Until last weekend I had never cooked for strangers. The prospect of actually charging money for food was something I hadn’t thought much of. The possibility of preparing food for dozens of people and inadvertently poisoning them all was a dream I had had more than once.
Fortunately only the former came true last Saturday when I catered a charity concert organized by my friend. In total, my friends and I made about 600 hors d'oeuvres for 120 guests at an after-recital reception. In my brief history of kitchen adventures thus far, this was certainly one of the most exciting.
About a month ago, my friend, Grace asked if I would be interested in catering her concert. I suppose she asked based on her previous experiences eating my food, but also because I offered to cater at a fairly reasonable price of $5 per person. In other words, my competition may have been the frozen hors d'oeuvres aisle at the supermarket. But nevertheless, I was ecstatic to get the job, since I rarely cook for more than four or five people at a time, and had only once cooked for 20.
As with any dinner, party, or event, cooking accounts for only a fraction of the work. Logistics is crucial, especially for large events, and while I would normally walk to the market to buy ingredients, I ended up renting a car since I had so much food to carry. Never having catered before, I quickly discovered that any food for public consumption would have to be prepared in an inspected and certified commercial kitchen (which my apartment didn’t have). Fortunately, the church where the concert was being held had such a kitchen, and kindly let me use it a couple days before the event. Following the advice of Toronto’s public health department, I also took a one day course in food handling and safety which I found very useful.
After several revisions, the menu consisted of:
- Vegetable platter with dips
- Sweet tofu pouches stuffed with shiitake rice (Inari zushi)
- Gruyère gougères tuna salad sandwiches
- Chicken yakitori
- Chocolate sparkle cookies
- Chez Panisse gingersnaps
- Chocolate mousse
- Honeydew tapioca soup
- Fresh fruit with crème anglaise
- Apple frangipane tarts
- Apple cider, juice, coffee, tea, and water
For the most part, the dishes were bite size, easy to pick up and eat in a few bites. The chocolate mousse and tapioca soup were served in plastic cups, and were eaten with a spoon and drunk straight from the cup respectively.
I started my preparations on Thursday afternoon, making the cookie and tart doughs, and yakitori basting sauce. A few friends joined me on Friday evening to prepare the baked apples, cookies, and mousse, and on Saturday I was fortunate to have many friends come by to help me with everything else.
Probably the most important thing I learned from this experience was that if I show people how to do something and give them very precise instructions, the results are almost always good. I guess this seems pretty obvious, but in the past, I’ve asked people to cut vegetables, or showed them how to plate a dish without detailed commentary, and the results were at times disappointing. It didn’t occur to me that giving lots of instructions and being picky was better than assuming that they knew exactly what I was looking for. Previously, my reaction would have been “if you want it done right, then do it yourself,” but now I realize that I was largely at fault for not explaining exactly how I wanted it done in the first place.
With so many people offering their help, I spent much of Saturday delegating – simply demonstrating something, and leaving them to complete the task. The only things I actually made myself were the crème anglaise and gruyere gougères. The rest was just organizing, and making sure everyone had what they needed to do their work.
I was very glad and relieved that the food turned out so well, with much of it gone in the first few minutes of the reception. Of course, there were a few minor mishaps that I’ll be sure to keep in mind for any future events. Forgetting to provide tongs (which we had rented) and signs for each dish, and not getting the apple tarts baked in time were things that I should have put more thought into.
Although I was sore and tired the next day, I was very happy that the event went so well. I certainly have a new found appreciation for catering, and while I’m not sure if or when I’ll cater again, it was an incredibly fun and worthwhile experience.