Food And Drink
CAROL GODSMARK food journalist, restaurant critic and consultant. She is also the author of How to Start and Run Your Own Restaurant and a caterer with twenty years experience. She is based in Chichester, West Sussex.
Now it’s time to work out your catering plan and how to achieve this. You need to sort out in your mind, and on paper, what you will be able to offer your clients in the kitchen space you have, and the amount of time you will be able to commit to your business if you are running it from home.
You, of course, may have a fixed idea – the reason why you thought of being a caterer in the first place – how you wish to grab the attention of your possible clients. You may have been testing recipes and have a good source of cook and reference books to guide you. Or you may be starting from scratch and need to think through very carefully what you will offer.
This chapter covers:
- sample menu and recipe compilation;
- cost estimation;
- how to charge clients;
- how to deal with customers with unsuitable menu requests;
- special diets;
- when to prepare food for an event;
- how to calculate quantities of food and drink per person;
- how to set up a bar;
- table sizes and seating;
- points for working a successful buffet;
- buying wine.
WORKING OUT WHAT YOU CAN DO
Important questions to ask yourself:
- How many people can I cater for in my kitchen if I am the sole cook? If it’s a small kitchen, you can possibly do small buffet and dinner parties as well as canapés.
- What kind of menus can I realistically manage? You might not have sufficient refrigeration for a lot of food, either for preparation or storage. In which case, offer more simple food. On the other hand, you might have a large dedicated kitchen to prepare enough food for a buffet for 250 and sit down dinners for 150.
- How am I going to create menus for my clients? Start writing down food you love cooking and then create balanced menus with a number of options which will fit into your style of cooking.
- What kind of sample menus would be best to sell my business? As many people have conservative tastes, it may be best to have several menus which are ‘safe’, and others which mirror your more eclectic style of cooking and produce choice.
- What kind of kitchen space is available to me at the venue? If the space is minimal, the chosen menu must reflect this.
I have given some possible replies, and more information follows. But some of these questions only you can assess as skills, knowledge, experience and your premises will differ. You may be a caterer already but wish to change the type of catering you offer. If you are a complete novice or one without too much experience, advice follows.
You will notice in the above sample menus that there is a good balance to suit all tastes including vegetarians, who often don’t inform their hosts that they don’t eat fish or meat. This can apply at large functions where the host or hostess will not know all their guests individually.
I always add several vegetarian dishes to any buffet menu as meat eaters enjoy this food too – and will help themselves to it – so you might as well incorporate this food into a menu. It is nigh on impossible to keep dishes back for individual tastes so make the selection as varied as possible – with the consent of the client, of course.
Do ask your client if there are any specific diets that need to be catered for. Vegan, coeliac or non-dairy are possibilities. I make up dishes for these specific diets and keep them apart from the rest of the food until those guests have been identified. That way they can feel part of the party rather than being sidelined. (See page 149 for more information on special diets.)
YOUR CLIENTS’ EQUIPMENT
When agreeing to a menu with a client in a private home or a corporate business, make absolutely sure that there is the equipment you require to cook the menu. For example, you will be in deep trouble if you arrive at someone’s home to find that there is only one Aga to cook dinner for 20. What you really needed were two separate ovens and six burners.
As cosy as Agas are for their owners, they cannot cope with a dinner party for 20 unless you are heating up a stew and have a cold starter and dessert. If you’re preparing a three-course meal that requires the use of the oven for three separate dishes, you’re not going to achieve what you promised. And those Agas do have a tendency to lose all their oven heat when you’ve got something bubbling away on the burner. Being a former Aga owner, I know their pitfalls.
If you arrive at a company’s kitchen to find that there is minimal equipment, the microwave seen as the only necessity by the company, your idea of making a paella cooked on a gas burner rapidly goes out the window. In my naive days, this happened to me. And if you are unfamiliar, as I was, with microwaves, it can be a steep learning curve. But, against all odds, the paella was achieved. A little late, however.
When the company client decides what they would like from your sample menu, ask pertinent questions: is there an oven to warm food up in and cook the potatoes, for example? Are there washing up facilities? Refrigeration? These will make a big difference as to what they can order from you. Any dairy-based food will need refrigeration as well as fish and meat unless you are serving the food immediately upon arrival, which isn’t likely.
When compiling sample menus for dinner parties, make sure that the balance is good. For example, you wouldn’t want three courses all incorporating dairy food, or three heavy courses. Look too for texture and colour when devising menus.
Menu A: £X per guest
Menu B: £X per guest
Menu C: £X per guest
I always make sure that the vegetables suit the main course. It is very important to get this right as the colour and texture, as mentioned, play a part on the plate. For example, I wouldn’t choose parsnips and beetroot for salmon however wonderful these vegetables are, because they are too strongly flavoured and are more suited to venison, pork, lamb or beef. I would suggest fine French beans, broccoli with almonds and new potatoes with butter and seasalt with the fish. But this is up for discussion with your client. Guide them, however, into marriages made in heaven.
KEEPING UP TO DATE
Menus written in French are very out of date. The Queen is seemingly the only hostess – bar some restaurants too – to prefer this archaic way of presenting the menu outside of French-speaking countries. Pourquoi? Traditions die hard. French is, of course, a glorious language, and France is still seen by many as home and originator of the finest cuisine. But as Britain, amongst other countries, is a multi-cultural society that latches on to many food cultures in the 21 st century, it is old-fashioned and is seen by some as being desperately pretentious.
Keep up to date too with food expectations; lighter food is definitely preferred by clients. Duck a l’ orange and veal sweetbreads may have been the fashion in times past but tastes have altered quite considerably. Although you should be prepared for some more set-in-their-ways clients who may find pleasure in offering these and other dishes to their guests. Be flexible.
There is nothing ‘wrong’ in offering tomato soup or prawn cocktail. But it has to be the best tomato soup made with terrific tomatoes and prawn cocktail made with tip-top non-woolly prawns with home-made sauce.
SOURCING YOUR INGREDIENTS
Increasingly, well-sourced ingredients are leading the way. Source that organic salmon, that free-range chicken and eggs, find those artisan cheeses for a good cheeseboard. And serve the best bread you can lay your hands on and not cheap supermarket mass-produced rolls for dinner parties. Obviously, if you are providing a sandwich service and if profits are slim, your choice may be limited. But there still is quality to be found – so seek it out.
Be prepared to break some rules. If you can’t make the best bread, don’t think you have to make it just to be able to say you make everything on the premises. If you can’t cook something better than you can buy it, there is no point it cooking it. But do buy prudently, wisely and with your profits in mind.
THE SANDWICH AND SALAD TRADE
If your wish is to be in the sandwich business, what kind of sandwiches will you be offering? Upmarket or ordinary fill-em-up ones? Whatever kind, do try to entice your customers to try different ones. It will please them and be more pleasurable to you to be involved in more of a creative business. Make samples for them to taste. Market them well.
What about offering a sample tray to a business or two just before lunch when office staff are at their most hungry? They’ll be won over if you make quality sandwiches. After all, this is a captive market. They have to eat every day and if you present them with tasty, good-looking food, then you stand a real chance of being their prime supplier.
Use different types of breads too, not just the cheapest white bread you can get. There are plenty of good-value, good-quality breads to be had so shop around and make your sandwich business more profitable too by adding value to your product – exciting bread, quality filler ingredients – so that you can charge more. Present them well too with smart labels.
More imaginative salads are flying off supermarket shelves thanks to a leaning towards healthier eating. Don’t lose out on this lucrative business. They are easier to prepare than sandwiches once the initial buying and cooking has been done. Present these well too.
Some sandwich suggestions:
- roast beef with beetroot chutney;
- beef with tarragon mayonnaise and rocket;
- the best BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo);
- butter-bean pate with roasted peppers and coriander;
- caesar salad in ciabatta;
- camembert with dates and grated apple;
- chicken with saffron mayo and red peppers;
- chicken satay;
- coronation chicken;
- cottage cheese with pineapple;
- creamy smoked mackerel and cucumber;
- egg mayonnaise with smoked salmon;
- feta cheese with olive paste (tapenade), cherry tomatoes and roasted red peppers;
- goat’s cheese with French beans;
- ham, brie and baby spinach;
- herrings on rye with sour cream and chives;
- honey-roast ham with mango mustard;
- mozzarella on ciabatta with tomatoes, basil and olive oil;
- mushrooms fried in garlic with roquefort cheese in a baguette;
- oriental vegetables with black bean sauce;
- pear, stilton and bacon on walnut bread;
- prawn cocktail with cucumber;
- prawns with lime and coconut dressing;
- salmon, fresh, with mayonnaise and lemon with herbs;
- smoked mackerel with horseradish and apple;
- chorizo and marinated peppers;
- spinach and cream cheese;
- tomato with pesto and tuna.
Of course, good ham and excellent cheddar plus other favourites will never be knocked off the best-seller list.
Some salad suggestions:
- coronation chicken;
- greek salad with feta and black olives;
- lentil and sausage;
- moroccan chick pea;
- moroccan couscous with lemon chicken;
- moroccan couscous with mint, tomato, and red pepper;
- pasta with roasted peppers and tuna;
- potato and smoked mackerel;
- roasted aubergine, mozzarella, tomato and pesto;
- roasted Mediterranean vegetables;
- roquefort and French beans with hazelnuts;
- salmon, fresh, with pasta and dill;
- spicy chicken with rice;
- white bean, tomato and herbs.
Keep a full list of recipes of all the dishes on your menu and any others you may wish to incorporate into your business. It’s a good idea to work out the costings per head and the amount you spend for future reference. Make sure it can be easily understood by other cooks who you may ask to prepare this particular dish. If the dish has a lot of seasonal ingredients, and, as such, is only possible to prepare at certain times of the year, make a note of it.
Do keep recipes even for the basics – mayonnaise, stocks, pastry dough, a marinade, a vinaigrette – in case you need to ask someone else to cook for you in an emergency or if you have taken on new staff. These recipes can be just a mere checklist of ingredients rather than the complete recipe. For example, you may wish to write down all the ingredients for a salsa – ripe tomatoes, spring onions, chillies, coriander, lime juice – to jog your memory.
Changing and adding recipes
Keep looking out for new recipes. You may be influenced by some of the more famous chefs in their newspaper or magazine columns, or cookbooks. Cookbooks of the past and family recipes are also good avenues of research. It could be just one ingredient that will inspire you to create a new dish for your repertoire.
Adapt recipes. There is no need to follow them to the last bunch of parsley or pinch of nutmeg. Don’t forget, however, that there is little new under the sun. These cookbooks’ recipes are often just adaptations of other recipes with maybe a subtle change of ingredients or name.
Keep ringing the changes when sending out sample menus to regular and prospective customers. It will keep you on your toes and will hopefully inspire the customer to employ you. Your changing recipe collection is a powerful marketing tool so use it to your advantage.
Don’t become complacent. Keep re-inventing your business to make it vibrant and appealing to customer and staff alike. Anyone who keeps churning out the same old quiche recipe, for example, is either not a cook at heart or has lost interest in the business.