From a business luncheon to a large wedding, what are the rules of service for caterers? Do you serve customers from the left or the right? Do you spoon out the food in a buffet or does the guest? Are you responsible for food prep or is it someone else? Do you set the tables and how? Is coffee or tea served before or after the meal? Who takes out the bins?
The food service industry can be intimidating, especially when you’re new and are unfamiliar with the rules, but it can also be rewarding. In the catering industry, many of your fellow co-workers will be interesting, lively, and social. It’s certainly a career for social people - and you can get an inside look at soirees and elite social gatherings whilst earning enough on the side. It’s flexible work, but physically demanding.
Front-Facing Catering Servers vs Catering Chefs vs Catering Managers:
The catering industry has front-facing serving staff and chefs who both work behind the scenes to bring everything together to achieve the final product. Catering servers are the ones who interact with the guests at the event, but also may help set up the event.
The catering chefs are responsible for designing menus, preparing food, setting out the table service or buffets, and - most importantly - making sure no one goes home hungry. All caterers are responsible for making sure the event goes smoothly, but usually there'll be a catering manager in charge of all moving parts - including speaking with clients and finding out their needs before the events are set into motion.
Here are some catering tips and tricks for newbie caterers - servers, chefs, and managers.
1. Cancel the buffet
Unless your clients specifically request a buffet, family-style entertaining is the new rage in catering. It's more intimate, and halts the need for long lines and waiting too.
For catering chefs, buffet food temperature is more difficult to regulate, which could lead to illness. For servers, with fewer guests mingling around, there are fewer chances of accidents, and you can see to the needs of the guests more easily.
Open-seated cocktail parties with buffets often have many obstacles for both servers and guests - tables, moving on surfaces, carry their own plates and drinks, and so forth. Catering managers will have much less stress hosting sit-down and family style events than monitoring a long buffet line.
2. Understand food safety
As someone working with food, you want to know the basics of food safety. Your supervisor will most likely train you on salient points, but here’s a quick run-down. Everyone from servers to chefs to catering managers must know about food safety temperatures.
- Make sure if you’re tasked with preparing food, you use separate chopping boards for raw meat and fresh veggies to avoid cross contamination.
- When cooking, storing, keeping food on warmers or ice, make sure you avoid the danger zone (4 to 60 °C) so that no one is at risk for foodborne illness as bacteria multiply at an alarming rate when kept at these temperatures for a prolonged period of time.
- Cook all foods to the appropriate temperature (75°C or above or below that temperature if food is held at a temperature for a suitable period of time).
- Cool foods to the appropriate temperature (5°C).
- Store foods properly in airtight containers that are clearly labeled and dated.
- Hot holding foods should be above 63°C, or if not, consumed within a couple of hours.
- Reheated food should be raised to a temperature of 82°C. A time and temperature combination will ensure food has been safely reheated.
3. Choose hot and cold foods
For a catering chef, the demands of keeping all food hot can be astronomical, especially if you're cooking in a venue kitchen and are unsure of the number of ovens beforehand. If you're cooking in advance of the event too, it's much more stressful to worry about how you'll heat everything in time.
Pro caterers often choose, say, cold hors d'oeuvres, and a warm dinner - or even a dinner with foods that can be served at room temperature. Grilled steak, roasted veg, and chicken can all be served at less than piping hot, but fish is delicate and has to be served hot.
Vary ideas with a taco bar, family style at the table with hot and cold sides.
4. Slice meat thinly
To save money, slice all big joints of meat thinly. Guests often take three slices of meat whether the meat is thick or thin. Hungry guests can always go back for more, but they'll often find that the protein they've taken is enough. Choose cheaper cuts of meat too and marinate and tenderize to maximize flavour.
5. Prepare ahead
Mentally prepare the tasks you have to do for the night - no matter your role. A chef can go through all the steps to get the food to the table, the manager can decide what steps need to be taken to pull of the event, and servers can decide who will do what too.
For the staff, make sure all preparations - table cloths, setting up chairs, cutlery, napkins, etc - are done ahead of time; the chefs and kitchen staff will want to prepare as many foods ahead as possible too to alleviate any stress.
6. Signature cocktails
Nothing makes a party more memorable than a signature cocktail. You also won't have to stock the bar fully because guests will most likely want to try this new drink.
Having a few key drinks makes it easier for the severs (especially those who are new) to keep up with the drinks orders and serve them, and it makes it faster for the bartenders - as one of the cocktails can be a pre-mixed drink so it's more a case of garnishing the glass than shaking up a fresh drink.
7. Training and physical demands
If you can find the time, it’s recommended that you exercise and eat healthily to stay in shape. Catering is demanding physically because you’ll often be on your feet for hours, walking between the kitchens and the event room. You’ll need lots of energy for that - whether you're a manager, server, or chef.
The plus side is you often cannot serve food trays - when serving hors d'oeuvres at, say, the coat check (where you’ll often have lots of down time and get to sit down) - when they are nearly empty, so when walking back to the kitchen you may be able to eat the last mini quiche or salmon roll (ask your manager first, though), which can provide some energy.
You may be tasked with any number of jobs: carry crates of glasses or plates; folding napkins; moving large centerpieces; unstacking chairs; serving as part of a reinforcement crew; setting up tables; lighting candles; serving food and drinks; supervising the buffet; serving canapes at a coat check; carrying trays around the event; and much more. However, you should be provided with adequate training in any area in which you’ll be working.
Another tip to withstand the physical demands is to get plenty of rest when you can, mental and physical rest. Make time for other activities you enjoy since catering often takes up a lot of evenings. Take a nice walk in the park, go for a run, do some writing, or painting, play a sport, whatever your hobby. Prepare yourself for the demands of the job.
8. Ask for help
You’ll have a lot to learn, so instead of making a mistake, it’s advisable to ask for help if you do not remember how to do something. It’s okay! Your employer will expect that you need a grace period, and most would much rather you ask too many questions (and do a job well) than too few and make multiple mistakes - although many would be forgiving if you do make a mistake too.
9. Always provide quality customer service
As a caterer you’ll provide customer service, quality control, hygiene, cleanliness, staffing, shift work, and sometimes budget work. You’ll have a lot to balance so make sure you’re able to withstand the demands. However, many caterers do say that when the events begin, adrenaline is high and the job is a lively one, keeping you going into the late hours.
It’s important that you are polite, friendly, and diplomatic. You want customers to rave about your service so you’ll have a job weekend after weekend or evening after evening!
10. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes
Often those in catering are provided with a uniform, usually black, and you’ll want to make sure you have enough uniforms available so you can wear a fresh, clean uniform when you go to work. Another consideration is footwear.
Many high-street trainers and flats may seem like a good idea, but by the end of the day your feet will be tired and you’ll feel the day in your joints and back. Safe slip-resistant footwear is a must.
You may also find shoes with safety features such as spill proofing, water resistance, specialised traction zones, clog resistance, lightweight materials, removable insoles, ventilation, and more - and guess what? SHOES FOR CREWS (EUROPE), LTD. offers all of those features and more!
11. Celebrity advice from top chefs
Those in the industry weigh up on top tips:
- Rowley Leigh, Award-winning cookery writer and chef owner of Le Café Anglais.
"The biggest difference between professional and amateur cooking is the seasoning. I think a lot of cooks just add salt as an afterthought, whereas professionals use more salt, but they use it earlier as well. It's very important to bring out the flavours with salt at the beginning, for example, when you're making risotto. The other thing is that I'm never without a lemon. There's hardly anything I cook which I wouldn't add a squeeze of lemon, to heighten the seasoning and bring out the flavour."
Follow Rowley Leigh on Twitter: @LeCafeAnglais
Tom Adams, Chef and founder of Pitt Cue Co.
"I call this the lazy stock. Our restaurant kitchen is mini, and having only two induction hobs means that having a massive stock pot ticking over all day is dream. But since we use lots of trotter and smoked ham stocks in the sauces we had to find a way. We now cook out all our stocks overnight in the oven. You get a perfectly clear stock – all the impurities that you would usually remove through skimming stick to the bottom and sides of the pot.
Take lots of kitchen vegetable trim (celery, fennel tops, onion, garlic) and place in a pot with all your bones (we use smoked hocks, trotters and rib trim). Cover with water, then cling film and foil it. Cook overnight at 140c."
Follow Tom Adams on Twitter: @PittCueCo
Stevie Parle, Chef and founder of the Dock Kitchen, west London.
"There are some important things to remember when using spices. It's really important that you should always grind them with a pestle and mortar, always buy them whole, and always use a lot. The volume you use is crucial. Buying them whole instead of ground keeps them for more than a year, you get much more vibrancy in the flavour, and you're just crushing what you need. You can add a ground spice at the end of cooking, and that gives it a little lift, or you can add them in whole at the beginning. This is important with lots of spices, even black pepper – grind it with a pestle and mortar instead of buying it ready ground or using a stale old pepper mill."
Follow Stevie Parle on Twitter: @StevieParle
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