry, with the soup and vegetables boiling away in it, round and round the block, while I leapt out from the pavement and flagged it down whenever I needed more food.'

In view of all the sagas about catering for large events - Roger de Pilkyngton of Payne & Gunter recounts that just before a dinner for 200, his secretary put down the phone and said, 'They've just told me its 200 couples' - it is perhaps surprising that most caterers find cooking for small private dinners to be the biggest problem.

Hostesses at home tend to be far more fussy about the food. 'It is quite normal for someone to change her mind over the menu at the last minute,' says Ms Rickards. 'Then, when you get to the house with the food, there is nothing suitable to serve it on.'

This is not the least of the problems she has encountered. After one dinner, she was chased round the kitchen by the hostess's husband, flapping his arms and clucking: 'Where's my pretty little partridge then?'

One woman refused to let any of the caterers she employed into her larder. 'She steadfastly locked it and hid the keys, only allowing you to go in if you told her the precise amount of any ingredient you needed,' said a cook who had worked for her.

But caterers have learnt to deal with such setbacks with equanimity. Ms Lloyd-Jones recalls the day her entire fridge-lorry, packed with champagne, was stolen - the day before the party. 'We had to go out and buy everything all over again,' she says, without a hint of irritation.

'The fascinating part is working around the problem,' says Mr De Pilkyngton. Michelle Julian, of Babette's Feast, concurs. 'We will do whatever we're asked - nothing is too difficult.'

But just as caterers are about to become confused with saints, Ms Rickards showed that she was capable of some endearing stroppiness.

The friend who had pretended to have made that cheese roulade herself had rung to ask her for the recipe. 'It turned out that the guest, who had asked about it at the party, wanted it,' she says. 'I didn't give it to her.'

Edwina Rickards (081-299 3150): price negotiable.

Jane Lloyd-Owen, By Word of Mouth, 22 Glenville Mews, Kimber Road, London SW18 4NJ (081-871 9566): will deliver three courses to your home, from pounds 25 a head.

Payne & Gunter, Mayfair House, Belvue Road, Northolt, Middlesex UB5 5OJ (081-842 2224): prices dependent on venue.

Babette's Feast, 8 Disraeli Gardens, Fawe Park Road, London SW15 2QB (081-871 1265): prices from pounds 25 a head for a three-course meal.

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