Organiser's Guide - Catering
Your event will sink or swim on the food and drink. Don’t take risks: get the best caterers you can afford.
Food and drink, it’s fair to say, have a claim to be the most important elements of an event. The venue, the entertainment, the AV, even the guests, can all be below par, and no one will mind too much so long as there’s a good atmosphere. But serve up a howler of a meal, inedible canapés or paint-stripper cocktails and it’ll be tweeted all over town – and beyond – within seconds.
If your venue doesn’t have its own in-house team or list of preferred caterers, you’ll have to do some research (you’ll find plenty of recommendations in these pages). There is no shortage of first-rate outfits, so think carefully about the aim of the event and what you wish to convey, then make up a shortlist of caterers who fit the bill (old-school, modern, ethical, experimental…). If you’re set on a specific venue but don’t want to use its preferred caterers, it’s usually possible to ‘buy’ the kitchen for the night (at a hefty price). Though remember: it might well make for a smoother event if you have a caterer who knows the venue inside out.
The big decision is whether you opt for a sit-down meal or stand-up event. This will usually be dictated by numbers – if you’re entertaining a relatively small group, a sit-down meal makes most sense. You can search for restaurants with private dining rooms on our website, squaremeal.co.uk.
Once you have pinned down your numbers, drawn up a budget per head and made the sit-down/stand-up decision, it’s time to talk to your shortlisted caterers to see what they can offer. Remember, it’s tough out there right now, so don’t feel scared to approach caterers who seem too pricey at first glance – they might well cut a deal. Spell out precisely what you want from the event and what sort of guests you’re expecting. The more information the better.
The price per head will be determined by the quality of the ingredients, and the complexity of the menu you choose. Fiddly canapés featuring delights such as foie gras will obviously be more expensive than a simple three-course meal or buffet. Bowl food is a popular way to cut costs. A seasonal risotto or pasta dish is filling, delicious and, most importantly, cheap (it will soak up the alcohol too). Can you get away with cold food only? If so, why not arrange for a plated delivery service, so you don’t have to pay for staff to do the prep on site.
Expect a tasting as a matter of course. If you’re not offered one, don’t use that caterer. And a word to the wise: when you try finger food, do it with a wine glass in one hand. You don’t want to end up ordering canapés that are messy to eat one-handed. Your caterer will be able to give you a good idea of suitable quantities. For instance, five canapés roughly equates to one starter, and 15 canapés should see most empty-stomached guests through an evening event that lasts a few hours. But play to your audience – if it’s an event for a rugby association, you might want to up the quantities (and make sure there’s a meat-on-a-stick option).
STAND & DELIVER
As important as getting the quantities correct is the delivery. At a stand-up event, you don’t want guests foraging for food and hunting for waiters (or worse, congregating around the kitchen door), so good staff are invaluable. Well-trained waiters will seek out hungry guests (and hopefully find more than one door to emerge from with the food). Think about a variety of offerings – such as canapés circulating on trays, cold bowl food on tables, and food stations, such as an oyster bar, charcuterie or cheese counter. As well as keeping your guests’ stomachs full, a set up like this will keep them moving around.
If your party is going on into the early hours, when dinner becomes a distant memory, a midnight snack makes a thoughtful but budget-friendly gesture. It can be as simple as offering a bacon sandwich or homemade sausage roll, which serves the key function of soaking up the alcohol consumed – a particularly shrewd move if everyone’s back in the office in the morning.
Make sure you spell out in advance what sort of food is going to be served. If there’s going to be tons of hearty fare, let people know – they’ll turn up with healthy appetites. Equally, if you’ve blown the budget on a couple of ludicrously expensive canapés, hint that the event’s not about filling food. At least your guests will be able to factor in a visit to Pret en route.
Food at business-focused daytime events is important for different reasons. Of course, you want attendees to enjoy their meal, but food that enhances health and performance also comes to the fore. The current trend for light lunching is replacing the carb-heavy business lunches of old. Delegates are much more nutrition savvy and will know that huge platters of cakes make for a dozy afternoon. Serve colourful salads and lean protein like salmon and chicken, alongside fresh fruit platters to keep heads from nodding in the afternoon session.
NOW ADD DRINKS
Getting the food right is only half the battle. The quality of the drinks you serve sends a big message about your event. This is particularly true for a sit-down dinner, where people will be paying close attention to the wines – expert advice will be required here. At a stand-up affair, you can sneak more budget-friendly options in under the radar.
First things first: when your guests arrive they’ll want to be greeted with a drink. Cheap Champagne is a no-no (if you can’t afford the good stuff, go for an upmarket prosecco instead). Cava does well in blind tastings – though it is still trying to shake off its image problem – and French crémant, made using the same method as Champagne, is a great-value alternative. But if you do go for good Champagne, make sure the labels are visible. There’s no point spending the extra money if guests don’t know about it.
A ‘clean’ aperitif should be on offer too – gin and tonic is always a fine choice, or tap into the current trend for Italian-style spritzes like Aperol with prosecco and soda. Cocktails look good, but do offer wine as an option as not everyone likes to drink liquids of unknown provenance. You’ll also need some beer in reserve as guests are bound to ask for it. And, of course, have mineral water – still and sparkling – ready too.
PACKING A PUNCH
Punches are cost-effective (particularly when there’s a rum base) and fashionable. There are countless recipes which can be tailored to any event, and they look great if served from an eccentric receptacle. In winter, consider hot whisky toddies or spiced cider.
Cocktails can be a bugbear, as long, thirsty queues can form while your bar staff mix them (particularly annoying for guests who want to grab something straightforward, like beer or wine). Don’t give your guests lots of options; instead provide a few choices that can be made in bulk and served from a jug by circulating waiting staff. And make sure they’re not too sweet – the first one goes down a treat but the third (and fourth…) can be a real struggle.
VALUE FROM YOUR VINO
A bit of research is all it takes to make the best of your wine budget. ‘Many vintage New World sparklers are so good now, you wouldn’t know they weren’t Champagne,’ says Julie Sheppard, associate editor of drinks industry bible Imbibe. ‘For whites, less well-known varieties can be very versatile. Your guests will never have tried Hungarian Furmint, say, and the flavour profile is dry and crisp – it has the same versatility as a Chardonnay – ditto Argentinean Torrontes, which is similarly cheap. If you want to stick to the classics, New World producers are now making good-value Chardonnays that are elegant and restrained instead of the big oaky versions that have put so many people off them.’
For Old World reds, look to the southern reaches. ‘You can always find bargains among the rustic Côtes du Rhônes in France and Spanish Tempranillo, as well as sunny Sicily, which produces good value, dependable wines with its Nero d’Avola grape. South American and South Africa are both producing some interesting blends at the moment.’ Talk to your supplier and let them know you’re open to alternatives to the classics.
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