What’s Under That Napkin?

On Thursday, Oct. 25, Michael Ellison, a model and aspiring actor from Texas with spiky blond hair, settled down with an espresso at the 19th Street Le Pain Quotidien wearing a gray puffy jacket, jeans and two-tone Marc Jacobs wellies. The fresh-faced Mr. Ellison, 25, has starred on Law & Order and appeared Off Broadway, but he was here to discuss his side career.

“Four years ago, I was at a modeling agency,” he said. “And the guys were talking about ways to make extra money, saying you could make $18 an hour catering. Being from Texas, I was like, ‘Heck yeah, sign me up!’”

Mr. Ellison went in for an interview at a company called T&L Events Inc. (no relation to Time-Life). “The staffing person had all his walls filled with models’ comp cards,” he remembered. “And I thought, ‘This is weird, my agent has the same thing!’ And it was all guys, no girls. And soon enough, the rate went up to $25. And before you knew it I was being flown out to Ohio to do parties for Abercrombie & Fitch at the owner’s house.”

Nowadays, Mr. Ellison works mostly for private chefs and event planners staffing the city’s most exclusive parties. He’s one member of a genetically blessed army of (largely) male “cater-waiters” who provide scenery, branding and genial, attentive service to New York’s social, fashion and finance elite during soirees in brownstones and downtown lofts. Friendly, efficient and just flirtatious enough, Mr. Ellison and his peers are a workforce whose attractiveness is unrivaled except in modeling itself, and so great is the demand for their symmetrical, youthful vigor that the best among them can pull in upward of $100,000 a year—on top of what they might make acting or modeling.

It’s money their employers say is well worth it. “In today’s times, it”—meaning attractiveness—“carries huge importance,” said Peter Callahan, whose high-profile eponymous company caters for luxury and private clients including Al Gore. “We hear all the time from people, ‘I need really handsome staff.’” A lot of his staff are models, he said. “They’re good guys; they’re happy about life. They’re not cranky cater-waiters.”

“I remain cognizant of the fact that I’m in the fashion business,” said Olivier Cheng, a caterer who has recently provided fetching fellows for elaborate bashes thrown by Ralph Lauren and Hermes, “I’m like a marketing agent for my client.”

He added: “New York is a visually driven city.”

‘Like a Big Frat House’

During Fashion Week in September, the army was out in full force. There they were serving cocktails at Tom Ford’s party for Marilyn Minter: hair slicked into side parts, wearing tailored white mandarin coats with gold buttons; at Kate and Andy Spade’s early-morning press breakfast, helpfully offering coffee and mimosas and charming miniature donuts. On Sept. 18, courtesy of Mr. Cheng, they were black-clad and clean-shaven at GQ’s 50th Anniversary bash in Chelsea. At a Lucky magazine event on Oct. 25, young servers from Mr. Callahan’s company in black dress shirts and slacks served mini-cheeseburgers and spring rolls while women attacked racks of shoes all around them.

Of course, it makes sense that handsome male cater-waiters would be staffing fashion and media events, since those are mostly organized by women and gay men. But Brett Stephan, 28, a former model and longtime cater-waiter who now staffs private parties for fashion elites and Sant Ambroeus restaurant, provided another rationale. “Ninety-five percent of the business is men, because you’re dealing with heavy lifting,” he said. “You have 50- or 60-pound tubs of ice and 40-pound racks of glasses. There’s a lot of setup and breakdown.”

Mr. Stephan said he’s constantly prospecting for potential staffers. “I’ll be at Marquee on a Wednesday night, and I’ll meet a guy who just got into the city to do a little modeling. I’ll give him my business card and tell him to give me a call if he wants to do some parties. I’ve gotten a couple good guys off Craigslist. And just through friends. The business that we’re in is a very small niche business, and everybody pretty much knows each other. It’s like a big frat house.”

Indeed. The industry is still reverberating from a 1995 lawsuit brought by a female staffer against the high-profile Upper East Side caterer Glorious Food, charging that she was not given an equal chance to work the most lucrative parties. The case was settled for $425,000, and Glorious Food agreed to stop accommodating clients’ requests for men only. “We are an equal opportunity employer,” said Stephan Baroni, Managing Director of Hudson Yards Catering. “Occasionally we have certain clients in the luxury market that do request certain looks or certain styles, and we try to accommodate some of them without breaking the law.”

And for many clients of means, that certain look simply amounts to “hot beefcake.”

“I’ve probably catered with every face that’s been on the Abercrombie billboards,” Mr. Ellison said. “You’ll go to a party and see a guy and feel like you know him, but it’s just that you’ve seen him in Dolce & Gabbana ads.”

What’s Under That Napkin?