In 1972, having dropped out of graduate school (Far Eastern Studies) and possessed about food, cooking and all things Chinese, I opened a catering business in my hometown of Santa Barbara. This was before I had learned that sometimes less is better when it comes to dinner parties. My typical menu involved 10 to 14 courses and required days of shopping, chopping, mincing and dicing. Dinners turned into theatrical culinary kung-fu events with me racing between the kitchen and dining room to explain every presentation. In fact, five minutes before my first hired catering event, the hostess increased the guest list from eight to 12. No matter, I had enough food to feed thousands.

At one such event, a couple I didn’t know personally commissioned me to prepare a Chinese banquet for 16 guests. I usually preview the kitchen, but for this event everything was arranged by phone. The home was one in a series of stately Spanish-style houses near the Santa Barbara Mission. The front door was already open, so I walked into the living room, accepted a warm welcome from a group assembled around the fire, and proceeded to the kitchen to “inspect.” I hate a cluttered kitchen, but here were wonderfully empty counters and a center island the size of New Hampshire. Out I went to my old beat-up van to make countless roundtrips, unloading dozens of little containers of stir-fry sauces, marinated meats, chilled lobsters, tea-smoked duck breasts, homemade mu shu wrappers and trays of dim sum—all ready to be steamed, pan fried and boiled. What chaos! Thirty minutes of organizational frenzy later, an elegantly dressed woman appeared in the kitchen. Ah, the hostess! Her first words were, “Who are you, and what are you doing in MY kitchen?” I had transposed the numbers of the address. Wrong house! The real client lived next door!

What’s been your biggest surprise?