Party people

Imagine all the stress and hassle of throwing an exclusive bash - and then picture what it would be like if someone else stepped in and did all the hard work for you. Julia Stuart drops in on a party where every aspect is taken care of, from the butler to the chocolate fountain
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is half an hour before the guests are due to arrive at the home of Helen Graves for a mid-week barbecue. The hostess is in a curious state of tranquillity - possibly because we have provided her with a hand-picked selection of companies that make entertaining that bit easier. So there is not the slightest whiff of panic about her, no prayers that the guests will be late or curses that she's forgotten something. Instead, she loafs around the place with the nonchalance of a bored teenager, not a single crease in her spotless white linen shirt.

It is half an hour before the guests are due to arrive at the home of Helen Graves for a mid-week barbecue. The hostess is in a curious state of tranquillity - possibly because we have provided her with a hand-picked selection of companies that make entertaining that bit easier. So there is not the slightest whiff of panic about her, no prayers that the guests will be late or curses that she's forgotten something. Instead, she loafs around the place with the nonchalance of a bored teenager, not a single crease in her spotless white linen shirt.

A peek into the garden of the 32-year-old's home in Putney, south-west London, reveals the reason for her serenity. A butler is raking up the leaves and a chef is standing at an industrial-size barbecue, inspecting a fresh tuna steak. Along the herbaceous border, two gentlemen are setting up a cocktail bar. On the patio table is a giant ice sculpture, still wrapped in plastic, through which shots of vodka will be poured. And, in the conservatory, a man in chef's whites is putting the final touches to the pudding - a chocolate fountain.

For some, the era is over for a pre-party breakdown by the hostess and guests being offered an unfathomable piece of blackened saturated fat proudly identified by the host (who is wearing ill-fitting shorts) as "a sausage going begging". For those prepared to put their hands into their pockets, they can pay someone else to not only take the stress, but to put on a bash that will be the envy of the party circuit for the rest of the year.

THE BUTLER

The bell rings and Ronny Buesser, in full butler garb, walks calmly up the hall and opens the door, much to the shock of Helen's friends, who assume they've got the wrong place. According to Buesser's CV, supplied by "professional domestic agency" Greycoat Placements, he is a very personable and likeable man, who is hard working, reliable, flexible in his hours and duties, professional and caring. He is also qualified in massage and declares, with a passionate look in his eyes, that he "loves ironing". Already every female guest wants to stuff him into her handbag and take him home.

Long gone is the time when a butler's job was to hold down his master in the dentist's chair and pass him his pistols before a duel. Nowadays, he will greet your friends so you don't have to interrupt your conversation to open the door, take their coats, serve drinks and generally do your bidding. Buesser, who buttled at Michael Schumacher's wedding, says his job is to know that his client needs a glass of water even before they know they want one. For this splendid streak of sophistication, Greycoat Placements asks for a £50 (plus VAT) introduction fee. Buesser charges £15 an hour.

THE PORTABLE BAR

Buesser leads people down the garden to a small white bar where Alex Carlton, the managing director of the bespoke bar service Funkin At Home, is busy setting up. Mixologist Dimitri Lezinska, who used to run the London Academy of Bartenders and worked at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, is sorting out mixers. "We offer an A-list bar experience," explains Carlton. "We want to bring Sketch and Soho House into your home. You can also get behind the bar and learn how to make them yourself."

The company use four full-time bartenders and also those of other London restaurants and bars, including Sketch, Soho House, St Martins Lane and Fifteen. The bars, which come in white or black and silver, can measure up to 30m long. Five cocktails are offered, chosen by the host, though other concoctions can also be made. On the menu tonight is a Cosmopolitan, Bellini, caipirinha, Martini and Rapaska. Happily, there is no limit on how many cocktails guests can request. As well as the drink and mixers, Funkin also provides the glasses. The company charges £450 for a party of up to 15 for two hours with one bartender (plus VAT). Its average invoice is £1,800 for 50 to 70 people. The company can boast that it has been invited into the homes of numerous A-list celebrities from the world of music, film, fashion and sport - but they are far too discreet to name names.

A FLYING CHEF

Already, Graves and her guests, sipping a range of beautifully coloured drinks, have an air of intense pleasure about them. Buesser, who looked after Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat while working for the German government, is the only one keeping an eye on the whole proceedings. Graves' eye is firmly off the ball. Suddenly he announces that the food is ready. Roman Fic, from London's Flying Chef, has been putting next door's rival barbecue to shame. He has just knocked up Thai chicken skewers in spices and coconut; chargrilled fresh tuna with peppered citrus marinade; chargrilled chicken skewers coated in light peanut sauce served with a sweet satay dip; lamb steaks marinated in sesame oil and honey served with a salsa sauce; chargrilled kebabs with aubergine, red peppers and courgettes served with sour cream; cous-cous topped with fresh chopped tomatoes, cucumber, black olives and basil; salad niçoise; fresh pasta with baby spinach, roasted pine nuts and parmesan shaving in a citrus dressing; and a sliced tropical fruit platter.

The company has two barbecue menus to choose from, though guests can also opt for a bespoke menu written by Daniel Clifford, the chef-patron of the two-star Michelin restaurant Midsummer House in Cambridge.

The food costs £209 for 10 people. There are, however, numerous extras. Having Fic, a qualified chef, cook for you costs £75 for four hours. Hiring the gas barbecue costs £115, the plates and cutlery 35p per item, linen napkins £1 each, the trestle table £8.50 and the table cloth £10.50. There is also a £15 delivery charge. Prices exclude VAT.

The guests eat at the garden table, wondering why a British bloke wearing flip-flops and shorts is unable to deliver such wonderment. Meanwhile, Buesser shows that he knows a thing or two about human behaviour. Offering more food, whenever he comes across a refusal coupled with a look of longing, he asks if the person is sure. Their resolve immediately crumbles and they pass their plate for more.

THE CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN

When the guests finally begin to put down their knives and forks, their heads start to turn. For in the conservatory behind them is something that can instantly bring a grown woman to her knees. Continually oozing over three tiers is 10 kilograms of melted Belgian milk chocolate, the equivalent of 250 Mars bars. Standing next to the fountain is Harvey Ward of The Original Chocolate Fountain. He has the words "Chief Chocolate Officer" embroidered on his white chef's jacket.

Among the orchids dotted around the base of the fountain are numerous plates of sliced kiwi, extra-sweet Costa Rican pineapple, pieces of Devonshire fudge with cherries, plain fudge, fudge with Maltesers, chunks of marzipan, cream-filled profiteroles, doughnuts and strawberries dusted with edible glitter. Also on the table is a notice warning against double dipping - which is putting a piece of food into the chocolate, having a nibble and putting it back in for another coating.

The company is based at New Covent Garden Market where it buys the very freshest produce available. "It's important to get the right type of strawberries," says Ward. "If they're too large, people can't put them into their mouths, which encourages double dipping. We don't like this for hygiene reasons."

One of the company's fountains was used in the filming of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which will be released this summer. They have also been used at film premieres including Love Actually and Spiderman 2. According to Ward, half the Labour cabinet (minus the PM) once surrounded one and numerous supermodels have tried to resist at parties (Elle Macpherson was unable to). One dipper, Lord Mayor Ken Livingstone, is a sucker for the profiteroles.

People hiring a fountain can choose from organic dark, milk or white chocolate. It comes in small pieces that can be melted in a microwave. A small fountain with chocolate for up to 70 guests costs £285. Delivery and collection is £60. A large one catering for up to 100 guests will set you back £400, with delivery and collection costing £70. The "complete" option includes a uniformed operator to set it up and assist with crowd control, as well as all the food, linen, glass plates, sticks, napkins and delivery within the M25 and Birmingham area. It costs £650 for the small fountain and £750 for a large one. Those wanting an even funkier option can hire a Perspex neon light box which surrounds the base on which the plates of food can be placed. The company also offers other options including rotating and double fountains, and can cater for up to 6,000 guests. (All the above prices exclude VAT.)

Graves' guests need no invitation from Buesser, and steam in. "It's the loveliest thing I've ever seen," gasps a woman, open-mouthed. Each skewers a little something on to the end of a stick and dunks it into the chocolate. "Oh my God!" says a 44-year-old man after swallowing. "This is possibly the greatest invention on earth. What a great game." Some, in a state of reverie, systematically work their way through each food option.

ALL ABOUT ICE

Their curiosity sated, interest turns to the ice sculpture sitting on the garden table in a tray of ice cubes. The 125kg block of ice, measuring one metre by half a metre, is carved in the shape of a hand holding a martini glass. The drinks cupboard is hastily raided and a bottle of vodka triumphantly produced. A shot is poured down the hole at the top and a guest, eschewing a glass, puts his lips to the hole at the side, misses, and the vodka lands on his shirt, much to the spectators' joy.

All About Ice, which has provided the sculpture, employs two Thai woodcarvers who take up to three hours to carve one. They last six to eight hours. The ice comes in big blocks from Canada, says managing director Steve Petch, as it is cheaper than buying the kit to make his own. Standard sculptures (like the Martini glass) cost £295 plus £35 for delivery in London and set-up (excluding VAT). An operator can be hired for £35 an hour, though most people prefer to do it themselves. Luges - through which drinks are poured - include a glass slipper, a ski jump and male and female torsos. Customers can also have their own design made. This year, All About Ice made the Bafta mask in ice for the award ceremony at Grosvenor House and, in February, one appeared in EastEnders at the launch party of the programme's Scarlet club.

"At one private party, 100 people put 35 bottles of vodka down a sculpture within an hour. We advise people not to use them until the food has been eaten," says Petch, who has supplied sculptures to some of London's top nightclubs.

Suddenly, all thoughts of merriment with vodka are banished: the man with the chocolate fountain is packing up. There is a yelp of pain from outside and earnest talk of "gaffer tape" and "bundling him into the cellar". The guests rush from the garden back into the conservatory and frantically start dipping. There is no shame.

At the end of the night they declare the party a triumph. Helen doesn't even have any clearing-up to do. "It was wonderful," she says. "It felt very, very indulgent. Usually, when I'm talking to people at a party, half my head is on what needs to come out of the oven or whether people need another drink. I was able to enjoy it because I wasn't stressed. At all the other parties I've held, my apron hasn't come off. For this one, I haven't even had it on."

For more information

Greycoat Placements tel: 020 7233 9950 www.greycoatplacements.co.uk

Funkin at Home tel: 020 7328 4440 www.funkinathome.com

London's Flying Chef tel: 020 7633 0099 www.flyingchef.co.uk

The Original Chocolate Fountain tel: 0800 612 9896 www.theoriginalchocolatefountain.com

All About Ice tel: 01923 242 242 www.allaboutice.com

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