Top catering secrets

By Nancy Nichols

Professional caterers know the secrets of the perfect party. Often, the biggest two are planning ahead and making lots of lists. But the little secrets add up too, and can help even the most seasoned amateur planner throw a professional-quality party.

Maxine Turner, owner of Salt Lake City-based Cuisine Unlimited, specializes in gourmet, off-premise catering and special events. She’s set up plenty of fancy dinners in people’s homes, but she has also catered huge events such as the Republican National Convention and the United States Olympic Committee in Athens, Georgia, and Torino, Italy.

“The dynamics of a small event are the same as a big event,” Turner says. “Obviously the larger the number of attendees, the bigger the staff, but many of the same rules apply.”

To begin with

  • Make it easy on yourself. A happy host or hostess is essential to creating a successful event. Weeks ahead, determine your budget, plan your menu, prepare a list of rentals you may need, and think through your decorating plan (don’t forget to recycle!).
  • Set up early. A week ahead of time, if you can swing it, is ideal. This allows you to see how the tables and chairs will actually work in the room.
  • Lay out a plan. Choose and lay out your serving pieces — don’t wait until party time to discover you’re missing a salad tong. Put unused serving bowls to good use by stacking them upside-down, then cover with extra linens. Height equals sophistication and adds variety to a tabletop.
  • Get organized. Write the name of each dish on a sticky note and affix it to the platter. This lessens the chance you’ll have to wash out or replace wrong-sized containers.

Important tips for every event

  • Plan a menu around a variety of dietary needs. Be sensitive to food allergies and religious restrictions. This can include nut allergies, gluten-free needs, meat preferences, and even dairy intolerance. “For an hors d’oeuvre party, we always plan at least one beef, poultry, and many vegetarian menu items, always keeping those special dietary needs in mind,” Turner says. “We want everyone to enjoy.”
  • Keep guests happy and awake by limiting carbohydrates toward the end of the evening. High-carb intake can make people sleepy, so stop serving starchy items about two-thirds of the way through your party. Replace with lighter foods and lots of crudité.
  • Be mindful of food safety by keeping platters small, and replenish them often. A catering rule is that food held outside of temperature, either hot or cold, must be used within two hours or be discarded. Don’t leave the shrimp buffet out all evening!
  • Don’t feel like you need to prepare all the food yourself. Choose your favorites and order other items to lessen the stress.

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