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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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Little Baby's Ice Cream
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Pizza and Cricket Cake Are Just Some of the Odd Flavors You'll Find at This Philadelphia Ice Cream Shop
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Little Baby's Ice Cream

Ice cream flavors can get pretty out-there, thanks to the growing number of creative scoop shops willing to take risks and broaden their customers’ horizons beyond chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Intrepid foodies can cool off with frozen treats that taste like horseradish, foie gras, and avocado, while Philadelphia's Little Baby’s Ice Cream is pushing the boundaries of taste with chilly offerings like everything bagel, Maryland BBQ, ranch, and cricket cake.

Cricket-flavored ice cream, created by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

Everything Bagel-flavored ice cream, created by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

As Lonely Planet News reports, Little Baby’s Ice Cream launched its first signature “oddball” ice cream—Earl Grey sriracha—in 2011. Since then, its rotating menu has only gotten quirkier. In addition to the aforementioned flavors, customers who swing by Little Baby’s this summer can even try pizza ice cream.

The store created the savory flavor in 2011, to celebrate neighborhood eatery Pizza Brain’s inclusion into Guinness World Records for its vast collection of pizza memorabilia. The savory, Italian-esque snack is made from ingredients like tomato, basil, oregano, salt, and garlic—and yes, it actually tastes like pizza, Little Baby’s co-owner Pete Angevine told Lonely Planet News.

Pizza-flavored ice cream, made by Philadelphia-based Little Baby's Ice Cream
Little Baby's Ice Cream

“Frequently, folks will see it on the menu and be incredulous, then be convinced to taste it, giggle, talk about how surprised they are that it really tastes just like pizza … and then order something else,” Angevine said. “That’s just fine. Just as often though, they’ll end up getting a pizza milkshake!”

Little Baby’s flagship location is in Philadelphia's East Kensington neighborhood, but customers can also sample their unconventional goods at additional outposts in West Philadelphia, Baltimore, and a pop-up stand in Washington, D.C.’s Union Market. Just make sure to bring along a sense of adventure, and to leave your preconceived notions of what ice cream should taste like at home.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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11 of the Most Extreme Junk Foods Ever Created
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It should come as no surprise that National Junk Food Day is traditionally celebrated on July 21—smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the streets run thick with ice cream trucks and county fairs boast the kind of fried treats that can only be described as “awesome” (both in the modern sense and the more dated, whoa, we are in awe of that usage). But National Junk Food Day shouldn’t be celebrated with commonplace junk food; oh, no, it deserves something far bigger and better. So save your potato chips and chocolate bars for another day, and get ready to try some truly wild treats.

1. THE KFC DOUBLE DOWN

KFC

Perhaps the most unexpectedly clever way to create a new extreme junk food item is to turn a non-junky foodstuff into something that just oozes calories and decadence. Fried chicken giant KFC knew that—and played it up to major effect—when they introduced the KFC Double Down to America back in 2010. The sandwich foregoes the most traditional aspect of any sandwich (the bread!) and substitutes two fried chicken filets. In between the two pieces of chicken? Bacon, two different kinds of cheese, and the Colonel’s “secret sauce.” There’s no room for a bun here, folks.

2. PIZZA HUT'S HOT DOG STUFFED CRUST PIZZA

Pizza Hut

We may associate items like fast food pizza and hot dog-stuffed anything with all-American palates, but cheesy juggernaut Pizza Hut saw things a bit differently. In 2012, the chain introduced a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust to our neighbors across the pond, treating their UK customers to the kind of taste sensation some people might have had literal nightmares about. Is it a pizza? Is it a hot dog? Somehow, it’s both—and yet something much more.

3. FRIENDLY'S GRILLED CHEESE BURGERMELT

Friendly's

Once again, a wily restaurant chain took a normal food item—in this case, a hamburger—and amped up its junk factor by doing away with something as commonplace as buns, in favor of an entirely different (and, yes, very junky) item. In 2010, Friendly’s rolled out its very own spin on the Double Down, slamming a regular old burger between not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches. Who needs buns when you can have four pieces of bread, gooey cheese, and unfathomable amounts of butter?

4. GUY FIERI'S CHEESECAKE CHALLENGE

Whiz-bang chef Guy Fieri has long drawn ire for his more wild culinary creations, but what sets his cuisine apart from that of other junk food aficionados is his steadfast dedication to the key elements of any extreme item: size and odd combinations. Fieri’s “Guy's Cheesecake Challenge” is currently on the menu of his Vegas Kitchen and Bar, but it’s easy enough to replicate at home: Just halve a cheesecake, throw it on a plate, and douse liberally with hot fudge, pretzels, and potato chips. (What, no bacon?)

5. DENNY'S FRIED CHEESE MELT

Denny's

In August 2010, Denny’s introduced the Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks. Yes, it was served with both French fries and a side of marinara sauce, because it’s important to eat vegetables with every meal.

6. DUNKIN' DONUTS'S GLAZED DONUT BREAKFAST SANDWICH

Dunkin' Donuts

If you’ve ever hit up your local Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast and found yourself stumped when it came time to decide if you wanted a donut or a breakfast sandwich to get your morning motor revving, Dunkin' Donuts came up with a brilliant culinary brainstorm in 2013: the fast food favorite unveiled a breakfast sandwich that used glazed donuts as “bread,” wrapped around bacon and peppered egg.

7. JACK IN THE BOX MUNCHIE MEAL

Jack in the Box
What Jack’s Munchie Meals lack in creativity, they more than make up for in pure, unadulterated size and content. Each Munchie Meal—there are four total—features a massive sandwich (from the Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger to the Spicy Nacho Chicken Sandwich, and all sorts of wild fried things in between) accompanied with two beef tacos, “Halfsies” (a combo of fries and curly fries), and a 20-ounce fountain drink. These intense snack boxes are still available at most Jack in the Box locations, but you’ll have to wait until after 9 p.m. to procure your very own.

8. PIZZA HUT CHEESY BITES REMIX PIZZA

Apparently, there’s nothing that Pizza Hut loves more than using its crust as a delivery system for other junk food items. The hut that pizza built may have crammed hot dogs and hamburgers on to their pie sides, but there was something special about the Cheesy Bites Remix pizza. It featured fried cheese pockets stuffed with three different varieties of extra junk, from spicy seasoning to cream cheese and sesame to mozzarella and parmesan.

9. DEEP FRIED BUTTER

County and state fairs have long been hotbeds (sizzling, oily hotbeds) of wild, deep-frying invention. Dunking things in batter and then tossing them into a vat of oil is a nifty way to turn almost anything into a delicious crisp pocket of junky decadence, perfect for utensil-free eating—but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to get the deep-fried treatment. While deep-fried Oreos may be a stroke of brilliance, deep fried butter is just plain madness. Here’s a quick test: If you wouldn’t eat something if it weren’t deep-fried, don’t eat it if it is deep-fried. When was the last time you ate an entire stick of butter? See? Point proven.

10. THE BACON BUN BURGER

Not content to have a bacon sandwich between two chicken filets? Is a grilled cheese bun replacement not for you? Then try making your very own hamburger buns out of bacon. Carbs are bad for you, right?

11. FRIED ICE CREAM SANDWICH

The Florida State Fair is the proud home of the first fried ice cream sandwich, a junky treat that bears a name that doesn’t even begin to explain what it holds between its buns. It’s not a fried ice cream sandwich so much as a bacon cheeseburger (technically a sandwich) topped with a ball of fried ice cream. It might be a good meal for multi-taskers—no need to worry about dessert—but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing good for anything else.

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