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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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