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Expert Advice: Caterer's Dish

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Phillip Weingarten from GoodFood Catering

Explain the catering process from start to finish: Every event for us is a new production, and we create each one based on the client’s needs or directives. Initially the client will call to find out about availability. We will get basic information about the event and set up a meeting. Communication and coordination are key in getting the proper information and understanding the client’s needs. Once we establish what is involved, we build a menu (is there a theme?) and a budget or estimate. Once a menu is confirmed, we will book staff and figure out rental needs and anything else necessary to make the party happen. We confirm all the information, get a contract along with a deposit, and go from there. We help the client determine a timeline for the event so that the client can pretty much relax and enjoy the party. At the conclusion of the event, we break down any food, beverage or rentals and décor, and clean up. We always try to follow up on the event and get a client’s-eye view of how things went and what their impressions of the event were.

Food sets the mood: Food can totally set the mood of an event. An over-the-top bacchanalian display of seafood and shellfish with caviar and frozen infused vodka or champagne, or a three-tier fountain of flowing liquid chocolate with stem strawberries for dipping can put your guests in a decadent and sexy mood, while having hotdog carts and carny-type food will definitely evoke a more playful, fun atmosphere. Building a menu around a theme or idea can really set the tone.

Small vs. large parties: There really is not that much difference between throwing a party for 20 or 1,000 when it comes to feel. Depending on how it is put together, an event for 1,000 guests can feel just as intimate as a party for 20 if you understand how to create the right environment and what elements are most important in implementing that feel. We all love the client with no budget restrictions, but, realistically, having a restricted budget can force you to be more creative and find new and inventive ways to make it work. I’ve done kids’ parties where the budget was $10,000 that were just as much fun as ones with a budget over $100,000. I think the same applies with an adult party; it has a lot to do with the host, the guests and a combination of elements.

Menu du jour: We pride ourselves on having a well-rounded knowledge of all types of cuisine as well as a reputation for the quality of our food. Since we customize each menu for every party, our food is constantly evolving. The current trend of high protein, low carbs and more flavorful, smaller portions is something we have been building a lot of menus around lately.

Food to be avoided: Angel-hair pasta and anything too sticky, gooey or stinky.

DIY catering: There are so many ways to be creative and resourceful when trying to plan your own party. For example, if you have no time to cook (or if boiling water has too many ingredients), call for your favorite takeout, set it up on your own dishes or get small Chinese takeout containers, and let guests help themselves. Or you can get a bunch of good-quality ingredients and sauces from an upscale deli or market, pick up some partially cooked (blond) pizza doughs from your favorite pizzeria, and have your guests make their own pizzas. Serve a great Italian red wine, throw on some Dean Martin, Frank or Nino Rota, and you’re good to go.

Tips on tipping: We include a service fee in our quote, which is for the in-house time it takes to plan and coordinate events. Many times clients mistake this for a gratuity. A gratuity is completely at the discretion of the client, and generally, instead of calculating a percentage of the total, I advise counting the number of staff and writing a separate check based on an amount for each staff person. Depending on your satisfaction with the service, this might be anywhere from $20 up per staff person. If you feel the captain or floor manager did an exceptional job, a separate gratuity for them is always nice.

GoodFood Catering, 8549 Higuera St., Culver City, (310) 558-7666; www.goodfoodcatering.com

Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary

Food sets the mood: Food sets the mood in lots and lots of ways. From the smells of fresh roasting vegetables and savory meats that greet the guests to the perfectly beautiful presentation on a plate — everything matters. A party that encourages guests to go to a variety of food stations and try lots of differing cuisine creates a wonderful interchange and dynamic flow for an event. The mood of a cocktail party with passed hors d’oeuvres can be altered by both the type of hors d’oeuvres (miniburgers as opposed to scallop shooters, or baby new potatoes with crème fraîche and caviar) and how it is being served (classic silver trays or funky, interesting wood trays or other objects converted into serving trays). A sit-down dinner can be very formal and served in a traditionally pre-plated elegant fashion or it may be more whimsical and served family style. Any way you look at it, great food is the key to the success of any event, and there are countless ways for your food to be a creative expansion of yourself or your message.

 

Party flow: Every party is different, and all clients want their party to have their particular brand of style or taste. We spend a lot of time with our clients understanding what they want. What kinds of food do they like? What is their taste? We go to their homes or event sites and carefully assess what is possible. Where will people park? How will they enter? What will they see when they first enter? How will they be greeted? How will we make the space flow so that guests move easily through the venue sampling all the differing foods and participating in any of the activities that we may also be providing? With corporate clients we spend a lot of time understanding what they intend to accomplish. With movie premieres we need to really know exactly what the studio wants. But the questions you ask in assessing a small party’s needs are very much the same questions you have to ask for a party of 2,000.

Small vs. large parties: There is very little difference, actually. Financially, generally speaking, the larger the function the lower the overall cost per person is. As the event size grows, we can more cost-effectively purchase foods, etc. This in turn brings down the price per person. As far as “feel” goes, an intimate smaller event feels very different from a larger function. But one can still make an event for fewer than 100 guests feel intimate. The trick with the really big events, say 500 to 2,000 people, is to make them have a quality of intimacy as well.

Menu du jour: Food is always evolving. But the trend is still very cross-cultural, with the Euro-Asian fusion still very fashionable. But good, hearty comfort food is also still very popular. Some of the more current trends are boutique and imported cheeses and beautiful heirloom vegetables. A lot of the basics are really in right now, very natural, basic unfettered foods. Seasonal food always plays a role whenever we plan parties: lighter food in the spring and summer and heartier comfort food in the fall and winter months. Cuisine served in interesting new ways is also very popular: desserts in a sherry glass, shrimp cocktails in a shot glass with a spicy cocktail sauce.

Food to be avoided: We always try to make sure that our larger food-station parties have food served in such a way that you can eat it with a fork only, that you don’t need to sit and carve up something with a knife. When you’re in tight spaces, it’s best to serve easy-to-eat passed hors d’oeuvres.

DIY catering: In your mind, take the time to create your own vision. Certainly prepare ahead with guest lists, invitations and a deadline for RSVPs. If it is within your budget, try to hire a person or two (high school student or responsible teenage neighbor) to help set up and assist with serving and cleanup. If you are doing most of your own food, making food ahead of time and freezing will save countless hours the day before and the day of the party. Flowers and candles always add special warmth to any event. Burn a CD of your favorite music or music that will work for your party. Planning ahead is the key. The art of throwing your own party is in being there to enjoy it yourself with your guests. That’s why they’re there in the first place, so enjoy!

Food-to-person ratio: If it’s a cocktail party, 14 to 16 individual hors d’oeuvres per person. If it’s a dinner, approximately 6 to 8 ounces of protein, 4 to 6 ounces of a starch, 4 ounces of vegetables, 2 ounces of salad, and either one fun dessert or two to four smaller pickup desserts per person that you can get at any bakery.

Tips on tipping: For our large events there is no tipping. Our servers are not paid like waiters in a restaurant. We do not accept tips at large parties (no tip jars at the bars, etc.). At smaller private parties, clients sometimes insist on offering a gratuity, which is always appreciated by our staff, but it is neither expected nor requested.

 

Strange moment: We get asked this question a lot, and, believe it or not, we have been free of disasters for over 28 years. I suppose one of the strangest moments was the first time we did an event for 10,000 guests. When we opened the doors for the party — it was the first of five annual Universal Studios holiday parties that we did — literally thousands of guests all walked through our entrance at the same time. It was like a wall of party coming down the road. It was strange, overwhelming, but also one of the most exciting moments of our career.

Along Came Mary Productions, 5265 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-9082; www.alongcamemary.com

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