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Adventures in Catering

by Nick

It’s crazy to think that three years ago (pre-Macheesmo), I was a hesitant cook.  I mean, I knew a few things, but I stuck to my staples and only occasionally tried new things.

These days it’s a completely different story.  I cook with new stuff every week and am constantly trying out new recipes and ideas.

I don’t know everything, by a long shot, but I’m not scared to try new stuff which is one of the reasons I started this website.

To go with that idea, a few weeks ago, Betsy and I ventured to Boulder to help a friend cater his wedding.  I’ve never cooked for that many people before (~120) and I’ve definitely never catered a wedding before.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but at the same time, I had confidence that we could pull it off.

I thought I’d take a post, share the menu that I came up with, and also talk about a few of the things I learned from the experience.  Sorry, there’s not too many photos from the wedding.  I was too busy running around to snap a bunch of photos.

The Menu

Written by the kiddos.

To be honest, I think this is where you could go horribly wrong if you’re planning on catering your own wedding.

We were planning for a kind of “upscale BBQ” feel so I spent a lot of time thinking about a mix of dishes that would work well.  I aimed to put dishes on the menu that would be good at room temperature or cold and also things that had a lot of flexibility.  I knew stuff like steaks or seafood would be a failure just because I had no way to control their cooking time correctly.

Here’s what I came up with:

Appetizers:
Cheese and Crudite Tray: Diced up cheeses and veggies.  Homemade dips:  Ranch, Blue Cheese, Hummus.
Roasted Salsa Roja and Verde: Two salsas with tortilla chips.
Butternut Squash Dip:  This was the only appetizer that needed to be warm which made it easy to plan appetizers.

Main Dishes:
Smoked Brisket: Dry rubbed and hickory smoked brisket.  We did about 35 pounds of brisket (4 whole briskets) and smoked them for 13 hours.
Pulled Pork Sandwiches:  Dry rubbed pork butts slowly cooked over charcoal.  We cooked about 40 pounds of pork butt 20 hours overnight and they were amazing.  Probably the best pulled pork I’ve ever made.
Grilled Veggies:  Marinated and grilled asparagus, peppers, and mushrooms.

Side Dishes:
Rooster Potato Salad
:  I made a huge amount of my grilled potato salad and mixed in a spicy chili mayonnaise.
Green Chile Mac and Cheese:  Roasted peppers mixed in cheese sauce with black beans and corn.  This was the only side dish that needed to be warm.
Roasted Beet Salad:  A classic fall salad with pistachios, beets, and goat cheese that was easy to throw together although peeling 40 beets wasn’t the best time.

Luckily, I didn’t have to handle desserts so that was nice.

The Plan

20 hours of work…

Day-to-day, I’m not much of a planner.  I kind of wing things, especially when it comes to kitchen things.  But this was not the time for that.  I developed a very intense schedule for work that had to be done each day, broken down by task.  Even my Type-A wife was super-impressed.

The wedding was on Saturday and the plan was to eat around 4PM.  I started prep on Thursday and cooked for pretty much 48 hours straight.  I was able to do a lot of the prep in advance which was great.  Even though it seems like a fairly straightforward menu, there was a lot to get done.  Anytime your multiplying recipes by 20, the hours can quickly disappear.

Luckily, I did have a few friends (like the guy that came up with this genius recipe) helping me out and Betsy was a fantastic help also.

I won’t give you the full schedule, but here was my tasks to do just on Friday:

Pick up meats
Roast and peel beets
Make pita chips (for squash dip)
Make Potato salad (included peeling, grilling and dicing 40 pounds of potatoes and lots of other veggies)
Make sop for briskets (for spraying while cooking, basically a mix of apple cider vinegar and beer)
Prep grills and smoker (we were working with three different grills (2 charcoal and 1 gas) and an electric smoker.
Make squash dips for baking the next day
Roast chilis for mac and cheese
Make homemade ranch, blue cheese, and hummus
Rub meats and let rest
Start meats

This all took pretty much an entire day, but it was really fun work actually.  I got to hang out with some good friends, have a few beers, and cook up a storm.

The Problems

As you might guess, it’s impossible for stuff to go 100% right when you’re cooking this much stuff.  Especially if you don’t have a professional kitchen and you aren’t a professional chef.  Luckily, the stuff that did go wrong was pretty minor.  Here’s a list.

Missing the Fat! Turns out that two of my briskets had the fat removed from them.  This may not sound like a big deal, but it made it hard to cook all of them together and those two ended up being drier than I would’ve liked.  Should’ve checked it before we left the butcher.

Fridge Space! We should’ve spent a bit more time planning out fridge space.  Luckily, the wedding was on a cool October day, so we were able to store a lot of the stuff in coolers in “Nature’s refrigerator”.

Temperamental Grills!  I was using two Weber charcoal grills to cook 4 huge pork butts.  Ideally, I would be able to maintain the heat in these grills at a solid 250 degrees.  I was mostly able to succeed but it meant checking on them every hour or so for 20 hours.  So I didn’t get much sleep, but the pork came out fantastic so I can’t complain too much about it.

People from Texas!  I’m kidding.  But I did realize once we were at the wedding that most of the people there were from Texas and I was making salsa and smoked briskets.  This upped my stress levels pretty significantly because Texans know their freakin’ brisket.  I knew I’d be called out if it wasn’t decent when I could probably slide by if everyone was from any other state.

In the great scheme of things, these were not major issues and everything was easily solved.  I got pretty lucky.

Tips and Tricks

So you want to cater your own wedding or help out a friend?  Here’s a few tips.

Cooking Space.  Nail down your cooking space before you get too far in the process.  If you’re grilling, make sure you know what grills you’re using.  Make sure you have ovens that work and enough counter space to do what you need to do.  You can never have too much counter space!

Helpful Hands.  Accept all the help you can get.  Don’t try to be proud and think you can do it all on your own.  You can’t.  On the flip side though, be sure you’re okay with delegating and leading.  Give people specific tasks so they are helping and not just getting in the way.

Use your Recipes.  I didn’t cook anything for this wedding that I hadn’t cooked before.  Now is not the time to get experimental.

Be Flexible.  Sometimes you need to change plans based on what’s happening.  You might need to grill something instead of roast it.  You might need to bail on the idea of making 4 gallons of homemade mayo.  You might need to rig a quick hot box with coolers, foil, and towels because your briskets finish 5 hours before you thought they would.

Have Internet Access. You’ll need it.  Also, a good stereo and a decent six pack of beer doesn’t hurt.

Have Confidence.  People will question things you are doing.  This is good.  They might point out glaring issues that you didn’t realize, but 90% of the time you will be right if you put in the necessary planning time.  Be confident enough to execute the plan.

A Caterer is Born?

A ton of people asked me if I was going to open a catering business after the meal.  Actually, a fair amount of people thought I was an actual caterer.  I took this as a great compliment, but I don’t think the life is for me.

I was really happy to help a friend and it was a lot of fun, but it’s not something I could see myself doing every weekend for the rest of my life.

I love to cook, but I’m not sure I would love to cater!

That said, Betsy and I did look pretty good in matching black T-shirts.

Have you cooked for a lot of people before?  If you have any tips or stories, leave a comment!

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17 comments on “Adventures in Catering

  1. I so understand the “catering is not for me” comment, even if it’s a bit fun and rewarding. I did cater a cocktail party for 100 people for my husband’s business. I made a 500 cupcake stand and reflecting back would have had all cupcakes bakes and frozen in advance, frosted on day of. I did have a sous chef who saved the day. It was a smashing success and people thought i was a professional caterer. But, man, it’s a lot of work when you don’t have professional kitchen or proper carting stuff.

    You were quite brave to serve barbecue to Texans.

  2. I was there and he did a great job! The pulled pork was amazing. Now send me your ranch recipe….

  3. Nice! I’ve done a few jobs for 50 some odd people, but never something so big or important as a wedding. Looks like you nailed it. It really is nerve wracking, but the payoff is amazing when everything comes together.

    Also, I was about to make fun of you for that chalkboard until I saw that it was written by children. In fact, that was the exact insult I had in mind, your chalkboard looks like it was written by children.

    1. Well, I figured my spelling was only marginally better and my handwriting was definitely worse.

      So I just dictated to some kids and let them sound it out!

  4. 2 summers back now, although the nightmares and skin burns are still fresh in my mind – I ventured to cook at a large summer camp. We prepared 800 meals 3 times a day – I wanted the experience for my resume and I got it.

    All i can say Nick is having made mashed potatoes for 1200 – to try catering a wedding for 120 as you did – excuse the expression you’ve got “Balls”

    Had you asked me i could have written this post for you ;-)

    Glad it worked out well – as a follower of yours for sometime I knew there would mostly be a happy ending.

  5. We cater as a side biz to our restaurant. We have done weddings up to 400. It is hard even with a commercial kitchen. We have talked about building a banquet space but then it always goes back to the time/work involved. Before the restaurant I did it out of my house and it was fun at first but definitely see where you would say “it’s not for me”… Looks like you had fun though. Food looked great!

  6. Dude, kudos to you for taking this role on! I can relate to your experience although not on the level of guests. I have a background in kitchen work but would not call myself a fully qualified chef which drives my wife nuts as I can cook and do so everyday, I guess maybe because there was never a graduatiuon or certificate in the mix, I learned from being thrown to the lions so to speak lol. I smoke meat quite often and I know how tedious this can be and very tempremental so to do what you did was very brave and for Texans!! wow. I recently just cooked a fundraising dinner for 10 people along with a wine pairing with each 4 courses and I was nervous, these people paid $100 for food that should taste good, things went great and it helped me get over that confidence barrier. I would love to do something for myself in the future whether it be catering or another food related idea. I’m working on perfecting my chocolates right now, I really enjoy that and might start selling once their ready, many experiments later :) Sorry for the long note and good luck if you cater again!
    Take care..

  7. I am super impressed!!! Very interesting post. I know this might not be your reader’s business, but it would be interesting to know what a meal like this costs. I get can fairly stressed out making dinner for 8, so I know I couldn’t tackle this. Your food sounds so good. The meal I served at my wedding mattered a lot to me, and so I’m sure you really helped the bride and groom feel great about the meal they served to their guest. Way to go!!

    1. We fed 120 people for under $1,000 which is pretty awesome. That doesn’t include booze or the equipment rentals though. I’m not sure what the final bill was but I’m pretty sure we were under budget. I just saw the totals on the food purchases.

  8. I’ve done medium sized parties, mostly casual affairs. I’d guess 35 people at the most. I had a great deal of fun doing them, but I had all the food prepared before I left home. No on-site stuff. But the most fun I had was for a combination baby shower and skeet shoot. The mother-to-be didn’t want the fellas to be left out. So we had things ranging from quiche to jerk chicken. Now THAT was a fun party. And I even got to shoot firearms!

  9. I’ve done it 4 times, each time it was for a friend and each time I swore I would never do it again.

    Next time you get a hacked brisket……pile bacon on the lean parts! When you said 4 whole briskets weighed out at 35lbs, I knew something was wrong. Most of the packer briskets I get are at least 10 pounds up to 13.

    It looks like you planned and executed it with precision, congrats, Nick.

  10. Nick, you did an awesome job! Your stuff looks delicious – I’m sure even the Texans loved it.

    This is funny because this is my life – planning menus, shopping, to-do lists, etc (for the catering company I work for and my business). I have to say that it gets a lot easier the more you do it, and it helps to work out of a commercial space – but even so, it still gets hectic and stressful. Even so, I think you should totally cater again! After all, small occasional catering is a fun way to step up your cooking game and get yourself outside your comfort zone, without committing to a full-scale catering company. I think it makes you a way better cook, too.

  11. Wow. I remember the first large one I catered. It was for 150 for a church fund raising auction. It was really tough, but I learned a lot about myself. It has since grown to around 200 each year (coming up fast on 11-12-11 again) and I find myself planning better menus due to kitchen and holding restrictions. Less hot food, more room temp items… Sounds like you did it right!

  12. Congrats, Nick! That menu sounded amazing! What a feat!

    You are actually the reason I started venturing into more courageous cooking. Yours was the first food blog I happened upon (at just the right time).
    You & Betsy are too cute together in the kitchen, too! : )

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