I recently had the honor of catering for a David Redish independent short film called “John and Claudia.” Signing a contract for such a large event can be daunting; you’re juggling high expectations while managing a restrictive budget. However, the experience taught me some valuable lessons about planning, preparation, and budgeting that can be applied to any catering job.
Knowing that chefs and clients often have very different ways of assessing the food situation, I spoke with the line director and producer ahead of time to iron out the details on expectations and budget. Together, we came up with a per-head cost for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner that was to be served on set. With a budget in mind, I bought a majority of my food in bulk and set to planning simple, familiar dishes that utilized the ingredients in different ways.
Production had rented a few houses for the cast and crew to use during filming, and my cooking station was set up in one of the kitchens. Going into it, I had an idea of what equipment would likely be available to me, but had no knowledge of the condition or efficacy of any of it, so I brought along a few immersion circulators that would allow me to sous vide food simultaneously, if necessary. The forethought paid off; the ovens never got hot enough, so I ended up using the immersion circulators most of the time.
Prepping and cooking for a large number of people is always a challenge. It’s easy to get carried away trying to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions, suggestions, or omissions. To stay focused throughout, I adopted the motto “K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple, Stupid.” I kept lunches pretty straightforward but prepared substantial dinners that would refuel the hard-working crew without being so heavy and filling that they made everyone feel lethargic the next day.
Staying on budget while consistently producing high-quality food is tough, but by planning and keeping things simple, you can “wow” clients with presentation, plating, and complex flavor profiles. Keep these tips in mind when planning your next event that requires balancing presentation and budget:
1) K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple, Stupid
The expectations for big jobs or events may be high, but realize that you can’t be everything to everyone. Instead of worrying about pleasing every single person, make a strong impression overall by serving delicious food made with fewer components. Preparing food that is reminiscent of a home-style meal will be filling and comforting to your guests. Even when it comes to the ingredients, techniques, and equipment you use, less can often be more. Simplify your budget by purchasing most of your food in bulk. Make simple, satisfying meals that are fairly easy to prepare but amaze with their taste and appearance.
2) Always Have a Back-up Plan
Catered events can be incredibly unpredictable. Try to learn as much as you can about the cooking facilities and equipment that will be available ahead of time, but also be prepared for the worst; you should always have a Plan B in case something unexpected occurs. Develop a menu that won’t require a lot of equipment to prepare. Bring along a few things — like specific cookware — that can help you in a pinch. Plan to utilize whatever you bring with you to the fullest, and allow the unknown elements of the facility to be a bonus.
3) Personally Plate Each Meal
Skip the buffet-style meals and opt to plate each serving yourself. That way, you control the portion size, making sure everyone gets their fair share. You’re also the one to determine how the plate looks when it’s served to the guests, allowing you another opportunity to give it a personal touch or a bit of “wow.”
4) Don’t Serve Restrictive Foods
Assess the catering situation and guests when you’re planning the meals; there are often purposes, restrictions, or limitations to each meal that you must keep in mind. For example, serving food that provides the body with energy is a great choice when catering events where guests are working long hours. In other situations, like on a movie set, you should limit the number of rich or spicy foods you serve so as not to upset the stomachs of those eating your meals. Your client will undoubtedly be impressed with the thought you put into each meal you serve.
5) Be Interactive
Many people are curious about the cooking process at catered events. Welcome conversation and questions. Be willing to offer up tips or tricks for cooking at home. You can even share problems or setbacks you’ve had along the way. By being conversational and giving guests insight into the process, you’re building rapport that can come in handy later. You’ll be more likely to receive feedback after the meal. Also, if something comes out wrong or you experience a delay in service, it’s often more acceptable to the guests if they feel like they have a connection to you or an understanding of the process.
It was such a great experience to be on set and watch a film take shape. I had the pleasure of being the guy who made everyone happy after a long day of work by giving them a filling, comforting meal, and that’s why I love my job. There will always be gigs with small budgets and big expectations, but you can make them work through planning, execution, and presentation — a few things that don’t require money.
Blake Beshore is the author of James Beard Award-winning book, “Notes from A Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession,” and is the co-founder of Tatroux LLC, a growing culinary arts publishing company. Connect with Blake on Twitter and Google+.