Disaster loomed. The caterer responsible for an upcoming party for 1,000 guests from a bankers’ convention had simply vanished – just days before the gathering.
No grand hotels with banquet service existed in Houston in 1959. The distraught River Oaks family turned to Bennie Ferrell, a chauffeur and gardener by day whose weekend bartending talents at private parties had earned him a stellar reputation. Could he do it?
Ferrell and his wife, Norma Lee Parhms Ferrell, talked to friends and pulled together a staff. The cooking naturally fell to Norma, whose father, Dempsey Parhms, was the private chef for oil tycoon Wesley West for 30 years. The party went off without a hitch, and Bennie Ferrell Catering was born.
The mom-and-pop business would go on to cater dinners for presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and George H. W. Bush, not to mention King Hussein of Jordan, Secretary of State James Baker, Dr. Denton Cooley, and events at the 1990 Economic Summit, the 2004 Super Bowl and the 2006 NBA All-Stars.
Two of their daughters, Cynthia Ferrell Sample and Renee Ferrell Sharpe, celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary Thursday with a bash at their West Loop office. They will serve the company’s signature dishes: beef tenderloin, marinated shrimp and homemade tamales. The daughters were enlisted to help in the business in their early teens; Cynthia is the company’s executive chef; Renee handles the business side.
After that first party, Norma Ferrell instantly found herself in the catering business.
“She was doing everything, booking, cooking and serving,” Renee says. “The phone was ringing off the wall. Mom told my father, ‘You’ve got to quit that job and come and help.’”
Reluctantly, Bennie quit his $35-a-week job.
What they didn’t know, they learned on the fly. Bennie nonchalantly agreed to prepare a beef tenderloin for a party early in his catering career. As soon as he was in private, he phoned Norma and asked her how to cook it.
“She told him to marinate the meat in salt and pepper, then bake it at a certain temperature for 20 minutes,” Cynthia recalls.
Being a country boy from Mexia, Bennie had never heard the word “marinate” and thought his wife said “mayonnaise.” So he slathered the meat with mayo, salt and pepper – and everyone loved it.
"In fact,” says Cynthia, “that’s where his reputation as a great meat seasoner was born.”
Connections helped the business along. Throughout his career, Norma’s father prepared food for West, whose best friend was President Johnson. Through Norma and her father, Bennie Ferrell Catering was a natural shoe-in for later events at LBJ’s and Lady Bird’s ranch west of Johnson City.
They catered events for the elder Bush before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1966 and later, at parties Bush sponsored for foreign dignitaries as United Nations ambassador and chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China. Queen Sophia of Spain attended one such party during the early 1970s and enjoyed the Ferrells’ marinated shrimp – so much that she asked Bennie for the recipe. He refused. (But on this golden anniversary, his daughters have agreed to reveal it. See the full recipe at the end of this article.)
Just after Bush was elected president in 1988, Cynthia and Renee were given three days to pull together a dinner at NASA for Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas, complete with flowers, crystal, Oriental carpet and Chippendale furniture.
Cynthia created a chocolate truffle, coated with edible 24-karat gold, to cap the six-course lunch. The box of 1¼-oz., 225-calorie orbs set off the Secret Service’s highly sensitive metal detector when an employee tried to bring it in the building, and the incident made it into USA Today.
Today, the Golden Chocolate Truffle is the most requested item on the Bennie Ferrell Catering menu.
When Bennie and Norma started their business in 1959, the catering industry was in its infancy. Most people entertained in their homes and their private chefs provided the food. Insurance companies grew tired of paying for chipped china, so rental companies sprang up in the 1970s. Parties and banquets moved to the office buildings that were beginning to dot Houston’s skyline.
Bennie Ferrells flourished in the ‘80s, when “everything was over the top,” Cynthia says. They catered a huge sit-down dinner for Saudi oilmen during that time that stretched into the night and drained the Ferrell’s supply of champagne.
One of their staffers passed by the head table, where the man giving the party dramatically requested, “Champagne for all my guests.”
“You couldn’t tell him, in front of all those people, that he didn’t have anymore,” Cynthia said. So the sisters put their heads together and, not long after, staffers began filling flutes from champagne bottles. The guests probably never realized they were drinking club soda and wine.
Bennie died in 1979, but Norma was a force in the business until her death earlier this year. Yet she often went her own way. In 1985, she bought a red Mercedes and drove to Guatemala, where she worked for three years as a missionary. That same year, Bennie Ferrell Catering catered the opening of a children's home near Guatemala City, importing Texas barbecue for the occasion. Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu attended the festivities.
Queen Sophia of Spain couldn’t have this favored recipe, but you can.
(hors d’oeurves for 20)
4 lbs. unpeeled jumbo shrimp (21/25 count)
1 qt. red wine vinegar
2 c. vegetable oil
1/3 c. Lowry’s Seasoning Salt
1/3 c. cracked black pepper
1 c. brown sugar
Place shrimp in boiling water and cook until just pink. Remove from water and cover with ice to prevent further cooking. Once the shrimp are cool, peel and devein them, leaving the tails on.
For the marinade, put the vinegar in a 2-quart mixing bowl and, very slowly, pour in oil, whisking constantly. Whisk in remaining marinade ingredients.
Place shrimp in marinade, making sure the juice covers them. Marinate them for two to four hours. Remove from marinade and serve.