A funny thing about being in the food service industry: we often hear from family, friends, strangers, how much they would LOVE to cook or cater for a living. The best we can figure is that the grass is always greener phenomenon is at work. Another oddity to Eleni and me is that fact that both our over 60 year old Mothers have more than once suggested, implied, and told us that they really want to come and help us at a catered event. Really?! We can’t imagine why they would want to experience what we go through to prepare and execute an event. In fact, we try to appease them and put them off because we have no intention of putting our diabetic, asthmatic, retirement age Mothers in an early grave! Maybe they simply want to know if we have turned into potty mouths as a result of our career choice (Not me Mom!) I think all of us secretly -or openly -dream of doing something other than what we typically do in a day; but I don’t honestly think people understand what we do for a living.
Let me walk you through the process of catering a large event. Aside from the fact that we’ve spent months writing and re-working the menus and event plans with the Client, the real preparations typically begin 3-4 days prior to an event. Eleni places a food order through our main purveyor-Sysco. This takes some planning because we can only get trucks on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays. We are a small business so it is not always feasible to get all we need from Sysco-quantities/pack size or price may be prohibitive. So just like the average person, we go grocery shopping! We hate grocery shopping. We have been known to make multiple trips to Sam’s in one day and have more than once gone to as many as 5 stores to get exactly what we need. As you can imagine, this eats up a lot of time.
Once we have all the product in, prep work can begin. This is where Eleni’s executive cheffing comes to play. It is her job to make a production list. This is simply a list of all that needs to be done to produce the Client’s menu. She also has to schedule staff-prep cooks and dishwashers to help get it all done. Now, “officially” I am the sous chef but often I’m not in the kitchen during prep. I’m more often onsite handling other events. With or without me in the kitchen, our normal work day is 10-18 hours. It really just depends on what needs to be done. It is not unusual for us to finish up in the kitchen at midnight then turn around and be back at it at 4am. (One great benefit of early starts is that I can call my Friend Jill in Laos without worrying about waking her up!) My other primary role is known as Event Manager in the real world. Before each event I envision how I want the final product/space to look like. This will dictate exactly what platters, bowls, décor, and the like I will pack and use to make it happen. For the big events I also determine not only the color scheme, but also the number of linens, rentals, centerpieces and service staff needed. I have lots of lists and drawings and they usually change several times before a final layout is confirmed. The day of the event I have a load list, sometimes called a pack list. This sheet of paper, in Excel format, is a catalog of everything we have in the kitchen. I got through the entire list and write down exactly what we need to bring with us to the catered event and in what quantities; for instance, 6 chafers, 2 swirly bowls, (yes, I have my own language), 220 plates, etc. The load sheet also details the menu and both Eleni and I use it to make sure all the food that is supposed to go, is sent to the event. Now if I forget something or don’t pack enough, it makes for an interesting evening. Surprisingly, Eleni is not a fan of “interesting evenings”. Really, none of us are; when this happens, it does require us to use our creativity to adapt and make sure the Client’s event goes off without a hitch.
After making our list and checking it twice, we load up and head off to the venue. Clients often think our job is just starting at this point. Part of what we do is educate our Clients on why we charge what we charge. Keep in mind you aren’t just paying for food. Some think that if a piece of chicken costs them $2 in a grocery store, then we should charge around the same to cook it and bring it to them. It doesn’t quite work like that. We want Clients not to see it as we are just bringing them some grilled chicken. Instead we want them to view it more like we are bringing an entire restaurant to them. The food, the service staff, the plates and cutlery, the beverage, sometimes even the tables and chairs! It is also important to remember that we have to make sure the food is stored, cooked, packed, and held at proper temperatures before it even gets to the final destination.
We easily handle food at least 8 times before the end consumer actually eats it. The amount of loading and unloading we do is without doubt the hardest part of catering. It’s surprising how heavy platters, bowls, and the food boxes are! Recently, we had our most challenging event. It was a wedding for Hailee & Erick Hawkins at the historic Marathon Village. I’ve learned that historic means old and hard to cater in. The record heat certainly did not help. This 3 story “historic” building had no elevators so every single piece of equipment, every bit of food, ALL of it had to be carried by hand up (and down) 3 flights of stairs. Just give you an idea how much crap that is, here is a picture of our van as we were getting ready to pull out. (The XTerra was filled to the rim as well!)
But, at least this event was inside; we’ve catered events just about anywhere you can imagine. We have staged, setup, prepped, and even cooked in fields, barns, garages, basements, and laundry rooms. Catering isn’t for the weak at heart! So why do we do it?
Because we love transforming a space:
And there is no feeling better than when Clients and guests walk in and their first word is “WOW”. Better still is watching their face after their first bite. Makes all the blood, sweat, tears, and bruises-all worth it.