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How-To

Cater Your Own Big Party

Strategies and tips from the experts, and from one first timer who pulled it off herself

Fine Cooking Issue 37
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When my sister Loretta came to me for help in finding a caterer for her wedding, I researched a few leads, and then I had a brainstorm: why couldn’t I be the caterer? I love to cook, and this would be a unique and memorable gift. Making the food myself would also be right in tune with the intimate event she had in mind: just 35 people, with the ceremony taking place in the back yard of her new home.

Loretta didn’t greet the idea with as much enthusiasm as I had hoped, but eventually she agreed to let me do it. I was thrilled…until the panic set in. What had I gotten myself into? This was a huge undertaking, with dozens of details to oversee, and the pressure was on to get it right.

Thanks to a lot of planning and probably a good dose of beginner’s luck, I managed to carry it off. And my once-skeptical sister now tells me that the homemade food made the day extra special. But it would have gone a lot smoother had I known at the start what I ended up learning along the way, and had I had at my disposal the many tricks and strategies that professional caterers rely on every day. (You’ll find a lot of their tips in the sidebar starting on the opposite page.)

So if you’re a passionate cook and have ever toyed with the idea of preparing the food for a large party, say 35 to 50 people, I encourage you to seize the opportunity when it arises (it could be a friend’s bridal shower, a child’s graduation, or parents’ anniversary). As a survivor, I am here to say that it can be done, though not without a tremendous amount of forethought, plenty of hard work, and perhaps a few jitters. What follows is a guide to making it happen.

Step one: Get organized, while there’s still time to think

Get organized at the beginning and stay organized through the end. Sit down with pen and paper (or keyboard and monitor) and clarify the basics: what’s the occasion? what’s your budget? what’s your time frame? who and how many are the guests? where and when will the event take place? indoors or out? how formal? what type of meal? The answers to these questions establish a sort of party mission statement, and they’ll guide you on the smaller decisions to come.

Lists, lists, and more lists. Once you firm up the menu (more on that in a minute), list every ingredient you’ll need, consolidating items that appear in more than one recipe. I had several shopping lists, one for food I needed to special-order, like the leg of lamb and the salmon fillet, another for nonperishables and pantry items, which I bought far in advance, and a third list for perishables. If your recipes call for it, make a list for produce that needs time to ripen, like bananas, avocados, or pears.

Create a plan of action. To see how I’d get everything done, I made a calendar and assigned every task to a specific day: shopping trips, equipment purchases (I needed a chocolate thermometer to make truffles), all the cooking, and miscellaneous jobs, such as doing a test run on my sister’s grill. As the party got closer, my schedule grew more detailed. Saturday, my big prep day, started out like this:

  • 9 to 10 A.M.— Pick up chicken and lamb from butcher; pick up salmon from fish shop.
  • 10 A.M. to 1 P.M.—Simmer wheatberries; prep veggies for wheatberry salad; make wheatberry dressing; make green salad dressing; start goat cheese marinating; make rosemary oil.

Be realistic about how much you can get done in a block of time, and don’t overlook time-consuming chores like washing dishes and packing the food for transport. Add a “fudge factor” to compensate for your scheduling miscalculations and to allow for late-breaking crises.

For party day, my timeline was extremely specific, with time budgeted for showering and changing into my dress, as well as any last minute food prep. Schedule down-time, too. For example, I gave myself a full hour to do nothing except say hello to guests and catch my breath. To time the final cooking so the food is ready when you need it, work backwards from serving time: for example, the onion tarts are being served at 1:30, so they go in the oven at 1:00, and the oven gets heated at 12:45.

To keep track of your schedules and lists, create a folder and maybe get a clipboard.

Step two: Compose an exciting yet realistic menu, heavy on the do-ahead

For a large party, it’s sensible, if not essential, to serve a buffet. A seated dinner will likely be too complicated to choreograph well. For my sister’s midday buffet, I chose simple dishes that I loved and had made before, and that I expected would have wide appeal among the guests.

Nothing too fancy or unfamiliar. If you’re determined to include a new recipe, do a practice run a few weeks before or have a backup plan. The one unknown on my menu was a maple syrup cheesecake that might or might not have worked, a risk I could afford because the mother of the groom was supplying the “real” dessert, a Russian cake from her favorite Brooklyn bakery. As it turned out, the cheesecake stole the show, but had it failed, I was covered.

Do-ahead recipes. The goal is to have nearly everything prepared ahead, so look for recipes that are completely make-ahead or that have make-ahead components, items like stocks, tomato sauces, herb butters, cookie doughs, and cake layers. Even roasted peppers stored in oil can be made and frozen weeks ahead. Pastry and phyllo dough also freeze beautifully.

Step three: Scope out the party site

Early on, visit the party location. Even if it’s in your own home, you need to ask the following questions:

What equipment and tools are available? Check that the site can accommodate your proposed menu. Examine the oven and stovetop—will your baking pans fit? are there enough racks to hold them all? do all the burners and the broiler function? will your huge pasta pot fit next to your big skillet? Open the refrigerator and freezer and evaluate the space there. Then do a thorough inventory of tools,  matching up what exists against what you’ll need. Are there sharp knives? Peelers? Melon ballers? Pepper grinder? Besides a good bread knife, I needed to cart an electric hand mixer to my sister’s house to whip cream. If you’re grilling, does the location have a large enough grill? If not, you’ll need to rent one. Don’t forget the fuel. I had to mail-order a few bags of natural hardwood charcoal several weeks in advance.

Where will everything go? Map out the area, on paper, and establish “battle stations.” Designate sites for food storage and preparation, for arranging and garnishing platters, for stashing dirty plates and dishwashing, for putting trash and for setting out the full bags. You’d be surprised how quickly garbage and dirty dishes can pile up and cramp your work area. Where will guests mingle and eat? Is the grill far enough away that it won’t be sending smoke into guests’ faces? Planning all this in advance minimizes chaos on party day.

How will the food be served? Evaluate the serving area. Is the buffet table big enough for all the food? It can’t hurt to sketch a diagram, noting which dish will go where and on what platter. Plan your serving vessels and think about your refilling strategy. Will the replenishing occur at the buffet table, or will there be a composed backup platter ready to go, in which case you’ll need twice as many serving platters? Will you serve the salad in the same bowl in which it was tossed, or do you need a second bowl for tossing?

Keep the menu simple and do-ahead so you’re free to enjoy the party.

Step four: Get cooking

Finally, it’s time to enter the kitchen. My strategy was simple: to prepare and cook the food as early in the week as possible, but not so early that it would sag in flavor, texture, or appearance.

Deconstruct recipes into small, do-ahead steps, and schedule each step as early as you can. For the brochettes, I mixed the spice rub on Tuesday, made the sauces on Saturday morning, and cut up and skewered the meat on Saturday evening. All that remained for the party was to sprinkle the brochettes with salt, pepper, and olive oil before grilling. Clearly label all containers of food with masking tape and indelible pen so it’s easily identified when needed: “parsley for salad” or “lemon garnish for fish,” for example.

Assemble and garnish as late as possible so the food looks and tastes freshly made. Toss salads with dressing at the last moment. Plan and prepare garnishes in advance, but don’t adorn the food until just before serving.

Step five: Hire help for the actual event

I did hire a couple of servers, but if I were to do it again, I would recruit a friend to get me through that last arduous day of prepping, and especially to help with the washing up. Even if you decide to prepare everything on your own, you’ll need extra hands for the actual event. For a simple buffet, figure on one waitperson for every 15 guests.

Hire responsible people who can take direction. Whether you turn to teenagers or experienced waitstaff, look for professionalism, flexibility, and eagerness. Ask about their cooking experience to determine if they can handle the last-minute cooking your menu requires. Give them a copy of the menu in advance. If their attire is important, tell them what to wear.

Give explicit, precise instructions. Provide them with a timeline for the day, with the order of service and specific tasks to accomplish. I found that no detail is too minor to mention. Don’t just say “cut up vegetables for crudité.” Describe how, such as “peel carrots and cut in half lengthwise and crosswise,” or “clean mushrooms with damp paper towels, trim half-inch off stem, and serve whole.” And use precise language. My wheatberry salad lacked a little vibrancy because the server added only about half the vinaigrette; I should have said to “toss wheatberry salad with all the dressing.” Another small but niggling error: my instruction to “slice bread for the caviar very thinly,” was interpreted to mean a half-inch thick—not my idea of very thin.

How much food to make?

It’s impossible to give an exact answer to this question since it will depend on so many variables, including the kind of food you’re making, the time of the party, and where and how people will eat. Keep in mind that when people serve themselves, as at a buffet, they tend to eat more. But at the same time, a buffet table usually offers more types of food than a sit-down meal, so people eat smaller portions of each dish.

Start by checking your recipes’ yields to get a sense of how many each will serve. As a guideline, Barbara Hom figures that for a dinnertime party, each person will eat a total of about a pound of food. That concept can be  hard to translate into actual portions, especially if you’re serving a lot of small dishes, as you might for an hors d’oeurves party. In that case, she counts on 20 “bites” per person for a dinnertime event (14 “bites” for a lunchtime party). So if you’re making five different appetizers, make enough so every guest can have four of each type. And for a dish that’s likely to be everyone’s favorite, make a little extra.

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