Todd Stovetop has been up for three hours forming small balls of pastry dough for what will be a platter of bacon cream puffs. This recipe is a new take on a classic; he concocted it during one particularly slow day in culinary school. He has four hundred done and another hundred to go.
Sue, his sous chef, walks into the kitchen. “Yum, bacon,” she says. Sue usually isn’t this profound. She must be a morning person.
“I can’t even look at bacon right now,” Todd says. “It is such a shame, because it’s my favorite food group.”
“What can I do to help you with?” Sue asks. Seriously. She’s not the brightest.
“We need to smoke a pork butt for the pulled pork sliders, which I need by five. I also need to get ready for tonight’s catering gig,” Todd looks over at Sue who is giggling over the word “butt.” “This is a $12,000 wedding catering job, and unless you want the bride to stab our eyes out with a butter knife, we had better get cracking. I mean that literally. I need 8 dozen eggs for the crème brulee.”
With this many eggs, you could make the crème de la crème brulee.
Todd walks over to his computer to look over the account for the wedding job. To organize his expenses, payroll, overhead and menu, he uses software programs like Excel and Microsoft Access. For this job, the bride wants a “Brazil in Spring” themed wedding. The menu she chose costs $60 a head for food and $40 a head for alcohol. Alcohol makes up much of the profit margin. It is already prepared and clients are willing to pay almost triple the price for a bottle of wine provided by the catering company. In fact, the popularity of a wine pairing for each entrée has turned into a real boon for caterers. A booze boon, you might say.
Todd uses the fixed pricing system, which basically charges per-head at an event. For instance, a 100-person wedding would cost the client $60 to $80 dollars a head depending on the price of the ingredients and difficulty of preparation. If each guest gets their own roast pig on a spit, for example, the price is going to go up. Furthermore, Todd charges a fee for setting up and serving. The difficulty of using the fixed pricing system is that you have to be accurate about how much it will cost you, because you can’t go back on the price. Caterers must honor their contracts with clients or they could get sued. If you’re bad at math, keep your attorney on speed dial.
Keeping a spreadsheet of everything in their food inventory prevents them from buying too much or too little of any item. When Todd was first starting out, he over bought for a large corporate event. He lost money, had too many cans of Beluga caviar and ended up digging into his own pocket to pay his staff. It was a disaster that could have been avoided with business sense and organization.
“What! Pork butt takes nine hours to smoke!” Sue exclaims. She pours herself coffee and takes the pork butt out of the industrial refrigerator.
“We gotta make it work,” Todd says. “I got a last minute catering gig for a sorority house. If we don’t have those sliders done, there’s going to be a house full of angry girls and we can say goodbye to any hopes of catering their graduation parties. Or their get-out-of-jail homecoming parties.”
Caterers pack their schedules with jobs. Sometimes, it can be either feast or famine in the industry. Remaining flexible is important. Also, it’s good to keep a poker face when you have two or more jobs on the same day. You never want to let your clients see you sweat. Especially when it’s into the potato salad.
Todd works on his puffs for another hour before heading out to a local goat farm where he buys his cheese. Sallie,the owner of Goats R’ Us, is waiting outside for him. After six years and hundreds of pounds of goat cheese, they have a close personal relationship.
“I know it’s beet season when I see your catering van rolling down my driveway,” Sallie says.
“Yep, my clients can’t get enough beet salad with goat cheese. One asked if I would fill up her bathtub, but I’m hoping she was kidding,” Todd says. Sallie recalls the time she filled up her own bathtub with beet salad, but says nothing.
Looks like something from the opening of Dexter.
Todd stops by his favorite butcher, produce stand and farmer’s market on his way back to the kitchen. For the Brazilian themed wedding, Todd prepares codfish croquettes, fried yucca and snapper sautéed in coconut milk. Though his background is in French cuisine, Todd has had to adapt his culinary style to match the needs of his clients. He notices Sue adding too much vanilla bean to the sauce for the mango chicken.
“We want tropical not terrible.” he says, giving his best Gordon Ramsay impersonation, while taking the mixing bowl away from her.
Lunchtime rolls around and Todd grabs a protein shake from the fridge. Oftentimes, he only needs to eat little meals because he is full from tasting food for – or at - catering jobs. Sue is loading up the van with chafers, food pans to keep entrees hot, tables, chairs and beverage bins. As often as he can, Todd loads up the van hours before a large catering event. It gives him enough time to add any last minute items to the truck. Sometimes, his clients order additional serving platters, tables or chairs right before their event.
Sue and Todd drive over to the client’s beach house. The wedding reception is being held outside at their expansive beachside estate. Todd greets both of his servers, Mark and Tom, who have worked with Todd for over two years. As part of his services, Todd provides servers and bartenders for his catering events. He goes to the client’s kitchen and begins prepping the food, arranging his appetizers onto trays and placing brightly colored flowers in the middle of each tray to give it an extra touch. And his girlfriend says he isn’t in touch with his feminine side.
The rest of the night is a whirlwind of activity. Todd quickly prepares food, sets up trays for servers and delegates tasks to Sue. He steps out of the kitchen to ask the wedding planner about how fast the food needs to come out of the kitchen. Caterers often work with event coordinators and planners for large events.
After the clean up, they walk out of the house around ten o’clock at night. However, Todd’s work day is not over. Once the van is unloaded, he gets busy cleaning and marinating lamb for tomorrow’s catering gig. He has several messages on his voicemail from new clients wanting to hire him for holiday dinners. A new idea strikes him – bacon cream puff pie. Where does he come up with them?!
He looks forward to going home and throwing something in the microwave. As picky as he is about the food he serves, he doesn’t mind eating a Hungry Man dinner every once in a while. He is especially in love with the prep time.