When I refer to a menu that will work in a catering situation, I mean one that will be able to be put in front of the guest with the least amount of problems. In other words, hot foods will be hot, cold foods will be cold and everything will go along with the pre-determined schedule.
You really can’t have menus that work, if all you do is wish to please the client by promising them all that they want... even if the location will not support it. Menus that work, start with the location that the event will be done in. If it’s being done in your own banquet kitchens, you have a decided advantage, but if it’s being done at an off-premise location you have potential problems.
It’s Like Olympic diving
When Olympic divers gets ready to dive they must inform the judges as to what dive they intend to make. This is done because some dives are more difficult than others. Because of this a diver who gets a medium score on a difficult dive may win over a diver who gets a higher score on an easy dive.
Catering menus are like dives. They have different levels of complexity. They have different levels of “worry.” A cold poached salmon filet is far easier to deal with than a hot grilled one. A pan of rice sent hot in a plastic thermal carrier is a lot easier to handle than rice being reheated on site.
What I’ve suggested to caterers for years now is to place a degree of difficulty onto each and every menu item with respect to its chances of success in normal catering. So, with respect to this degree of difficulty, we choose a number from one to ten to represent good to bad. Let’s make one the good and ten the bad.
For example, since mashed potatoes in a four inch pan are very stable and stay hot for a long time they would tend to be a one or two on our degree of difficulty scale. Sauteed veal scalloppine, on the other hand, because of its thinness and difficulty in cooking correctly and staying hot for very long would rank a ten on the scale of difficulty.
Is this making any sense? Let’s make a list of other foods and see if you might agree:
1. Beef tenderloin - 2,3, or 4 - rather easy to work with... cooks by length of time... takes only 30 to 40 minutes to cook on sight... high yield per piece.
2. Breaded Fried Chicken - 8,9, or 10 - difficult to do off-premise unless you have special equipment... cools off very quickly... loses its crunch factor...
3. Broccoli - 7,8, or 9 - can be a problem... needs constant attention... easy to make a mistake with and hard to serve at proper temperature.
4. Creamed Spinach - 2,3, or 4 - easy to handle, always looks great no matter how it hits the plate... stays hot forever once it gets hot!
5. California Roll - 1 or 2 - just put them out and they do their thing!
Are you getting my point? All of you have different types of menus but they all have the same types of worry... yield... staying hot... looking good in the chafer or on the plate... amount of space it takes up... etc.
The next step
Once you get your foods numbered by degree of difficulty you can now move onto the next step which is to create an awareness of the locations you do catering in. You might do some events at a location that has a complete professional kitchen with six ovens and large walk-in coolers.
On the other hand you might be doing events at a similar location where nothing exists... not even easily accessible water! Both of these locations have their own joys and sorrows when it comes to catering. A menu that works well in one will not work at the other.
Why not take your locations and give them a point value also.... let’s call this the operations value. The location with the full kitchen might have an operations value of 50 points while the poorly equipped location might only have a operations value of 18.
Do you see what’s coming? We can now take our menus and add up the degree of difficulty of each item to see how many points we get. If the menu degree of difficulty points totals 27 after nadding them together, we now know that this menu cannot be done at the location that doesn’t have the full kitchen unless we decide to make some changes in the menu selections to use items with lower degrees of difficulty. When the total difficulty points are higher than what we have established for operations value, then we can’t do that particular menu.
A final thought
In addition to the two concepts above, I’d like to take a moment to get really basic because this is extremely important for catering success. To make a total menu development strategy, a caterer needs to be able to visualize what the menu will do while being cooked or reheated at an event sight. Let’s call this LAUNCH CONTROL.
Sound like fun? It really is. When planning a menu to be sold, you need to make sure that you can get it all done in time for serving. This deals with the amount of food that goes into pans, the number of shelves you have to cook on and the time it takes to cook. For example, let’s say that you need fifteen whole beef tenderloins for an event. You can put three into a pan for baking in an oven. That makes five pans. Now, the ovens you have to use have three shelves in them and you can get two pans on a shelf. That means that you have room in the one oven to place all the tenders at once.
But, the tenders take forty minutes to cook and you need them out of the oven by 7:45 pm, but you also have a starch to heat that also needs two shelves. And what about hors d’oeuvre that need to be cooked? This type of thinking goes on endlessly in many catering companies each and every day that events are being planned.This is my point... it needs to be visualized and planned before the menu is sold!
In summary, a caterer needs to understand the importance of Degree of Difficulty, Operations Value and Launch Control in order to meet with the greatest success level they can when performing catered events. Part of the fun of catering is solving these amazing problems, and potential problems, that arise when caterers sell the wrong menus for the wrong locations or cooking conditions. Discuss these ideas with both your sales and culinary staff to see if they can make them better or custom tailored for your operation!