I recently joined the catering division where I work, so catering has been very much on my mind lately. The Oxford English and American dictionaries define catering a few different ways: to provide food and drink at a social event or other gathering; to provide what is needed or required; to take into account or make allowances for; to try to satisfy (a need or demand).
I find that all of these definitions apply to my job on a daily basis.
Catering is, frankly, among the most challenging work in the food service industry. It’s a multi-faceted gig. It’s not about opening a brick-and-mortar location and getting guests to fill the seats — it’s so much more. It’s about building a reputation. It’s about logistics, rental agreements, contracts, proposal menus, tasting appointments and also about how to best deliver your food in an off-site location. It requires the utmost professionalism and a healthy dose of MacGyver-like creativity.
Before the first diced onion hits a sizzling pan of oil, a dozen things have to coalesce like a Mahler symphony. First, the organization must market itself and sell the business. Then the company has to decipher the needs of the client.
Peripheral things come into play that have little to do with food. What color, how many and what size tablecloths and napkins will be needed. For that matter, how many tables will be needed? What kind of glassware, china and silverware is required and appropriate? How many servers will need to be hired? Do we need a bartender? If so, there is liquor to procure — and all that goes along with a bar: garnish fruit, bevnaps, stir sticks, cocktail shakers, licensing and more.
Is there a theme for which special decorations may need to be purchased or plucked from crowded storage spaces? Do we need flowers, balloons, boughs of holly or vines of ivy? Place cards, menu boards, salt and pepper shakers, bread plates, butter ramekins, chafing dishes, sterno units … the list is endless.
Clients typically have an example menu to choose from — or (more often) we craft one to their needs and wants. A groom might be vegetarian, and his bride-to-be might be a meat-and-potatoes woman. Perhaps they have relatives who keep kosher. Important guests may be gluten- or lactose-intolerant. Children in the party may have tree-nut or peanut allergies. All of these must be taken into account.
Once the menu is decided (often after a tasting session), a logistical plan is drawn up. Distance to the venue is a crucial element of the plan. For instance, it’s just not feasible to fry menu items and transport them dozens of miles away after cooking. They may have to be fried on site in order to maintain their crispy integrity, and if so, we’ll need portable turkey-fryer burners. Is there refrigeration where we’re going? Oftentimes, probably not enough to house every culinary element we’ll need to keep refrigerated, so we might need to rent a refrigerated truck or van. Gloves, aprons, towels, mats to keep spills from your garage floor, refuse containers and plastic bags to go in them. Platters to pass appetizers on. Dozens of bottles of water to keep the crew hydrated.
Afterward, receiving payment is nice, but the compliments we get are the real payoff. “This was amazing!” “Thank you so much for a great job!” These are the rewards of catering.
Then, there’s the aftermath, which (ideally) no client has to see. The reloading of the trucks and vans. The long slog home with the dirty dishes and pans. Pulling up to your place of business, dog-tired, with many miles to go before you sleep. Stuff has to be washed, dried and put away in their proper places. Rental items have to be bundled up for return or pickup. Trash has to be emptied. Kitchen floors must be swept and mopped … sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Legs, feet and backs ache. Crewmembers are hungry — they haven’t eaten in hours. Another job is on the horizon first thing tomorrow morning.
Inevitably, catering is grueling work, but it’s also rewarding. We love what we do, and we love making our clients happy.
If they do a good job, love your catering company! And tell everyone you know.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering