Things I Learned While Catering
My little step-brother married his girlfriend of several years yesterday. As it happened, all of the kids did something completely different for their weddings. My husband and I did Vegas out of a desire to both let his family in Latvia watch via webcam (that we didn't have to set up or troubleshoot) and not have to plan a damn thing. After all the immigration hassles we'd gone through (like having to travel to Poland for the actual visa interviews for him to enter the US), planning a wedding simultaneously was an overwhelming thought. My step-sister did the big bash wedding with professional everything downtown at the Triad Center. But my step-brother and his wife didn't want any of that: just a simple, informal get-together with family filling in for all the people ordinarily hired.
So, my husband, the amateur photographer, did the photography, including some traditional poses. A friend of the groom's did the cake. My brother-in-law played piano while his wife handled all of the decorations. I volunteered to feed everyone. The bride had some requests: Simple, down-home lunch with mini-sandwiches. Lots of strawberries (her favorite fruit) along with more fruits and veggies. A few different appetizers, maybe some desserts (no one knew if there would be a wedding cake as procuring one hit several snags).
It was a very small affair with confirmed guests of 13 (14 with the bishop) and the potential for 20-22. By no means a big catering job and reasonable enough for me to put together. I've never catered before, or really even cooked for such a large gathering. With the help of my husband, I knew I could manage it.
We settled on some easy dishes that would fit their tastes and those of the guests, winding up with a "sandwich bar" where folks could put together their own sandwich, a potato salad, a leaf salad, four different appetizers, three types of cookies, brownie bites, loads of veggies and fruit, plus chocolate-dipped strawberries. I also put together a heart-shaped dish full of the largest strawberries which I dipped and decorated. These turned out to be a huge hit -- everyone loves tuxedo strawberries and they're easy to do, even for someone as ham-fisted with decorating as me.
What Did I Learn? After a week and a half of stress, two very long days of preparing and serving, here's what I took away from this experience.
You can't predict what people will love -- or hate. I kept coming across miniature pigs in a blanket when I went looking for recipes and since it seemed the type of thing the bride and groom would enjoy, I made them. Only a handful were left and the groom demanded them in a bag for later. By contrast, the leaf salad was utterly untouched. (Surprisingly, given the rabid salad-lovers in the family.)
Make sure there's a variety of foods available and don't forget vegetarians or diabetics. Half of the food provided was vegetarian-friendly. But I don't usually worry about diabetics (in part because I'm spoiled with my father who wears an insulin pump and happily eats everything). It turned out that the bride's adoptive father was diabetic -- but he happily chowed down on the veggies and asked for the rest to take home.
Having enough room to store everything safely is just as important as being aware of allergies and cross-contamination. I wound up putting two-thirds of the contents of our fridge into one relative's extra fridge to have enough room just to store the ingredients (and later, to chill batches of different foods). Then I had to borrow a second cooler from another family member so I could store the finished products on ice overnight and transport it the next day.
Likewise, having enough room to work is important. If I could have, I would have borrowed a kitchen from someone else, preferably one with a dishwasher and plenty of counter space. Doing it in our cramped kitchen produced cleanup all out of proportion to its size (to my mind) and I'm still cleaning. (Oh, how I miss having a dishwasher...)
Remembering the one little comment the bride makes about what she'd really like makes a difference. In this case, it was strawberries, her favorite fruit. It's the end of strawberry season and the strawberries available are not very good. But one way to make them go farther and last longer is to add sugar, so I dipped about a pound and a half in chocolate. She was thrilled.
The Most Important: Wear comfortable shoes. In fact, I was so focused on everything that had to be done, I forgot to add "be comfortable" to the list. While my dad and his wife changed before and after the ceremony, comfortably working in jeans and tshirts, neither I nor my husband thought about it. By the end of the afternoon, my shoes were off more than on and putting them on to go home was painful. By the end of the night, I found out how much the 4" heels had played havoc with my legs. If I had worn comfortable shoes, things would have been much easier.
Would I do it again? My brother-in-law asked me if I thought I'd cater professionally after this. My answer: Probably not professionally. I'd thought about it a few years ago, but after the stress and worry of this week, I don't think it's something I'm cut out to do.
What would I change if I had it to do over? I'd make half as much food, but with only two appetizers (the mini dogs and tomato bites) and twice as many of them. I would also insist that the tablecloths not be black (makes the food look funereal).
On the upside, last night's dinner, today's lunch and dinner all have been built around leftovers. Not much to do tonight except steam some rice, toss a bunch of veggies left from the veggie plate in a hot pan with some soy sauce and dinner's served!