Your event will sink or swim based on the quality of its food and drink, so go for the best caterer you can afford

Squaremeal Venues and Events Organisers Guide - catering

Food and drink 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.

You’ll have to do some research (there are plenty of recommendations in these pages). There is no shortage of first-rate outfits, so think carefully about the aim of the event, what you wish to convey and then make up a shortlist of caterers – be that old-school, modern, ethical, experimental and so on. If you’re set on a specific venue but you don’t want to use its preferred caterers, it’s usually possible to ‘buy’ the kitchen for the night (at a hefty price). Remember, though, that it might well make for a much 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 – a sit-down meal makes most sense if you’re entertaining a relatively small group. You can search for restaurants with private dining rooms on our website:

Once you’ve worked out numbers, drawn up a budget per head and made the sit-down or stand-up decision, it’s time to see what your shortlisted caterers can offer. There’s plenty of competition, so don’t feel scared to approach caterers who seem too pricey – they might cut a deal. Spell out 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. 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? If so, you could arrange for a plated delivery service so you don’t have to pay for staff to do the preparation on site.

Expect a tasting as a matter of course. If you’re not offered one, don’t use that caterer. 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 club, you might want to up the quantities (and make sure there’s a meat-on-a-stick option).

Squaremeal Venues and Events Organisers Guide - catering

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 – oyster bar, charcuterie or cheese counter are options. A set-up like this will keep your guests moving around.

If your party is going on into the early hours and 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 meant to be back in the office in the morning.

Make sure you spell out in advance what sort of food is going to be served. Tell people if there’s going to be plenty of hearty fare as they will turn up with healthy appetites. And you can hint that the event’s not about filling food if you’ve blown the budget on a couple of ludicrously expensive canapés. At least your guests will then be able to factor in a visit to Pret en route.

Food at business-focused daytime events is important for different reasons. You’ll want to choose foods that help enhance performance and are enjoyable. Light, energy-giving lunches have replaced the carb-heavy booze fests of old. Today’s delegates are savvy  about nutrition and know that platters of cakes make for a dozy afternoon. Serve colourful salads and lean protein like salmon and chicken, alongside fresh fruit platters, to keep people from nodding off during the afternoon session.

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 may be required here. You can sneak more budget-friendly options in under the radar at a stand-up affair.

First things first: when your guests arrive they’ll want to be greeted with a drink. Avoid cheap champagne and instead choose an upmarket prosecco if you cannot afford good-quality bubbles. Cava does well in blind tastings – though it is still trying to shake off its image problem – while French crémant is made using the same method as champagne and is a value alternative. If you go for decent champagne, make sure the labels are visible. There’s no point spending the extra money if guests don’t know about it.

Squaremeal Venues and Events Organisers Guide - catering

A ‘clean’ aperitif should be on offer too – gin and tonic is always a fine choice, or tap into the trend for Italian-style spritzes such as Aperol with prosecco and soda. Cocktails look good, but keep wine as an option because not everyone likes to drink liquids of unknown provenance. You’ll also need beer and both still and sparkling mineral water – guests are bound to ask for it.

Punches are cost effective (particularly rum-based ones) and fashionable. There are countless recipes and they look great if served from an eccentric receptacle. In winter, consider hot whisky toddies or spiced cider.

Cocktails can be a bugbear if long, thirsty queues form while your bar staff mix them (particularly annoying for guests who just want beer or wine). Provide a few choices that can be made in bulk and served from a jug by circulating waiting staff. Make sure they’re not too sweet – the first one might go down a treat but the third is a real struggle.

Research will allow you to make the best of your wine budget. ‘Prosecco has probably been the star of the wine scene over the past five years,’ says Chris Losh, editor of drinks industry bible Imbibe. ‘While the cheap ones are a bit meh, the good ones – look for those from Valdobbiadene – are worth the extra. If you want something more classical, English sparkling wine is moving from flag-waving curiosity to a star in its own right. They tend to have the elegance of champagne, but be a bit lighter and crisper – well worth a look.’

Chris also welcomes the rejuvenation of an old white-wine favourite. ‘It’s time for us to be grown up enough to start re-using the c-word. Chardonnay got a bad rep at the end of the 90s – too many fat, syrupy wines slathered in oak the way teenagers put on make-up,’ he says. ‘The past few years have seen a change in attitude, particularly toward wines from Australia and South Africa. They have weight, texture and elegance and can give burgundy a run for its money – at half the price.’

As for reds, Italy and France have the track record and, mostly, the prices to match. ‘At the moment it’s hard to look past Iberia if it’s value for money you’re after,’ says Chris. ‘Spain and Portugal are knocking out lots of interesting wines at impressive prices. Wines with charm and approachability, but a definite local accent – and you can pick up great stuff for £10 or less a bottle.’

2017 trends

Taco takeover
Just look at the column inches devoted to Breddos Tacos, Corazon, El Pastor and Temper. Tacos are now the hottest thing to explode out of Mexico and land on the London food scene since the jalapeno chilli. Traditionally eaten with fingers, these little bundles of Latino joy are ideal stand-up event fodder. Cheap and colourful, you can fill them with whatever you want, and they’ll play well with the Insta-generation too.

Top billing
This is another restaurant-driven trend that’s set to move into events. Bastien, Duck Duck Goose and Bun House are the prime culinary movers here, each recognising the tender charms of this underappreciated red meat. It’s now time to show your guests that you’re in the know too.

Bug bites
No longer just a torture device for unlucky D-listers on I’m a Celebrity..., insects are a show-stopping superfood. Sustainable and protein rich, they’re the thinking organiser’s alternative to meat. Go-ahead catering firms can already tell you what to do with them – mushroom and mealworm risotto recently caught the eye at an event we went to.

Mix ‘n’ batch
Cocktails are de rigueur, but it tends to take staff a while to mix them on the night. What’s the solution? Concoct them earlier, of course. No longer just a friend in a can for traumatised commuters, the stigma around pre-mixed drinks is gone – and batch production makes quality control easy. Even drinks don Tony Conigliaro now sells his Classico Negroni by the bottle. Bar queues be damned.

Presentation skills
More and more people live more and more of their lives through their mobile phone screens. Sad, but true. Megapixels can’t capture the taste or smell of your event (yet) but they can show the world what it looked like. So you’d best make it look good. Wearable canapé trays, mobile nitrogen ice-cream units and, er, edible bubble volcanos – we’ve seen them all recently. Welcometo the new normal.

This article was first published in Squaremeal Venues + Events 2017 Guide