Not every event meets the size or budget that necessitates professional catering, but every guest list deserves a knock-‘em-dead dinner. Turn your small but mighty gender reveal, your coworker’s retirement cocktail hour, and your holiday singles mixer from a beginner grade soiree to a top tier fete with a few of our insider tips.
Choose Your Headliner
Some strategy is needed here to first lean into your strengths as a chef, without overcorrecting into a menu whose prep is too time consuming, or a hodgepodge of regional styles, formality, or audience preferences. Instead start with one superstar recipe, your famous Sicilian lasagna for example, and build out around it with supporting dishes that are simple, complimentary, and not overly labor intensive. Your lasagna accompanied by your family’s beef spedini, baked ziti in homemade tomato sauce and hand rolled pasta, followed by a towering tiramisu trifle is an overwhelm of flavors, calories, and effort. While these all sound delicious, a caterer’s talent is to delight and entice, not split your mother’s pants up the back and doom your uncle to a long mid-party couch nap.
If guests are flying in from out of town, lean into local favorites, homegrown produce, or neighborhood butchers. Honor any food allergies and vegetarian, kosher, or halal limitations by inquiring in advance and working around them. Even well-prepared seafood can turn rubbery when sitting too long. So if you must, stick with shellfish, which holds its flavor and constitution longer. And if you’re planning on showcasing a regional or ethnic menu, keep the spiciness to a minimum, as the threshold between flavorful and hazardous is personal to each guest’s palate.
Delegate where you can, lean on helpers to stir, shred cheese, or fill the dishwasher. Assign your booziest brother as bartender. For recipes new to you, make a couple the week prior to perfect the speed and method of preparation. Decide early on what you’re wearing, decorate your space and lay out your tablescape before you so much as don an apron. A touchstone of a catered meal is the party host appearing completely unbothered, and you can achieve this by checking off to-do’s hours and days before the first drink is poured.
To save at the bar without sacrificing presentation, create a signature cocktail in a gorgeous decanter, with a beer or wine alternative. Include whatever is trending among mixologists and high-end restaurants, or theme it to liqueurs unique to your regional menu, national origin of your guests, or the occasion you’re celebrating.
The common denominator here is simplicity. If you can throw your time and attention behind a stand-out dish, cocktail, and décor, your impressed guests will leave asking for the business card of your caterer. And if you do need any additional help, you know who to call.