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Serving up a Christmas cracker

28 October 2011

If you are choosing an outside caterer for an in-house Christmas event, Michael Ashton has a few words of guidance

With the festive season looming fast, there may be more events to organise than usual in the lead up to Christmas, whether it’s entertaining clients or throwing a party for employees to thanks them for all their hard work during the year.

Regardless of whether the event is for customers or for staff, if it’s large or small, one of the most important elements is to find a good caterer. The food and service are likely to be remembered by all the guests - whether it is good or bad.

So, if you don’t want your event to be remembered for all the wrong reasons, you need to be sure to get the planning and preparation right, starting with choosing the right outside catering company to work with. It is important for you to know what questions to ask a caterer, to ensure that everything is planned the way you want it.

Word of mouth is a good starting point, so begin by asking colleagues and friends to recommend a supplier they have worked with and have been satisfied with in the past. You should make sure that your caterer has plenty of experience running business events so they will understand your requirements, be able to help you choose the best food and drink for the occasion and perhaps, most important of all, help to keep costs within your budget.

Don’t be afraid to ask the catering company for references from customers who have held a similar event to yours, and make sure you speak to these customers personally.

Select two, and maybe even three catering companies you think will be right for you, then organise to meet them face-to-face on your premises before making any commitment. It is good to meet personally, to make sure the right chemistry is there between both parties and it will be useful for them to see the facilities that you have and what they may need to provide from the outside.

The meeting between you and the caterer is when you can give them as much information as possible about your event, so they can put together a proposal for you that includes the menu, drinks, any equipment or decorations that may be needed and any staff requirements. So before the meeting, it may be useful for you to consider:

 The type of event
 Scheduled date
 Timings of the event
 Number of guests
 Any menu ideas

Some caterers will offer tastings so that you can try some of the recipes and food ideas they suggest. Some companies may make a charge for this, in which case you will need to factor this into your budget.

People are inclined to be more health conscious these days, perhaps more so than ever in the lead up to Christmas, when they will be eating more rich food that at other times of the year, so it is a good idea to consider this before making a final decision on the menu.

Where choosing menus, there is currently a high degree of cost versus value for money in outside catering and it can often come down to the creativity of a chef to make all the difference. Canapes and bowl food ideas, such as Grilled Halloumi & Beetroot Jewelled Cous Cous with Red Pepper Tapenade can be very cost effective and are impressive to look at as well.

Bear in mind that you don’t have to choose turkey and cranberry sauce or Christmas pudding and mince pies, just because it’s Christmas. In fact, many guests may welcome something completely different from the predictable Christmas fayre which they are likely to be eating several times over the holiday period.

Whatever your final menu choice, don’t forget to offer some vegetarian options and, especially if you are hosting a more formal sit down meal, where possible find out any special dietary requirements in advance. You should expect a good caterer to be very flexible and able to accommodate any specific requests.

Depending on what time of day your event is, people will expect different quantities and types of food. For instance lunch, served between 12 and 2pm could be substantial sandwiches or a hot or cold buffet, whereas if you are hosting an evening drinks reception around 8pm, you could serve a light snack or canapés.

For that extra wow factor at, say, a client drinks party or a small staff party in an office, where you don’t have very good kitchen facilities, avoid the obvious standard buffet items and go instead for interesting cuisine that can still be served professionally and look really impressive. We often like to use fresh deli-type ingredients, such as Bresola and marinated vegetables, or for a more festive flavour try Mulled wine spiced Goats Cheese served on Pudding Crackers?

Alongside the list of food will be the drinks, which will again vary depending upon the type of event you are holding and the number of guests. It is often a good idea to work with a caterer that is able to cover both your food and drink requirements, rather than having to go to more than one supplier. If your caterer is to provide the beverages, ask whether you can buy it on a ‘sale or return’ basis. This will ensure that you are not embarrassed by running out of some drinks, as it can sometimes be difficult to gauge how much people will drink - especially at a Christmas event.

Food hygiene standards should never be compromised where outside catering is concerned. You should ask the caterer what star rating they have been awarded by the local EHO as it is essential they adhere to all the stringent food storage, handling and food safety legislation. They should also hold the right certification for preparing and transporting food and be properly insured. You can never be too careful where serving food is concerned and any reputable company will be happy to provide all this information.

Generally an outside catering company will draw up a standard contract for your event, which you should be sure to check carefully and make any changes to ensure that you are fully protected in all aspects of your agreement.

Your premises are likely to define whether you want the caterer to prepare and deliver the food and drink to your premises or whether they can do the preparation and serve the food using your own kitchen facilities if they are suitable. Do you want them to organise the decoration of the room, set up tables, provide table linen and place settings or flower arrangements? A good catering company will be able to organise virtually anything for you, from serving a modest finger buffet to setting up and serving dinner in an elaborate marquee.

But whatever type of corporate event you are organising, professional and friendly staff are crucial to its success, so, if the caterer is providing their own people, check that the staff who will be serving your guests have the right training qualifications. Ideally the caterer will employ their own permanent members of staff, as they are likely to be better trained and work well as a team, rather than staff who are temporary or from an agency. And make sure that the waiting staff will wear smart, clean uniforms.

Your caterer should advise on the number of staff required for your style of event which is likely to be determined by the type of food you choose. If you select hors d’oeuvres or finger food, you may want staff to pass these around, or leave guests to help themselves buffet style. More substantial hot or cold menus, or several courses, may require the guests to be seated where you have the option of either buffet style, buffet style with service, or full table service.

Finally, the caterer should provide you with a detailed logistical breakdown of your set up and breakdown. For instance, will the equipment be delivered in advance and when will it be collected after the event, when you may need to make storage space available for a short time.

Regardless of the size or style of your event, working with the right caterer is key to a successful and memorable event. In fact, once everything is agreed with them, you should be able to sit back and relax, confident in the knowledge that the catering will be taken care of smoothly and professionally, while you can focus on all the other organisational aspects of your event.

Be confident in choosing your caterer and menu and remember it’s a fundamental part of the event, not just a part of the process.

Michael Ashton is the Managing Director of Elegant Cuisine

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