Whenever you want to throw a party, whether big or small, it always requires some kind of planning. And that’s what this article is about: party planning. Meet Roberto Cohen, master in this métier in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Weddings, anniversaries, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Christening, Sweet Sixteen, and corporate events— you name it—and he makes it happen.
Before venturing into the party world, Roberto had a solid career as a dentist. His taste for parties started in childhood, watching his mom, a seamstress work on bridal gowns. This inclination for arts led him a position as choreographer of an Israeli dance group. One day, one of his dancers asked if he could help her organize her wedding party. Reluctantly, he did so. The success was instant and soon other parties followed.
It took him a while to fully embrace this career. Roberto kept his dental practice for 10 years, while treating the parties as a second job. “I wasn’t raised to be a party planner, you know? Were you, Leticia, raised to be a chef?” He asked me back. (Actually, I wasn’t. I have a BA in economics and worked in finances before all this.)
Another day, another party.
During the nearly 27 years of profession, Roberto’s career kept on growing. His first clientele were mostly high profile members of the Jewish community in Rio. From there it expanded to a broader local market, and finally to other cities as well, to the point that today his Jewish clientele represents less than 30% of his workload.
His accomplishments were recognized this year by the ABC, the Association of Bridal Consultants, which has awarded only 65 wedding planners around the world since its creation in 1932.
As his fame spreads throughout Brazil, he’s been invited to speak on lectures and seminars for hotel management and college programs. From the collection of essays prepared for these classes, another project came to life—a book, an attempt to forge a combination between professional event planning and a documentary of his beautiful work.
Titled RSVP: Realizar Sonhos: Verdadeira Paixão (a twist of Portuguese words on RSVP), in loosely translates in English as: “Fulfilling Dreams: a True Passion”. The book was published this year by 3RStudio Editora, obviously with a huge bash for 1,200 people at one of the fanciest halls in Rio, the Copacabana Palace Hotel. The book is comprehensive, laudable, and monumental for Brazilian standards with gorgeous photos of Roberto’s parties; it also tells the story behind every celebration from inter-faith marriages to traditional events.
Roberto and I have known in each other for a long time. I was 12 years old and one of the young dancers in that youth group where he started his career. In 1999, the year my husband and I got married in Rio, I had the pleasure to experience his professionalism, seriousness, and profound care for details, as he planned and executed our beautiful wedding party.
A lot has happened since then; I moved to the United Stated, started a career in cooking, wrote a book, and have settled down in my new American life. Today, in the reality of this economy I am not sure I ‘d have the mind set to host such a party. But the truth is, regardless of the world economy, parties in Brazil have always been extravagant.
On a recent trip to Rio, I had the chance to chat with Roberto over coffee and talk about his career. I gave him a copy of my book, and he gave me a copy of his.
Hope you’ll enjoy our interview.
Leticia: What makes a party successful?
Roberto: A party needs to have the face of the host. It needs to feel like the host, their taste, their profession, their likings, and their personality. But that’s not all. It also needs to be confortable for the guest. If parking upon arrival is a problem, guests are likely to start the party in a bad mood. It needs to be in a certain temperature. For example, here in Rio, where hot and humid days are common, air conditioning is key for the success of a party. Bathrooms need to be spotless. And of course, the most important thing a party needs to have: good food, drinks, and great music.
Leticia: What do you do when things go terribly wrong at the last minute?
Roberto: Oh, it happens! Once the rupa of a Jewish wedding simply collapsed. On another party, the rupa was set outside and ended inside the pool because of strong winds. We had to re-do everything in less than 30 minutes. In another one, the pageboy hid the rings from the bride and groom. Or when a groom got stuck in the elevator. Or during a rain storm in Rio, the disabled mother of the bride, who had to leave the appartment through the window to attend the wedding of her own daughter. Oh well, a million thins have happened at the last minute, but it’s not worth getting angry or frustrated. Today it’s funny to look back, but you know, even you are out of luck, you still need luck.
Leticia: How far ahead of time people book a party with you?
Roberto: Around 2 years ahead of time for most parties. For weddings, it’s about one year ahead.
Leticia: What kind of parties do you remember the most?
Roberto: Some parties really transform a place. I will never forget the wedding party for Joana Nolasco and Andre Freitas, where they literally transformed two tennis courts into a ballroom. Or in a resort mountain town, the wedding for Marcio Duek and Marcela Grinsztejn. I find the ability to transform a place that is used on a daily basis for something else and make that into your party pretty incredible.
Leticia: Now let’s talk about divorces. Can you tell when a couple is doomed for divorce?
Roberto: A party is a reason to celebrate. If a couple sees the party as an obstacle, or a reason to complain, or they don’t enjoy this moment, well, that’s not a good sign. But that’s doesn’t mean that small parties aren’t good. Once, I made a wedding party for 10 people— that was the smallest party of my career. Another wedding party was inside a lawyer’s office. Divorce is very hard. I did huge wedding parties that ended in divorce. But what is most rewarding is that many times, even when people re-marry, they come to me again for their second wedding party. Luckily, people don’t associate me with the failure of their marriage.
Leticia: How can you explain the lavish parties in Brazil?
Roberto: I think it’s cultural. We, Brazilians are party people. Look at Carnival; what other country in the world would stop their lives to dance for a whole week? And the Jewish community in Brazil also likes to party. I think it’s because they came from the Second World War, and so many people rebuilt their lives successfully here. That’s a reason to celebrate! People need projects and a party is a project. We all need to have projects in life. But again, it doesn’t need to be big. My job is to make that project viable weather you have a lot of money or not.
Leticia: Are you telling me that it is possible to make a wonderful party with maybe 10, 20, or 30 people?
Roberto: Absolutely! If you care about the details, if you know every guest in your party, if you serve excellent food, your party will be a success!
Leticia: What about you and your family? How do you celebrate?
Roberto: The only occasion I ever celebrated was when I turned 40. My wife and I invited 30 people in our house and we made a small dinner.
Leticia: You paved the way to many caterers who are now in business. Do they realize that?
Roberto: They do. But they are super talented people and continue to prepare amazing treats party after party. That’s why they are in business, not because of me. I might have introduced them to the industry, but if they are not good, they won’t last. Ecila Antunes (a caterer in Rio) is one of them. Another caterer is Elvira Bona with her “bem casados” (featured in his blog here). When she arrived from Maranhão in Rio, she had no clients.
Leticia: Do you have time to eat at your parties? What food you can’t resist?
Roberto: I can’t resist a good Risotto and I also always try something from the dessert station.
Leticia: You started your career in Rio and now you work all over the country. Tell me about that.
Roberto: Even out of the country! I do parties in many states in Brazil; São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Maranhão, and so forth. Once I did a party in South Africa, in Johannesburg. Today, in this global world that we live in, I can get pretty much anything from anywhere. Here in Brazil, we have just about everything. It’s just a matter of finding your suppliers.
Leticia: What is your favorite moment in parties?
Roberto: I love to see the reaction from the client when they see the ballroom and dance floor all beautifully decorated.
Leticia: What do you like the least in your job?
Roberto: I hate to deal with people who aren’t serious about their jobs, who are late delivering material, and who only do this for the money.
Leticia: I can see the enthusiasm for every party you work on.
Roberto: It’s been 27 years that I don’t spend a Saturday night with my wife. There are many parties that drive me crazy. If I didn’t love this, I could never be here for all this time.
Leticia: Your wife Simone was my private tutor when I was a kid! How is she? What is she doing?
Roberto: She is doing great! She is a chief biologist of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. Always studying and doing research…
Leticia: My son, Thomas is truing 12. In another year it’s his Bar-mitzvah. Do you have any suggestions for me?
Roberto: Let me ask you this: what does he like? Sports? Music?
Leticia: He likes sports, lacrosse in particular, which is totally unknown in Brazil!
Roberto: Well, ok. You might want to serve a brunch at the Synagogue right after the ceremony, inviting yours and his friends. Then at night, you may clear your house and turn your living room into a disco just for the kids. You invite a DJ, decorate the tables with his favorite Lacrosse team shirt. Serve kid’s food, and I bet they’ll have lots of fun!