Ducks 'n a Row: Think Like a Caterer!

18 August 2012

Think Like a Caterer!

By Sinea Pies

Catering: the art/business of preparing a meal for a group of people, transporting it to the destination where they will convene and serving that meal on behalf of the host(s). 

You may recall that I have the pleasure of serving a family dinner at my dad's every Wednesday night. It's fun but takes a new way of thinking as I transport the meal to serve in another location. That's where my inspiration came to "Think like a caterer"!

How Caterers Work:

  • Some caterers are mobile: serving prepared food from their vehicle. 
  • Some caterers are on-the-spot: serving that food on the street, cooked right on site. 
  • Other caterers travel to the location of the party, cooked food in tow, ready to set up upon arrival. 
  • And, other caterers cook on site, such as chicken bbq cooked at a cabin or park. 

Excellent Caterers: 
  • Make great food 
  • Use high food safety standards 
  • Transport well 
  • Display the food beautifully
  • Set up and clean up well 
  • Are good planners --- and are prompt!
  • Care about the recipients of their hard work-customers and guests, alike.
How many times have you operated like a caterer and didn't know it?

  • Planned a birthday party?
  • Hosted a bridal or baby shower?
  • Arranged a family reunion?
  • Put together a food-based fundraising event (bake sale, spaghetti dinner)?
  • Organized a graduation party or wedding reception?
  • Provided meals for a friend in need?
You were doing the job of a caterer! So, what wisdom can we pick up from professional caterers to help us do it better?

Catering Is Much About Planning!

Evaluate: how many people will be attending? Any special dietary needs? (Consider guests with severe food allergies or dietary needs.)

Prepare Schedules: there are several types of schedules you will need.
  • Calendar- the calendar is to mark what happens on what day, all leading up to the event. It may include when to shop, creating decorations, make-ahead parts of the meal, pulling together non-perishables.
  • Cooking Schedule- whether working solo or with a team, it's important to know what to cook when. If you will be baking desserts, preparing them the day before will free up your oven for main dishes & sides on the day of. 
  • "Make an appointment" with your refrigerator and stove. There is only so much you can fit in one refrigerator or freezer and there is only so much you can cook or bake at the same time. Schedule the use of these appliances as you would make any other appointment. Make sure they will be free when you want them.

How early should you be on the road?

Transporting- what time should your car be packed and ready to go? 
  • Tip: A good way to determine this is to plan backward. Guests arrive at the event at 5:00 pm?  You need to be there long before that. How much time ahead of them should you be there in order to have everything comfortably ready? (i.e. No hasty last-minute rushing around. That makes everyone, including you, uncomfortable.) 
  • Are you the host or hostess? Include time for yourself to get dressed and be fresh for entertaining.

 "Working without a list is like skydiving without checking your chute. Maybe you'll make it, maybe you won't!" Sinea Pies  

 Check your chute: make a list!
  • Menu: plan hors d'oeuvres, breads, sides, entrees, desserts, beverages. Build your grocery list from the menu and plan your cooking schedule as well.
  • Tools: consider the largest to the smallest item that you will need. Potato peelers, grater, carving knives, blender, mixer, bowls, trays, etc. Some are tools for preparation of food, others will be involved in transporting, serving and cleanup. The event location may or may not have some items. Call ahead and verify what you can count on. 
  • Personnel: can this be done easily yourself, or will you need help? If so, arrange for quality assistance well in advance and confirm their availability soon as you get close to the first day of preparation.

Transporting: things to remember!
Baskets or Boxes: sturdy cardboard boxes or plastic laundry baskets are great for carting non-food items. Paper goods, silver or plastic ware, table cloths, decorations, lists, candles, lighter, carafes, coffee makers, etc. Whatever needs to be moved.
Coolers: keep cold dishes COLD in a traveling cooler. Available in numerous types and sizes.
Insulated Casserole Totes: nestle your casserole in a plush covering designed for easy travel and to keep the heat in your dish while you are enroute to your event.
Insulated Casseroles: Cello has a very neat casserole set on the market that is guaranteed to keep the dish to temperature up to 4 hours. 
Food Warmers and Buffet Servers: depending on how often you will be directing large gatherings, you may want to invest in warmers and servers. If it is a one-time deal, find a friend that you can borrow them from!  

Above all, enjoy what you do. Enjoy the preparation. Enjoy the company. Enjoy the experience!

So, how about you? Have you ever played the role of a caterer? What did you learn? What would you change? What went great? Share your experiences in the comments!  We'd love to know.

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