Take It Outside
The fine art of catering alfresco.
Heat, rain, high winds, bugs, birds… When it comes to catering in the great outdoors, there’s no end to the potential complications. But with careful planning, nature can also be the caterer’s best friend. If you’re trying to impress clients, you can’t get much better than small bites under the stars.
Or “seafood and bubbles at the top of the world…”
That was the theme of a recent cocktail party catered by Whistler Cooks, British Columbia (pictured above). The guests, food and equipment were all flown in by helicopter to Rainbow Glacier. Partygoers sipped local sparkling wine and enjoyed fresh seafood under crisp blue skies.
While the event was exhilarating, the logistics were rather exhausting. Thankfully, Hilarie Cousar, owner of Whistler Cooks, says she loves this part of the job.
“We needed to weigh and measure all of our equipment and staff. The cost of one helicopter trip is extremely expensive, so we had to keep things down to a minimum without jeopardizing the wow factor of the event.”
Indeed, the open air lends itself to some amazing, wow-worthy events. But, like Cousar, you had better love the logistics.
Planning + Timing = Everything
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abe Lincoln’s famous quote applies to both politics and outdoor event planning. Thoughtful planning is central to any catering job, but especially when you’re at the mercy of the elements.
“Even in Colorado, a state with the most days of sunshine, we need to have a backup plan when executing an outdoor event,” says April Lambatos of Footers Catering, Denver, CO.
In other words, always have a Plan A, B and C.
When you handle the setup the night before, it’s best to have the area fully sheltered in case of rain, says Christina Thung with Orange Clove Catering, Singapore. “Also bring additional sets of equipment, like heating lamps, extension cords and hot plates in case of any equipment malfunctions.”
Needless to say, getting the lay of the land is also part of any good plan.
“Walk each event space ahead of time to ensure you’re prepared for all the logistical elements such as power, water, restrooms, cooking space, cooking equipment, fire safety, load-in and parking,” says Elizabeth Hardison of Food in Bloom Catering (part of the VT Group), Portland, OR.
Even the parking lot deserves an inspection, says Anna Galloway-Currie of Exclamations Catering & Event Specialist, Greensboro, NC, who catered the press at the Democratic National Convention. “We were in a gravel parking lot and had to bring everything, including the kitchen sink. My site inspection (a.k.a. ‘my trip to see the gravel’) was the most beneficial thing I did prior to the event.”
In June 2013, Blue Elephant Events and Catering, Saco, ME, handled the finish line lunch for the Trek Across Maine, a large-scale bike race. Thanks to a plan that considered all of the above, they were able to serve more than 2,400 guests in less than three hours.
“We set up eight identical buffet stations and had staff members directing guests at the entrance of the food tent toward the the team captains, who were positioned at the front of each line,” says owner Fausto Pifferrer. “Guests moving through the lines were then funneled into a separate dining tent, which kept the buffets from bottlenecking.”
Along with careful planning and inspections, clear communication with vendors is essential.
“Sequenced load-in by the correct vendor, in the correct order of priority, is key to maximizing time,” says William Neal of Affairs to Remember Caterers, Atlanta, GA.
Mary-Beth McDowell, of Connecticut Wedding Group, Middletown, CT, agrees that caterers and their rental companies must be on the same page: “Having reliable, trustworthy and professional vendor relationships must be a constant to ensure the events run as smoothly as possible.”
Enjoy the Scenery
To make the most of your outdoor setting, why not let the location speak for itself? Be it rustic countryside, tropical beaches or city skylines, the open air can do wonders for your theme.
“The natural environment can provide most of your decor, so don’t pack lots of stuff,” says Jade MacCallum of The Forum Company, Johannesburg, South Africa. “Rather set up in an interesting part of the garden or under the trees.”
For example, the Forum Company’s farm-to-table, pop-up dining experience gave the team a chance to show their commitment to sustainability and to using fresh, local foods. Held on their herb and vegetable farm in Lanseria, the event featured a three-course buffet served among the trees.
Flowers from the farm were displayed in repurposed silver buckets, wooden crates, glass jars and baskets. Hessian fabric covered the tables, emphasizing the natural colors. Other details included seasonal chard, lettuce leaves, asparagus and artichokes.
“Guests could also buy fresh vegetables and homemade goods to take home,” adds MacCallum.
Vince Early, of Thomas Caterers of Distinction, Indianapolis, IN, says one of their most successful outdoor events was a late-summer wedding reception, where they used the family’s home as thematic inspiration.
“Every effort was made to conform the look of the event to the house. We did a mixture of farm-to-table foods as well as some family recipes to make it intimate,” says Early. “We also did a poolside rehearsal dinner. At one point in the night, we put cocktail napkins and two different platters of hors d’oeuvres on a pool raft and floated them to the guests.”
Even the seating can complement the location, such as this picnic idea from Chris Hodapp, executive chef with Powers Ventures, Rochester, MN: “Large, industrial-sized wooden wire spools make great tables when stood up on end, and whiskey barrels cut in half make great chairs for an event. And you can’t go wrong with the added pleasure of all the natural smells.”
Fun with Fire and Smoke
While cooking outside presents its own set of challenges, it also presents some unique opportunities. “Fryers and open flames give us a lot of flexibility in the way we can cook,” says Galloway-Curie of Exclamations Catering.
Grilling continues to be a favorite technique for the culinary team at Footers. “We bring six-foot industrial grills with us to outdoor events,” says Lambatos. “The smell of the grill captivates the guests — it becomes part of the show. Guests engage with the chef to see what they’re grilling and ask what’s on the menu.”
According to Brad Barrett at GrillGrate, LLC, larger gas event grills with six to eight burners have become an industry standard. “They’re easy to transport and can put out a lot of food,” he says, adding that GrillGrates help in controlling temperature and keeping flare ups from overpowering the food.
Barrett also points to the food truck trend, which can be beneficial on many levels: “The mobile kitchen brings a full arsenal to off-site catering. It’s safe, fully equipped, protected from the weather and a tremendous advertising tool.”
As for essential outdoor equipment, the Orange Clove team uses hot boxes and electric griddles, while Blue Elephant relies on a combination of grills, griddles, ovens and warming boxes to keep food hot and fresh. In South Africa, The Forum Company enjoys wood-fire pizza ovens and regional braai techniques (or open coal-fire outdoor cooking).
Chef Eric Kopelow of Universal Studios Hollywood says he’s seen a transition to more non-chafer elements, such as building bricks or glass blocks. “We place a giant wok on them using Sterno to keep the food hot. When it comes to grilling outdoors, we have many flat tops and commercial barbeques that we use — as all of our events are for hundreds if not thousands.”
“Smoking gun” handheld smokers are another valuable tool, especially on outdoor food stations, says Early of Thomas Caterers of Distinction. “We’re using a smoking gun to infuse hickory smoke into a canning jar filled with mushroom and polenta.”
Chef Hodapp at Powers Ventures says that smoking is also a great way to show off one’s culinary perspective. “You’re able to incorporate many flavor combinations into the food by using different seasonings and woods. With smoking, I can control everything with temperature and the amount of smoke introduced.”
Of course, when it comes to smoking, it’s not just about meat anymore. “What we’re seeing now is the evolution into smoked cocktail garnishes, desserts, seasonings and even dog treats,” says Heather Robertson of Southern Pride. “The possibilities are endless.”
A Moveable Feast
With such a wide selection of classic and cutting-edge tools and techniques, caterers don’t have to sacrifice quality with their outdoor cuisine.
Case in point: The team at Orange Clove catered a Google event with 300 guests for the launch of a new data center at Jurong West, Singapore (pictured above). The goal was to bring the flavors of the Asia Pacific to guests through live stations, including Singapore (chicken rice), Malaysia (Penang laksa), the Philippines (chicken adobo), Indonesia (gado-gado) and Thailand (mango sticky rice).
Thung says they built the stalls from scratch to match the menu themes — from the shape of the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel, to the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, to a Jeepney, the local mode of transportation in the Philippines. They also served drinks and desserts in blue, yellow, red and green, the corporate colors of Google.
Action-oriented, chef-attended stations are all the rage with today’s outdoor events, according to Neal at Affairs to Remember, who recently assisted a national foodservice organization with the launch of a more food-focused line of existing quick serve products.
On the attendee list? Major franchisees and senior executives — guests who were not only experienced in fine food, but also expected something they’ve never seen before. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, the caterers were to execute all of this in the CEO’s backyard.
After intense planning and product testing, Neal says the menu “pushed the boundaries of food chemistry to the hilt.” Highlights included tableside smoked dry-aged New York strip with blue cheese foam and caramelized onion pearls. For dessert, handmade sea salt vanilla ice cream, along with candied bacon over carafe-smoked bourbon and tellicherry peppercorn gastrique.
In line with today’s trends, Hardison says her team works with a lot of clients who ask for menus that showcase seasonal, local foods. “In Oregon, we’re fortunate to have such a wonderful bounty to choose from. Our clients most often request light and summery items for outdoor entertaining. Simple grilled meats and fish, light salads.”
Likewise, light and fresh foods like hanging charcuterie skewers, watermelon cubes with goat cheese, berry bites and fresh salsas are some of the most requested outdoor menu items for Thomas Caterers of Distinction. “Also, fresh, local heirloom vegetables,” says Early. “They’re beautiful and taste fantastic no matter what you do with them.”
Naturally, the Maine-based Blue Elephant team gets a lot of requests for lobster rolls, so they’ve made them the star of action stations. “Our chefs grill the rolls and fill them with fresh lobster meat while guests watch,” says Pifferrer.
Over in Atlanta, Neal of Affairs to Remember says local staples like shrimp and grits are among their most-requested outdoor foods.
“Brides are requesting ‘not the same old shrimp and grits,’ but versions that combine other elements such as a seasonal vegetables or artisan sausage,” says Neal.
“Craft beers are also emerging as the new beverage that folks want to be sure works with their menu. And whenever sustainability can be imported into the plans, the clients love the message it sends to their guests.”
A Few Final Thoughts…
“To bring up the ambience, we also use mobile LED lights that are not just great in creating a more vibrant and colorful atmosphere, but also lift the food and make it stand out.” - Orange Clove Catering
“One trick to keep bees away from buffet stations: Hide a mixture of beer and orange juice in a container near the food station and the bees will head straight for it.” - Blue Elephant Events and Catering
“If it’s a chic outdoor event where ladies will be wearing heels, make sure the event is on a hard surface or the client is providing alternative footwear or high heel protectors.” - Thomas Caterers of Distinction
“Tenting, lighting and refrigeration are your best friends when preparing for an outdoor event. Especially lighting. You can’t be a great caterer in the dark!” – Exclamations Catering and Event Specialist
“No matter how thorough your packing list is, you will forget something. So smile, laugh and feel blessed that you are in an incredible outdoor setting — and don’t forget the bug spray!” - Whistler Cooks Catering
Since moving to Minneapolis in 1999, Eve has worked as a writer, an editor, a video producer, and a digital content manager/strategist in areas ranging from arts and education to science and technology. She oversees the content of Catersource magazine, web and social media.
eNews May 2014
Originally published in Catersource magazine April/May 2014