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A farm-to-table dinner at Elon (N.C.) University.

Keeping a fresh eye on catering

Mastering catering’s ever-changing checklist: It’s time to tune up menu items, reconsider serving styles, set the scene for each event and learn a few mind tricks for dealing with catering clients.

However you organize and plan your catering program’s busy schedule, a checklist of some sort is probably involved. The menu, of course, the days and times, the staffing…but how about a checklist that’s a bit more in-depth and big-picture? Read on for ideas to refresh your catering mindset.

Setting the scene with sense of place

The Javits Center, a massive convention center in Manhattan, is making the most of its Big Apple location, with New York-centric menus overshadowing more generic choices.

Creating a culinary lineup that represents the city is a catering cornerstone there.

“Customization is a key to catered events in our industry. We still see many planners looking for classic group dining options like a really well-prepared steak or chef-carved prime rib, but more and more, guests want an experience that defines the city in which they’re meeting,” says Marc Tourtollet, executive chef for Cultivated, the dining and hospitality team that recently took over at the Javits Center, powered by Levy and CxRA.


Given the busy schedules and valuable company time associated with conferences, the catering may be guests’ only opportunity to sample a taste of the city,” Tourtollet says. That means that the melting pot of NYC is represented in the catering menus. “It’s important to us and our guests that we offer unique flavors that represent the city’s diversity.”

Dialing up diverse flavors is accomplished through relationships with local restaurants and producers spanning authentic Indian, Korean, Latin American, Italian and Japanese, “because we want our guests to feel like they’ve had an authentic dining experience inside the venue,” Tourtollet says.

And the familiar, iconic New York street hot dog is upgraded with a hot dog wall, including a variety of hot dogs, toppings and buns.

No ‘standard’ menus

At Elon University in Elon, N.C., the Harvest Table Culinary Group dining team caters lots of events, and each is different than the last. In the past year, there has been a fundraising campaign kickoff event, farm-to-table dinners, holiday parties and a private barbecue dinner, to name a few.

The farm-to-table dinners (below)are especially stunning visually, with rustic picnic tables making any outdoor location on campus feel like a farm, and access to a real farm near campus for some events.



The menus at each are a combination of refreshing surprises, like figs stuffed with goat cheese, salmon mousse cones with capers, spring pea soup shooters, succulent seafood boards, shortbread crackers topped with pimento cheese, lamb lollipops, strawberries in edible cookie containers and a show-stopping nitro ice cream display in which chefs created “moon rocks.”

Who’s the boss? Dealing with your catering clients

Many caterers will tell you, what they love most about catering—no two days are the same—is the very thing that makes it challenging.

Morris_College_presidential_inauguration_catering_two_.pngAnd sometimes, the biggest challenge is a clash of ideas. Your clients may disagree with you how an event should unfold, not in a dramatic way (hopefully!) but oftentimes, the worst part of catering is “the mind changing,” as Cassandra Garner, puts it. Garner is foodservice director for Morris College in Sumter, S.C., where the foodservice is managed by Aladdin, part of Elior North America. 

Currently, Garner and the team are planning for a back-to-school open house in the main dining hall with a Low Country shrimp boil, another instance of providing a sense of place.

And at a recent college president inauguration event at Morris College, the catering team made use of pineapple tops in the design, a symbol of hospitality, perhaps an important touchstone to keep in mind when dealing with catering customers.

Candor and customization

As a corporate speaker and trainer Shari Harley says being candid with those you’re doing business with doesn’t have to be confrontational. “Unfortunately, many people associate…the word candor with bad news,” Harley writes in her business blog. “Candor is not bad news, and a candid culture is not about saying hard things. Candor is asking more questions…and stating expectations at the onset of relationships.”

“Catering for us is never cookie cutter,” says Kevin Daly, catering manager at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, N.Y. A recent event, the Pediatric Prom, was a special prom-style night for patients at the hospital with a sophisticated Parisian theme for maximum fancy-dinner vibes (see photos below).

“We customize all of our orders to our clients’ needs and budgets, and when the need arises, we become the event planner for our clients,” Daly says.


The planning phase of catered events is an obvious time to ask questions of your client, of course, but Daly makes sure to ask questions after the event as well.

“Two words: client feedback,” Daly says, in reference to the ingredients for ongoing catering success. “It’s always nice to hear about a job well done, but I like to find out what exactly it was the client felt led to the success of the event. I also like to ask what we can do to be even better. If something wasn’t up to par, I need to know in order to improve our service.”

Catering at the hospital has found a positive association with the rooftop garden, which supplies about 1,500 pounds of produce to the kitchen, so tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini, carrots, fresh herbs and more make a ready-made theme (farm to table) for any event that’s surefire as they come.

Coming up this fall, Daly and the catering team will be incorporating menu items from a new Mediterranean concept into an updated catering guide. Top of mind will be also adding to the menu “more options for our guests with dietary restrictions to be mindful of those with food allergies, religious obligations and personal preferences such as vegan/vegetarian. We want every person at an event to feel welcome.”

Are passed hors d’oeuvres becoming passé?

Kathi Bankes is director of Metz Culinary Management’s new catering arm, Culinary Creations, which began last year as Bankes observed a growing regional need for more affordable, scalable and customized catering services in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Within six months, Bankes has developed Culinary Creations into a one-stop shop for weddings, corporate breakfasts, cocktail parties and more.

With three decades of restaurant management and catering experience, Bankes finds that there is a paradox between what catering clients want and what they think they want.

“It’s the creativity people want; they think they don’t want the typical buffet, but they do,” Bankes says. “They just don’t want it to look and feel like your typical buffet.”

Her solution? Grazing tables that don’t look—or taste—like your same ol’ buffet.


Having servers circulate through an event takes away more than it adds, Bankes posits: “It adds interruptions, especially at corporate functions where people want to be networking. You have struggle with getting a napkin…you’d rather be able to talk without being interrupted.”

So lately, she’s been providing great-looking grazing tables, build-your-own salad bars and several stations with pre-plated hors d’oeuvres, like jerk chicken salad cups, that guests can grab as they choose, allowing “mingling and everyone having a good time,” Bankes says.

A carving station that’s turning out mini roast beef sandwiches, for example, works better than a traditional carving station in which guests are watching an attendant slicing meat one slice at a time. From the guests’ point of view, “it’s like, ‘Why am I standing here?’” Bankes quips. Not quite as boring as watching paint dry, but not a treat either. “No one was standing there waiting,” Bankes says. “When I know my audience and integrate the food into the event, my audience will be happy. They say, ‘Oh my God, this is so much better.’”

Contact Tara at [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

TAGS: Operations
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