Catering often gives foodservice staffs a great opportunity to show off their skill and creativity. But creating menu items for catering has its own unique challenges, as these college and hospital chefs share. [Editor's Note: This is an online-only bonus section for our Feb. cover story on Recipe Development. For the full story, click here.]
Betty Perez, senior director, Nutrition Services, NYU Langone Medical Center and Istvan Ungi, executive catering chef, New York:
Ungi: When we work on catering recipes, we have a more free hand than for other menus. We can think about more variety; we don’t have the regulations, no diet limits. We just have to make something healthy and good looking that can satisfy the client. You just have to think about how you can show off the best of your culinary knowledge.
Perez: Our clients are very savvy here in New York. We’re in the melting pot of the world. Our clients have a very high expectation of what they expect their catering experience to be like. What Steve does a lot with our clients is, he will meet with them in a very disciplined way, to get specifics from the client—what the venue is going to be, who the audience is going to be. We get as many details as we can from the client, so he will know what their vision is, so he can create a menu Steve, with his international knowledge, is able to put great recommendations on the table for the clients.
Ungi: Each and every client has different thinking about the food. Some of them are really into seafood, some of them want healthy cooking, some of them want stylish cooking. They all have their specific flavors.
Perez: Many of our clients are repeat clients. For them, you have to keep giving catering a new spin. It’s got to have new menu ideas, new plate presentations, new buffet set ups. You have to keep dazzling them here.
Ungi: I’m running into that situation very often around here. More and more of our clients are asking for things that I haven’t cooked before, even though I have a lot of international experience. Many of the events involve customization. And when we develop the recipes, they must be completely different from retail and patient menu. We must design them to hold well in chafing dishes. For instance, the chicken has to get more juice, the sauce, because if it’s sitting for 50 minutes in the chafing dish, the food can dramatically change.
Craig Mombert, executive chef, Davidson College, Davidson, N.C.: In catering, we have a lot of flexibility in recipe development because we have a variety of price ranges. We can tier the menus, depending on what people are looking for. With dining hall menus, you’re held to a certain price fixture. But it’s not more fun [to do catering]. In fact it’s the opposite. I’ve done recipes for both and I’d rather do dining hall menus. Students are more receptive to things that are new. A lot of the catering clients are set in their ways on what they like and they’re sort of leery about trying new things. On the board plan, I can put something on the menu just to try it and see if it sticks. If it does, great. If not, then we just put something else on and we move forward. In catering, you have to be more committed. You always have to have a set menu, either in print or online, so that people can look at something to see whether they want to order from you.
For any catering menu I’ve done, whether it’s a new customer or just somebody who is looking for some new things, I like to be involved with talking to the client so there is no miscommunication. I usually find that having a chef or even a sous chef sit in on the meeting gives a comfort level to the guest as far as what it is we can produce. Then—the key being, they already have to have signed a contract—I will have them in for a tasting, where we will sit down with them and go over the menu. We’ll do dishes for three or four people. From there we can see things that we need to change or adjust, and the kitchen knows exactly what the clients want. No details are missed.
William Rogers, executive catering chef, University of Maryland, College Park: In catering, we try to have the highest quality of food on campus. The stuff I’m trying to serve in catering should be a step above what we are serving in the dining halls. Items may more often be made with fresh ingredients, as opposed to frozen. More items made from scratch instead of being bought. We have a menu for each of the quarters of the year. I try to make recipes as healthy as possible. When I started cooking I worked under a lot of people who were from Europe and everything was made with butter. So it’s challenging to find oils that are healthier and have a balance between having the food taste good and be healthy. It’s easy to make foods fattier because they taste better. One of the things that’s really helped our team is that we feed the basketball team before every home game, and they really want to eat healthier foods.
A big trend now is gluten free. That’s a big challenge for me; I have to get a lot of books and do research on it just because it’s not a fad anymore. And it’s not always because of allergies; it’s because it’s the way they want to eat for their diet. We’ve really changed our sauces; instead of making a roux we just do reductions. If we have to add a thickener we add a small amount of arrowroot or cornstarch. That helps for those times when we find out at the last minute that some of the diners want gluten-free foods. It’s particularly challenging for pastry items.
Conceptwise, if we have an idea we talk about it and then have the dish made to see how it tastes and how it looks. We judge how it would look on the menu. And then we would try to see it first as a special on one of the quarter menus. We might try it at an event with repeat clients to see what they think. If it works, then we’ll add the recipe to a binder I’ve started with menu items that aren’t on the menu but could be put on the catering guide in the future.
We’re always challenged to do better. We always taste our food after an event to see how we did. We say all the things we thought were good about the food, as well as anything we think we can improve upon. I think it’s very important for my team to have recipes and photos to make people feel more at ease and it streamlines the production process.