How do you plan a traditional banquet without it appearing stuffy? How much liquor do you buy if you have to supply it for a 500-person event? How do you spruce up barbecue? How do you deal with a client who insists on serving mashed potatoes in a martini glass? And how do you tell a venue you hate their preferred caterer? These are some of the questions discussed and debated by F&B professionals at the recent “Taste of Atlanta: East Meets West” PYM LIVE Event in Atlanta.
The panel included Cathy Desroches, president/founder of Chef Eric Catering & Events; Chef Jeffrey McGar, executive chef, Atlanta Events Center at Opera; Todd Rushing, partner, Concentrics Restaurants; Claire R. Gould, owner, Rx for Catering; and Shelly Pedersen, CPCE, owner and president, Beyond Cuisine. Here are some of their tips, trends and advice.
- People are leaning towards comfort foods, so give them what they want, but with a twist: barbecue crawfish instead of pork, or create a barbecue sushi. At a chef’s station, offer a retro dish like lobster thermador.
- When planning an event that will attract multiple generations, you need to satisfy those who want something traditional as well as those who want something funky, so keep the entrée something staid, but get creative with the desserts, starters and place settings. Also, a mix of highboys and traditional rounds will satisfy the needs of those who want to sit and those who want to mingle.
- If you’re looking at doing a signature drink, consider creating a vodka infusion, adding fresh fruit, briny olives or herbs to bottles of the neutral liquor. It will taste better than a mass-produced flavored vodka, and the marinating bottles are an attractive addition to a bar back.
- Strategically placed plants, food stations and lounge-style seating arrangements can cozy up a cavernous space.
On dealing with dietary restrictions:
- Be sure you ask about allergies, not just about group preferences, because some allergies can be life threatening.
- If you have a vegan in the group, call and ask for their preferences. Don’t just assume they’ll eat tofu.
- Make sure banquet staff is informed about the ingredients in the meal. If someone is allergic to peanuts and the server knows that there’s no peanut oil in the dressing, they can diffuse a potentially stressful situation.
On going green:
- Local and organic food costs more, but experts agree: It’s worth it and it tastes better. And the fact that you took the extra step is meaningful to guests and clients.
- A fun way to introduce guests to the local/organic experience is to set up tasting stations where they can see what a conventional gashouse tomato looks and tastes like compared to an organic tomato, or sample conventional and organic cheeses or fruits.
- Serve locally made wine, beer or spirits, when available.
- Reduce or eliminate packaging by using china, flatware and linens instead of disposables.
- Recycle and donate excess food or compost, if possible.
- Seeing what an impact going green can make inspires others to change their buying habits and behavior.
- Ask for seasonal menus; don’t settle for one-size-fits-all menus. It’s better to serve produce that’s in-season than to fly in food grown somewhere else.
- If you know you have a bunch of drinkers, go with the package bar. If you know 20-25 percent of your attendees won’t drink, go with consumption-only.
- Going with butler service/passed drinks gives you better control over consumption. Having a drink or water passed when guests arrive also relieves pressure on the bartenders to serve everyone at once.
- One way to cut costs is to open the bar for a 45-minute pre-dinner reception, and close it for the hour dinner is underway.
- If you have to provide the alcohol for an event, ask for expert advice from a local package store.
- Avoid domestic wines if you’re concerned about your budget. Instead, look at using wines from South America, Spain, Italy and parts of France. A sommelier can help you be creative in your offerings.
- Keep a history of your group’s consumption. Ask the banquet captain and bartenders to keep tabs on what comes back untouched and what gets consumed. If you know your group is full of red wine drinkers who hate salmon, it will save you time and money developing your menus for the next event.
- There seems to be some hesitation on the planner’s part to divulge budget information. Caterers won’t try to spend every last dime you have budgeted, but they do need to know what you are willing and able to spend, so be honest.
On interactive F&B ideas:
- Guests can prepare recipes with the chef and then go in for dinner to enjoy what they’ve made together.
- Attendees can learn about the history of a classic cocktail and how to put a new twist on it.
- Wine and beer seminars can be arranged to show how different drinks bring out different flavors in the prepared meal.
On best practices:
- If you have a client who always insists on having something that the rest of the group doesn’t like, there are a few different ways to handle him or her:
- Assure the client that you will have what they want there just for them, but in order to take care of the other attendees’ needs, other menu items will be present.
- Use the group’s history of consumption to back your assertion that although the client likes this item, it is not popular with the group.
- Arrange a tasting for the client so they can experience some of the out-of-the-box ideas you and the caterer have for the event.
- If alcohol is going to be poured at an event, make sure everyone involved has the necessary licenses, training and insurance. If anything happens (and it could) everyone is going to be held liable. Make sure bartenders know what the approved pour amount is and empower them to say no when someone asks for a double or has had too much to drink.
- If you are planning an out-of-town function, make sure to set up tastings on your initial site visit and bring a camera to document meal presentation, because you may not have the opportunity to go back before the event.
- If you love a venue, but have had problems in the past with their preferred caterer, sit down with your sales person (or if the caterer runs the facility, the owner) and discuss the past issues you’ve had with the service, so that corrections can be made.
- Don’t say you’re expecting 110 people when you know you’re going to have 150 or 160. If the caterer has prepared for 110 people and you create a 30 percent gap in what they have in terms of staff, plates and food, you are going to make them look bad and destroy their faith in your working relationship.