Insider tips from professional caterers

I was invited to a coveted event called The Catering Extravaganza. Prior to my arrival, I was sure that the term "extravaganza" was an overstatement. The opposite was true. The event deserved an exclamation point. Maybe with all caps and an "H" on the end for emphasis. It was an EXTRAVAGANZAH!

I'll workshop that later. The point is, I was blown away. I walked into a wonderland of dishes cooked to perfection and laid out beautifully. I was encouraged to sample to my heart's desire. I told myself I would try something from each table. I would sample one tiny thing, and keep it moving. I barely got through half.

The room was filled with top-notch caterers known in Richmond, such as Mosaic; those classy purveyors of pimiento cheese that may or may not come from actual heaven. But restaurants that offer catering participated too. From down-home BBQ establishments like Deep Run Roadhouse to a family-run Salvadorean restaurant, the choices were endless.

I thought I was attending solely to enjoy a feast, but I walked away with a few lessons. And if you like to entertain, pretty valuable lessons at that. 

charcuterie board

Lesson #1: Presentation matters

You can make plain food look extravagant with just a few tweaks. I'll pick something plain, something we use as filler. Like baked beans. All you would need to do to make the tray of beans look more special is to add a splash of color or texture in the middle. Say, a small pile of finely-chopped cilantro, with a hand-sized fried chicharron sticking out up top. It would be a dramatic display, but a tray of beans nonetheless. 

row of dessert puddings with fruit

Lesson #2: Don't underestimate how adventurous people can be

Perhaps it's because I'm a mother to a nine-year-old, but a lot of our guests are picky eaters. Some are so rigid, they bring their own food. We all know people who go to Japanese restaurants but only eat the California rolls and Teriyaki, but most diners want us to color outside the lines. They aren't in their own kitchen, and are looking for a new experience. 

They are "catered" to with fun iterations of classic dishes. Like tacos filled with pork belly, rather than the usual ground beef (for Tex-Mex) or carne asada (for real Mexican) flavor. Or the taco shell would be a Vietnamese bun, rather than a corn tortilla. 

ceviche in spoons

Lesson #3: People truly cannot be bothered with utensils

People have gotten pampered, and now they expect a certain level of ease when approaching a food spread. Must they pick up a plate and use large serving utensils to dole out portions? Worse, they have to carry a cumbersome plate and a fork? How can they hold their drinks?

The drama of it all! This party had ceviche served in large spoons (pictured above), so the whole dish can slide down the hatch. Your other hand is free for cocktails. The tacos were laid out on serving trays that made them stand up. You could pick up a ready-made snack and keep walking. It's all about ease. 

butterfinger dip

I saw cups filled with what I thought was pimento cheese and crackers (pictured above). But I found the unexpected: sugar cookies sitting upright in a cup of sweet dip made of Butterfinger candy. But whether or not you would find this disappointing, the takeaway is how easy it was made for grazers: All portioned in one clear cup, ready to go.

Unless I am hosting a sit-down dinner, I will take these nuggets of wisdom and put them into consideration. These guys are on the front lines every day, doing the research for low-key hosts like me.

Just kidding about the low-key part. I said EXTRAVAGANZAH! for goodness' sake. 



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