Bonnie May on catering for Frank Sinatra, the work of GIG and her favourite things about Buckinghamshire
PUBLISHED: 16:45 01 October 2014 | UPDATED: 16:45 01 October 2014
From favourite sandwiches for superstars to lavish banquets for dignitaries, Bonnie May and the GIG team have done it all, Karen Kay finds
When Frank Sinatra needed someone to cater for his every whim while on tour, he trusted just one woman with the job. “I’d sit outside his dressing room and make sure he had anything he wanted to eat or drink,” recalls Bonnie May, as she looks fondly at a signed ‘thank you’ photo from the legendary crooner hanging on her office wall.
A quick scan around the room takes in framed gold discs from a host of chart-topping acts, and a plethora of personally addressed photos and letters from international stars such as The Eagles, Cliff Richard, Elton John, Iron Maiden and Garth Brooks.
It is from here, at the headquarters of the Global Infusion Group - known as GIG - on an unremarkable industrial estate on the outskirts of Chesham, that Bonnie and her partner, Tony Laurenson, run a specialist backstage catering operation for the music, entertainment, film and TV industries, plus sports events, major product launches and other large functions.
The business began three decades ago, as Eat to the Beat, when Laurenson was asked to deliver backstage catering for an international tour by heavy metal band Iron Maiden – who still rely on the Bucks-based business to feed their travelling team on all their tours to this day. During the 1980s, Eat to the Beat became one of the world’s leading tour caterers and in 1991 GIG was formed as an umbrella under which to diversify the operation across the entire ‘live’ events sector.
Today, GIG employs around 170 full-time staff world-wide supported by 3,000 freelance professional specialists, working from offices in California, Qatar and Shanghai, with a branch about to open in Rio to support the South American expansion of the brand. In fact, GIG’s success received formal recognition recently, when the company was named as the recipient of a prestigious Queen’s Business Award for Enterprise in International Trade.
Over the years, it was Bonnie who went on the road with her team of cooks and logistics staff, building relationships with the sometimes fickle showbusiness names that became loyal clients of the Chesham company.
“My first job, when I joined Eat to the Beat at the age of 19, was to do the catering for the crew and band on tour with The Temptations,” says Bonnie, tossing the flame red hair that gives her the aura of a performer who should be belting out a power ballad or rock anthem on stage, Fender in hand. However, she’s clearly happier with a sharp knife and a saucepan, preparing food for household names and their entourages as the travel around the world.
“In those days, it was really rock ‘n’ roll,” she laughs, with a knowing look in her pale green eyes. “There was no social media, no paparazzi, no mobile phones. We just packed our bags, got on the tour bus and disappeared for weeks on end. No ringing home, no selfies, no Tweets. What went on tour, stayed on tour and it was great fun. My daughter is now 17, and it is my worst nightmare that she will do the same thing. It terrifies me. It was one big party.
“Bands made their money from selling albums in those days, so the tours were a marketing tool: now the tours are the money-making machine because no-one buys music anymore.”
Bonnie is discreet, as is the wont of any professional working in the inner sanctum of showbusiness, but her experiences offer up some amusing anecdotes, such as the occasion when she arrived in Germany with a prominent performer, ready to set up the catering facility.
“At each location, the production team books local crew to unload and give us a runner – a kind of man with a van who knows the area and can take you to the shops or run errands,” she explains. “We transport fridges and cookers and all our equipment in huge flight cases, but we shop for fresh food daily when we’re on the road. When we arrived in Germany, we asked the runner to buy some French bread for breakfast, and he was gone all day. We were really worried about him, but it turned out he’d driven to France to get it. Then there was the time we asked the local crew to fill the tea urn with bottled water: when we returned, there was an awful smell, and they had neatly packed loads of small bottles inside the metal urn and switched it on!”
She goes on to describe the sight of a locally-booked kitchen hand, who’d been asked to peel a sack of carrots, standing amidst a mountain of shredded vegetables, rather than simply peeled ones. The misinterpretation of instructions is sometimes amusing, but often frustrating when you’re working on tight schedules, feeding a hungry crew. “Lots of things get lost in translation,” says Bonnie, as more and more examples of comical moments come to mind. “Every day on tour, we make masses of sandwiches for the crew after they’ve unloaded everything. They’re usually ravenous as it’s very physical work. We often ask the local catering assistants to do this, as it’s not the most stimulating work and doesn’t require any specialist skills. The order is usually personalised, as the crew choose what fillings they want. Unfortunately, egg and mayo has ended up as egg and mango, while peanut butter and jam has been served as peanut butter and ham to a rather bemused crew.”
Bonnie May has clearly enjoyed her time traversing the globe with stars who have become her friends, and has built up a loyal clientele that consistently turns to her for any catering demands.
She and her team have kept the show on the road for Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Jay-Z, James Brown, the artist formerly known as Prince, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, David Bowie, Take That, Status Quo and the Spice Girls, to name but a few.
“The best night ever was when we did the Hell Freezes Over reunion for The Eagles and the opening night was in Dublin. It was a breathtaking show, which started with a brilliant rendition of Hotel California, then at the end they rolled credits, just like on TV or in the movies, listing all the crew and backstage staff. It was wonderful to see everyone’s names on a big screen as a rare public thank you. Really memorable.”
Bonnie stopped touring full time in 1997, when she gave birth to her daughter, Harry, and took on an office-based role which has evolved to become Global Operations Director - or GOD, as she jokingly describes herself – in the burgeoning international business.
“Tony is MD and we have another GOD, Mary, who now runs the music and entertainments side of the business. We do all the big summer festivals, such as Glastonbury, where we provide all the backstage artist catering and nourishment for the BBC crew. We do the backstage services for Strictly Come Dancing and the BBC Proms and lots more. These days, I focus on corporate jobs for big brands, sports events, such as the Sochi Winter Olympics and big one-off functions, such as the Golden Jubilee, the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday celebrations, Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert in Hyde Park and Live 8. I’ve done lots of events at 10 Downing Street, too.”
She cites private parties and dinners as some of her more surreal commissions, such as a 21st birthday celebration with a £4million budget, and ‘at home’ dinners for the Sultan of Brunei and Crown Prince of Jordan. “I was once asked to do a sit-down formal dinner for 22 people, and the host told me someone was coming to sing,” she says, leaning in and dropping her voice to a loud ‘confidential’ whisper. “I thought it would be a jobbing jazz artist or something. We provided beautiful ice carvings and an amazing gourmet spread for all these glamorous guests, then a limo pulled up and out stepped Whitney Houston. I was gobsmacked. She delivered an amazing set then disappeared again. It was absolutely awesome.”
Today, Bonnie’s extensive experience is being put to use in her new enterprise, a division of GIG designed to deliver bespoke functions for private clients and smaller companies in the Buckinghamshire region. Bonnie May Events stemmed from a growing demand from existing clients to stage themed parties and functions. “I did Victoria Woods’ 60th birthday party at her house in north London last year, and I’ve done some lovely wedding receptions, where we’ve done the whole event, from the room set to the catering, the music and more.”
“I’ve met and worked with incredible people and events over the years which has provided me with opportunities to develop my creative skills. Importantly, I’ve listened about their visions and have then turned those dreams into reality. Through the launch of Bonnie May Events my team and I will share this knowledge helping to create sensational and memorable bespoke events – no matter what the occasion.”
“Earlier this year, I was asked to organise a 70th birthday party, and did dinner through the decades. We started in the 1940s with Spam fritters, then coronation chicken and onwards, all served to radio news clippings and music from each era. It was fabulous.”
“Bonnie May Events is already forging partnerships with specialist suppliers and amazing venues within Buckinghamshire and the surrounding area. We intend to use especially selected local businesses to support our new enterprise,” she adds.
‘MY BUCKINGHAMSHIRE’ WITH BONNIE MAY
What does Bucks mean to you?
Home. Family are around here. We are very much into supporting local producers and businesses. We are very happy to be here, and a lot of our team are here, so it’s like one big family right on our doorstep
Your favourite Bucks view?
The view of the Aylesbury Vale from Coombe Hill is amazing. I go Nordic walking and I love the feeling that it’s downhill after climbing to the top.
Your favourite place to go for an informal, affordable meal?
The Drawing Room in Chesham. It’s informal, the food is lovely, the service is great…and they have live music. A great combination.
Your favourite place for a more formal meal / a special occasion?
The Artichoke in Old Amersham
Place to meet for a drink
The Black Cat pub at Lye Green near Chesham, is a favourite, as it’s a proper, traditional ‘local’ pub where you can just go and enjoy a drink. The Cock & Rabbit at The Lee is really good fun too.
Your favourite shop in Bucks?
En Route at the bottom of Nashleigh Hill in Chesham – it’s a treasure trove and you never know what you will find. You can find a gift for everyone and anyone – and lots of stuff for the house too.
Where you’d spend a wet afternoon / day in Bucks?
I’ve spent so much of my life living out of a suitcase, so being at home is really important to me. A weekend at home is a real treat, usually with friends and family over – especially as so many events are at weekends, so a whole weekend at home is a pretty rare thing!
Where you’d spend a sunny afternoon / day in Bucks?
We love being in our garden and vegetable patch at home and there is always something to do…and as the sun shines, that usually brings with it our children
and their friends too - usually topped off with an evening barbecue.
Your favourite cultural experience / venue in Bucks?
Waddesdon Manor, just north of Aylesbury. Apart from being just beautiful, there is just so much there to see and do.
Where you’d recommend a visitor to Bucks to go?
I guess it would depend who it was, but for a lovely afternoon out Wendover Woods is great, with fab walks, a great café and plenty to do if you have children.
Finally, what’s the best kept secret in Bucks?
Bonnie May Events! (But not for long, we suspect).