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12 Secrets of Caterers

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Whether they’re working at a wedding, birthday party, or corporate event, caterers do more than simply cook food and serve drinks. They also devise menus, shop for ingredients, plate the food, and clean up everyone else’s messes. We spoke to several caterers to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like being responsible for the most important part of any event: the refreshments.

1. THEY DON’T MAKE EVERYTHING FROM SCRATCH.

Depending on the size of the event, caterers may be responsible for feeding and serving anywhere from 5 to 5000 people. For big events, caterers simply don’t have the time to make everything from scratch. So don’t be surprised if you see a caterer using store-bought items such as sauces, tapenades, or cookies. Caterers may also use other kitchen shortcuts such as powdered (rather than whole) eggs—a hack that can save time, hassle, and money.

2. THEY’RE PROBABLY TYPE A PERSONALITIES.

Wedding caterer Jerry Baker tells Entrepreneur that catering is a stressful job that requires long hours and difficult work. “There are very few businesses that have as much pressure to perform on time as a wedding caterer. You have to be very type A to succeed at a high level,” he says. Baker also emphasizes that caterers need to be flexible and willing to do any task that’s required of them. “Sometimes I'm the fastest prep cook we have and I'm chopping vegetables, and sometimes I'm hauling trash at 2 a.m. after 15 hours on my feet in order to help us get out [of the venue],” he says.

3. THEY’RE VERY AWARE OF TEMPERATURES.

Temperature is always a concern for caterers, whether they’re using ice to keep food chilled before serving it or ensuring that entrees are served hot. To control the temperature of foods, most caterers travel to events with bags of ice, multiple coolers, and portable burners. And to come up with a suitable menu for an event, caterers must carefully consider whether the event will be outdoors or indoors and plan accordingly to avoid food contamination (think mayonnaise that sits outside in the sun for hours).

4. THEY NEED TO BE GOOD AT MATH.

If a party has a guest list of 75 people, how many bread rolls, cheese cubes, forks, napkins, and ice cubes should a caterer bring? Having too few items can be disastrous, but having too many can be a waste of money. As New Jersey-based caterer Cheri Scolari explains to Good Housekeeping, most people overestimate how much food their guests will eat. But caterers follow a few time-tested rules of thumb for getting the amount of food and drink just right. “We usually say that a half pan of salads or entrees can serve 10 to 12 people,” Scolari says. As for drinks, most caterers plan to serve roughly one drink per person per hour.

5. OFFSITE WORK CAN BE A BIG CHALLENGE.

Tanya Gurrieri of Salthouse Catering in Charleston, South Carolina tells mental_floss that being an off-premise caterer (as opposed to one who works for a specific venue) is particularly challenging, because of the ever-changing environments in which they work. “We might be smiling on the outside and crying on the inside,” she says. For each new event, caterers must set up kitchens in unfamiliar spaces and work within the venue's power, lighting, and equipment constraints. And because both client and caterer have high expectations for the food and service, caterers can face tremendous pressure to pull off every event smoothly. “Folks don’t care that they’re sitting under a tent in the middle of a field—they expect their dinner to be served promptly and perfectly,” Gurrieri says.

6. FOOD AND DRINKS ARE JUST THE BEGINNING.

Caterers can go beyond cooking and serving food. Some provide clients with plates, bowls, cups, utensils, napkins, tablecloths, and decorations, as well as rented tents, canopies, and chairs. According to Jasmine Williams of farm-to-table catering business A Fork Full of Earth, some caterers are food-focused while others are more all-encompassing. “We are a ‘food-focused' catering company, so we do mostly food, and then refer our clients out to our preferred network of subcontractors for their other needs,” she explains to mental_floss.

7. THEY’RE PREPARED FOR THINGS TO GO WRONG.

Although caterers generally know ahead of time what food they’ll be cooking and how many people they’ll be feeding, they’re always prepared for the unexpected. Whether a batch of biscuits gets burned in the oven, a glass pan shatters, or several guests are unexpectedly gluten-free, caterers can deal with surprises. “Nothing replaces having years of experience. Once you’ve seen things go wrong, you plan ahead to protect against it happening again,” Williams says. "The best thing you can do is have a mindful policy in place to correct the issue after it occurs."

8. THEY MAY USE YOU AS A TASTE TESTER.

If you insist on having yuca root pancakes or cotton candy Rice Krispies treats at your event, don’t expect your caterer to be in familiar territory. While most caterers are able to apply their culinary knowledge and skills to make a suitable version of any dish you request, they may not have any experience making more unusual recipes. That means your event might be the first time they serve a particular dish—but that shouldn’t be cause for concern if you trust your caterer’s experience and knowledge. Just be aware that you might be something of a guinea pig.

9. FOODBORNE ILLNESSES MAKE THEIR BUSINESS RISKY.

Due to food safety laws and the risks inherent in running a kitchen and serving food to strangers, catering isn’t a profession that most cooks enter on a whim. “Catering is in a high-risk category because you’re making something that’s being consumed by individuals and handled by multiple people,” Michelle Bomberger, an attorney who represents caterers, tells the National Federation of Independent Business. Although professional caterers needn’t necessarily attend culinary school, they must adhere to health and building codes, get a business license, pass local health department inspections, and buy insurance to cover food poisoning and kitchen fires.

10. THEY TRAVEL WITH GARBAGE BAGS GALORE.

While it’s not as glamorous as plating caviar-topped salmon or serving tuna tartare appetizers, garbage is an essential component of catering. Depending on the venue, some caterers may be off the hook for cleaning up the trash, but most caterers who work on-site at a home or event space need to deal with the dumpster.

For every ten people they serve, caterers plan to bring one large garbage bag. And to save time during an event, they line a few bags in each garbage can before the party starts.

11. FLUCTUATING FOOD PRICES CAN AFFECT THEM DEEPLY.

The USDA Economic Research Service expects grocery prices to rise between 0.5 and 1.5% in 2017. Stormy weather, droughts, and diseased crops are responsible for the higher prices of foods, particularly coconuts, olive oil, vanilla, and oranges. While a roughly 1% increase might not sound like much, fluctuating food prices can greatly impact a caterer’s bottom line, forcing them to raise the prices they charge or opt for less expensive ingredients. Zapher Dajani of The Abbey Catering says that he looks at food prices over the past three years to anticipate future inflation. “We also try to limit our proteins to enjoy huge economies of scale pricing discounts,” he tells mental_floss.

But some food price fluctuations are simply seasonal in nature—and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll cost you more. Kim Behnam, the event manager at San Diego-based catering company Toast, explains that she usually doesn’t increase prices on foods that cost more because they're out of season: “For example, if strawberries are not in season, then their prices will be more expensive. Since this is temporary, we don’t go to the trouble of increasing our prices.”

12. THEY LOVE THE ART OF FOOD AND SERVICE.

Whether they serve sophisticated dishes including flaked sea salt and truffle oil or put fun twists on homespun recipes, many caterers ultimately feel grateful to share their love of food and drinks with people. “We love the art of producing great food, and I personally love serving people,” Behnam says. Dajani echoes that sentiment, adding that food is usually the biggest, most important part of any special event: “We love how food is the element that brings everyone together for a memorable moment at the event.”

All photos via iStock.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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Food
A Famed French Chef Is Begging Michelin to Take Away His 3 Stars
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A Michelin star, which rewards excellence in cooking, is a huge deal in the restaurant world. Aside from the prestige the ratings convey, they drive significant business: In 2010, Eater reported that a Michelin star could result in up to a 25 percent increase in sales for a restaurant. But the honor isn’t always welcome.

In a rare move, a French restaurateur is asking to be stripped of his three Michelin stars. Chef Sébastien Bras, whose family restaurant in Laguiole, France, has appeared as a three-star eatery in the Guide Michelin France since 1999, has asked to be removed from future editions of the influential guide, The Guardian reports.

A Michelin star—or three, the guide's highest designation—can create a lot of anxiety for a restaurant. That increase in business isn’t always a good thing. In February 2017, a tiny, casual French restaurant that employed only four waiters was listed in the Guide Michelin France by mistake (another restaurant with the same name should have been included). It was unprepared for the sudden influx of customers who showed up expecting an award-winning meal.

In a Facebook video, Bras announced his decision to ask for his restaurant to be removed from the guide. He said that while the award had given him great satisfaction over the years, it also created a huge amount of pressure, since the restaurant could be inspected at any time without warning. Bras plans to continue cooking, just without the prestigious designation.

However, a representative from Michelin told AFP that the removal process isn’t automatic, and the decision would have to be considered by the executive committee that awards the stars.

He’s not the only one who has chafed at the honor of a Michelin star. In 2014, a Spanish chef returned the star awarded to his family restaurant outside of Valencia, saying being in a Michelin guide gave patrons specific expectations of what his food would be like, stifling his creativity. Other chefs have also chafed at the expectations a Michelin star creates around their food, including the owner of a French restaurant that wanted to transform into a more casual eatery and a Belgian chef who said that after his restaurant appeared in the restaurant guide, customers were no longer interested in the simple food he wanted to serve.

[h/t The Guardian]

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