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January 15, 2006

Experiences in Catering

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.

Comments

Congratulations on your first successful catering event ... hope there are many more to come!

Thanks for all your hard work Clement! The concert was a great success and a large part of it goes to you! The magnificent food matched very well with the great music and I received lots of rave reviews! Kudos to you! Wanna do my next event? :)

Hi there, I use to read your blog weekly and I really liked this post.
If another oportunity of catering comes up you should give it some thought and accept it! This thing called 'sore and tired but happy' is what moves us to the next level.
I'm from Brazil, a chef of cuisine student and I took my first steps into the cooking world by making dinner parties and small caterings just like the one you've described.
Well done! Keep up with the good work.

ps: I want to see the photos of the party!

Rick

What an adventure! I'm planning a brunch for about nine this coming Sunday, which is giving me quite a bit of work. I can't imagine cooking for 120!

Lovely blog, by the way!

Ivonne - Thanks; I certainly wouldn't mind catering another event in the future. It took a lot of planning, but I think it's worth it. Btw, you have a very nice blog and I enjoy your witty writing!

Grace - Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to cater, and congratulations on organizing a most successful concert. Hopefully I'll be able to help out again next year!

Rick - Thanks for visiting. I certainly learned a lot, and hopefully I'll have other opportunities in the future. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures as I forgot to bring my camera... but next time!

Tania - I know what you mean - even dinner for two can sometimes keep me in the kitchen all night! Good luck with your brunch!

Clement, it's so good to see you blogging again - and catering now too! Your most important lesson learned was wonderful - and surprisingly not that obvious at all - not even in professional kitchens. You wouldn't believe how many times I've had to stop other chefs eager to start prep - until I'd shown them exactly what I needed. I always show once - and if possible leave an example. It saves so much time in the end. Great job!

Dear Clement,
So glad to see you're back!!! A very happy 2006 to you - can't wait to see more of your gorgeous creations. And congrats on your first catering job, it was interesting to read about your thoughts and experiences, but I never would have had the slightest doubt about your skills :)

Clement,

I was rooting for you and am glad everything turned out mostly well. I hope you gave yourself a nice treat for a job well done.

Louisa - The funny thing is that I probably wouldn't have figured it out had I only been cooking for 4 or 5 people, as I would have wanted to do everything myself. But with so much to do, and so many people eager to help, I learned it was possible to delegate without sacrificing quality.
Looking forward to your blog re-launch!

Nicky - Happy New Year to you and Oliver and congratulations on your Food Blog Award nominations!

Eddie - Thanks, I can't tell you how relieved I am that it went well. I rewarded myself with 1/2 a day of sleep, and Grace and I took all of our helpers out for a well deserved dinner and dessert last Sunday.

Congratulations on this great adventure. It could open doors to many more. First time I comment on your blog I guess, and just wanted to let you know how great looking it was!
Best!

Congratulations! What a fabulous introduction to catering. And what a fantastic menu--normally catered receptions have nowhere near as exciting foods to offer. I look forward to hearing about more catering gigs and it's really nice to see you blogging again.

Bea - Thanks for visiting. I'm not sure if it'll go anywhere, but I guess time will tell!

Lady Amalthea - One of the best parts of catering was designing the menu. I mainly stuck with dishes that I was already familiar with, and I tried to do foods that were somewhat unique.

Hello! Well done in regards to catering! I know it is such a relief when an event turns out well. If you fancy marketing your catering skills, sign up for a listing on the following top ranking catering services directory located here: http://catering-services-directory.com/

Best of luck to you in the future

Shelly

Hi Shelly, I can't tell you how happy I was afterwards. If it had been a disaster, it would have likely scarred me for life! Thanks for the link; I'll keep it in mind.

I run a small catering business and i found my most successful product was my Coca Tea. I thought it was a big hit at a wedding i did and haven't stopped adding it to my list of items for every event i cater. i found http://coca-blog.blogspot.com and purchased my Coca Tea a few years ago. And i have been using this at catering gigs everytime.

Hi I am still a bit of a newbie when it comes to catering i have done a couple of charity concerts myself and wont forget the worry that went through me before my first time I ended up spending a lot of money on catering supplies. Good luck on any other concerts you cater for.

Hi, I have been catering for 16+ years. I have enjoyed reading your site.

Catering is a fun and profitable business. If you can get through the stress of the big event, you've got it made. Congrats on your event.

Sounds like it went really well for a first catering attempt! Looks a complicated menu too. Congratulations!

Geoff

BuyCatering.com

I've been asked to cater finger food for a book signing. They are expecting 200 people. Like you I have never "catered" before, but I do love to cook & enjoy trying new recipes. I have a few questions.
How many items should I offer?
How much of each item should I make?
This is a Scandinavian Theme, if possible.
Here's my menu ideas:
Potato Turnovers with Garlicky Spinich Filling.
Swedish Meatballs
Cheese (fancy) & Crackers
Finger Sandwiches on Rye
Veggies & Dip
Pinwheels
Swedish Dream Cookies
Any of your ideas and/or thoughts would be greatly appreciated!
Renee

We are doing the same work in Southern California and know the joys and tremendous work you put into such events. Congratulations are in order.

Perhaps you'll share your recipe for chocolate sparkling cookies as I was googling a term close to that which brought me here. Well, anyway, great site and send the recipe to me if you would be so kind.

Everyone deserves a little chocolate sparkle once in a while, right? :-)

Hi,
Just read your blog today, and as I can say, you done pretty well.

Catering is not an easy business (hobby and art). Im in a catering business here at the Philippines and I know the happiness you may have if you really served well in an event.!

Good Job! Well Done!

_______________________________
My Tagaytay Caterer Website

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    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • This is my blogchalk:
    Clement Lo,
    Toronto, Ontario, Canada, English, Male, 26, Cooking, Pastry, Restaurants, Skiing, Visual Design, Entrepreneur, Technology,
    Queen's University.

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