The Festival & Wedding/Handfasting Season & Choosing a Caterer

I’ve been meaning to discuss this subject for some time now.  I have worked as a personal chef for quite a few years on and off.  I got into the “food” business almost by accident while putting myself through graduate school.  I love to cook and was trained by a chef long ago as a young bride living on instant noodle mixes…<smile>.  My landlord took pity on me and taught me to cook.  He’d studied at that famous French mecca of culinary arts: Cordon Blue.  In several months of patient teaching, I learned the basics in technique and began a life-long exploration into “saucing, slicing, and sauteing”.  I’ve worked catering festivals, weddings, business luncheons and other gatherings and I’ve hired (& fired) chefs and caterers for many of the same kinds of events.

There are a wide range of choices available, but there are some simple questions to ask when seeking a culinary artist to assist you in creating an event.  For a large event, like a festival, a theatre event, or wedding, employ an event planner.  Your chef often will maintain a “list” of people (and, venues) he or she likes to work with.  Your chef or caterer, however, is not an event planner and don’t expect her or him to do this job.

First of all do your visioning work and then work up your budget.  Catering is expensive and can be up to 50% of your total expenditure.  Rule of thumb: Try to keep it at around 35% of the total event costs.  You may not need a personal chef, we are somewhat of the “elite”: trained, independent culinary craftspeople who spend more time with you.  If you want the unique, the “special”, then you want a personal chef.  A good many are “indie” artists who have retired from a lifetime of “chefery”, others are young with developing careers.  Some have deep backgrounds in event planning as well as the culinary arts.  If you are planning a “non-traditional” event (such as a Handfasting) or have special food needs (i.e. you are a vegan or of a certain ethnic or religions group with food restrictions), or you are a band who needs a “traveling chef”, an indie artist may be exactly what you want.

When you are planning a large event, a personal chef may or may not be your best choice.  It will cost you between $2000-$5000 for the average wedding of 100-300 people.  The cost is not predicated upon how many people, but what menu and services you select.  Other events are less and more, depending upon what you want, how many guests/attendees, and how you manage your event.  Many caterers have minimum numbers when they price their services, ranging from 70-150.  Personal chefs can accommodate fewer guests, but rarely will take on more than 3 or 400.

Don’t begin your conversation with “… we don’t want fancy.”  This translates easily into “… we can’t afford what you do and want a lot of discounts and, besides, we want to tell you how to do your job.”  If you create your budget first, you will know what you can and cannot afford. If you can’t afford to hire a catering company or a restaurant caterer, a personal chef who is a very close friend, may be willing to discuss doing a “promo”, but don’t count on it.  Even (and, especially) under these circumstances, expect to spend some cash and plan accordingly.

Don’t “be helpful” and try to do your chef’s job.  She or he knows what needs to be done, and will ask a lot of questions.   If he or she doesn’t ask questions regarding the venue, your preferences, parking (!), load in-out, simply put: don’t hire him or her.  However lovely the final result, you won’t be happy with it, because it won’t be yours.

Other points to consider in your search are:

  • Interview several caterers: there are restaurant caterers ranging from “deli”-fare do don’t deliver, but will provide trays of goodies for your parties to those who will set up, clean up and provide servers, and everything in-between.
  • Taste the food.  A “tasting” should be a part of the “package”.  Some chefs charge for this, some do not.
  • Be very clear about the parameters of the available facilities in your chosen venue. (Home? Church? Lodge? Meeting Hall? Park?)
  • Ask about quantities and be specific in your inquiry concerning exactly what a “tray” consists of.
  • Discuss your options concerning glassware, linens, and table ware.  You may have to rent elsewhere or pay an additional fee.
  • How many courses?
  • Will the food be served on platters?  In foil “carry away” containers?  Other?
  • Will you need steam-tables or warmers of any kind?  (These are often rented separately.)
  • Will the food be “self serve” or will servers be needed?
  • Or- will you be planning a sit-down meal?
  • Discuss add-ons, like “extra” guests, other services such as hiring a band or working with an event planner.  Some caterers and personal chefs provide or will give referrals for these services and some do not.
  • Expect to be charged for delivery, set up, clean-up, garbage removal, servers (including a gratuity), bar, and event liability.
  • Expect to pay in cash or a cashier’s check.  Most require a deposit of around 30% and some require as much as half up front.  This is a “cash” business, from paying suppliers to paying the servers, and your chef will have a number of “on the spot” expenses she or he must cover. Have the remainder in an envelope to be paid at the eventThere are few in the food business who will accept a personal check or to be “mailed later”.
  • The venue: some venues have “preferred caterers”: check with your chosen venue before discussing anything with caterers, you may not have much choice in who and how you employ your help.
  • Ask for the “left overs” to be packaged up for you.  You will find most caterers quite accommodating about this.  Take them home, or donate them to a pantry or food kitchen, or treat your friends and neighbors after our event is over.

“Choosing a Caterer” Part II: The Personal Chef

A personal chef is a chef who prepares meals for a client in the client’s home kitchen, based on the client’s needs and personal preferences. In most cases these meals are left packaged in containers and refrigerated or frozen for the client to enjoy later. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_chef

What is a personal chef?  Profiled on television, “chefs to the stars” are personal chefs.  Privately employed purveyors of elegance, a little glamor, unusual treats, hosts of cooking shows and best selling authors, you can probably can name one or two.  In the popular media, personal chefs are mostly known for their work in catering to the tastes of the wealthy and privileged.

This is only one small part of the picture.  Personal chefs are the “indie” artists of the culinary world.  Working in niches ranging from delivering dinner to families who are under duress due to an illness or overcharged work schedule to creating masterworks for house parties and special events.  The only uniting factor is that the professional in this field of culinary arts is the willingness and enthusiasm for, working “outside the system”.  He or she will usually work  for a client within that client’s home kitchen, en suite at an event, or deliver meals prepared elsewhere.  A personal chef does not, in general, hold a catering license or work through restaurants.

A personal chef can be employed for your special event at reasonable, competitive pricing: provided that you carry the event liability and understand that, in doing do, you are responsible for the said liability.  In this instance, hiring a personal chef is akin to hiring a private contractor.  She will employ her staff: the sous chef (second in command), servers and clean up crew, bartender, delivery personnel (and, etc.) for your event.  Because of the level of skill involved in contracting and managing and event, always ask for references and spend time with your chef planning for your needs and covering all contingencies.

All culinary artists specialize.  Consider what your needs are before discussing the event with your chef.  A personal chef is accommodating – sometimes far more than a catering company.  However, in saying that, he or she may not be willing or able to serve your needs.  For instance, a vegan chef such as Oakland’s In the Mood for Food would not be willing – for sound philosophical reasons – to provide roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for 20 or a cheese board at a house party for 100.  Nor would a chef specializing in raw foods create pasta for 100.  Like wise, a chef who specializes in English Country or French Haute Cuisine, may not be prepared to provide a kosher buffet at the bas mitzvah for your niece.

My specialty happens to be local, organic, sustainably farmed Mediterranean cum West Coast cuisine.  I am not set up, therefore, with the equipment to create a Texas barbecue with slow fired brisket for 350  of your closest friends and relations as the main course.  (Love to be invited to one, but…)

Most culinary artists have a special “signature” dish or menu which he or she is especially good at and is known for.  (Mine happens to be tapas or mesa tables finished by a traditional seafood paella.)  Don’t assume that the chef in question is not open to other styles or in experimenting, but try to accommodate the chef’s preferences as well as your own.

Costs: If you look over a menu and see $$ signs floating before your eyes, don’t assume that the words “we don’t want anything fancy” will solved the problem.  You are hiring a personal chef who expects you to dialogue over a period of time to plan your event and your menus.  There is a formula which I have found useful in understanding how to charge for any given event: menu = number of dishes X head count will give you the “base costs” then calculate + delivery+ staff+”add-ons” & extras.  (Remember that a chef also needs a little profit to stay in business and the margin is usually pretty narrow, so add on a 15% gratuity for the staff to the total.)   Every chef has unique qualities and needs that he or she will bring to the table.  For larger events, introduce your chef to your event planner, arrange a visit to the venue, and do discuss garbage removal and parking at the earliest opportunity.

What kinds of events are “best” when considering employing a personal chef? In short: Anything out of the ordinary.  Gatherings such as small conferences, festivals, a retreat, a business opening or luncheon, a family reunion, non-traditional church weddings and handfastings of all kinds, or a spiritual gathering all can be made truly unique with a personal chef in charge.  Delivering dinner for a week when you are unable to do so for scheduling reasons or because of a crises or even just a special luncheon for your good friends for no particular reason is a good time to hire a personal chef.  One memorable job I was hired for involved delivering dinner to a birthing mother with two older children, her husband, some miscellaneous relatives, and her midwives during the day and a half it took for the new baby to arrive (healthy and beautiful!) and for the new family to “settle in”.

Some, such as myself, will travel some distance for certain kinds of events (expect to be charged for travel and to provide accommodation and – of course! – an equipped kitchen).  In addition, if you are planning a festival or other gathering a personal chef is more likely to manage and supervise volunteers.  Albeit with more and less grace depending upon the volunteers.  Therefor, talk to your unpaid “staff” before your event in order to avoid misunderstandings, and create a “task” roster that details what is (and, is not) expected, hours, and so on and so forth.  Appoint a “go to” person at the earliest possible date.

I hope this note will prove useful in planning your next special occasion.  If you would like more information on what services I provide, please contact me at: doclezlie_at_gmail.com

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