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.
An alternative would be the lasagna main dish, partnered with lighter, quickly prepared finger foods, for instance caprese crostini bites, Caesar lettuce cups with fresh anchovy, a large antipasti platter and cannoli from your favorite bakery, aspiring to Nonna’s flavors without the sweltering kitchen and bottomless dish sink. The key to success here is keeping your menu succinct and on theme. You’ll notice we didn’t suggest a salsa bar or corndog starter, because they just don’t fit the flow of the food. Choose a genre and stick with it.
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.
Another key to easing those last sweaty-brow moments before the doorbell rings is to prepare ahead as much as possible. Cold appetizer platters can generally be constructed a full 24 hours in advance, so long as they’re wrapped and stored properly. Pre-batch your signature cocktail so you need only add ice upon serving, chop any needed veggies, make and store your sauces and dressings, all so that the day-of is spent on finishing touches and actual cooking.
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.
A polished presentation suggests a professional touch, so don’t just think of what you’re serving, but how you serve it. Try to achieve as uniform a look as possible with small bites and desserts. Rent or borrow matching dinnerware, or visit your local thrift shop where you’ll often find complete collections of vintage gems. Cover table risers in tablecloths, book stacks and computer monitor risers work in a pinch, to create a cascading waterfall of food options at your self-serve buffet. In front of a sunny window, polish your silver and wipe to spotless all glassware. Your guests’ memory of the food will be elevated by these subtle details.
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.