Chef’s Secrets: How to Select a Caterer

By Chef Marcus Webster

After you decide on a budget and a theme, the next logical step would be to decide on the type of service for your event.

Your prospective caterer should discuss service options with you – sit-down or buffet, among others.

So you are ready to throw that wonderful birthday party or that much-awaited graduation celebration to honor your first-born’s success. The details necessary to make your event successful can be overwhelming.

Ask yourself: do I need the following – a DJ, a photographer, tables, chairs, balloons, other decorations? Don’t forget the most important question of all–do I need a caterer?

One of the things to consider is the caterer’s reputation. Visit sites such as Yelp.com for customer reviews. See if your prospective caterer has a social media presence. For example, are they/he/she on Facebook? In other words, check to see what previous clients are saying about the caterer you have in mind.

An event in the privacy of your home will have very different needs compared to an event in a park or a community hall.

An event in the privacy of your home will have very different needs compared to an event in a park or a community hall.

A good, all-around caterer will help you tie in or consolidate the other details of your event. He or she should be able to steer you in the right direction as you make important decisions about your upcoming event.

Your prospective caterer should discuss service options with you: plated service vs. buffet vs. hors d’oeuvres. Or present you with cuisine choices: Italian, Cajun, Mexican or whatever it is that tickles your palate. He or she needs to be a good listener and be able to put your preferences first.

Make sure you discuss the following with your caterer:

  • Date and time

It sounds so basic, but you wouldn’t want to be so enamored with your caterer, only to find out he or she is booked on the day of your event. So bring this up first and secure the date before anything else.

  • Location

An event in the privacy of your home will have very different needs compared to an event in a park or a community hall. Your caterer should be able to tell you the pros and cons of certain locations on your short list, assuming you haven’t decided yet.

  • Ask your caterer what the extent of their cuisines is and what type of preparation it entails.

    Ask your caterer what the extent of their cuisines is and what type of preparation it entails.

    Budget

It is a wise idea to set a budget from the onset. You don’t want your husband or another contributing family member to have a heart attack once they see the invoices, right? So set parameters, i.e., you’ll only spend x amount on food, or an x amount total. But work with a budget.

  • Theme and decor

In a previous column, I stressed the importance of picking a theme, in order to keep the event details focused. Let me stress that again.

Pick a fun, creative theme that speaks to you and your guests. Brainstorm and involve family members or friends. If it’s your daughter’s graduation bash, solicit her input. If she’s into the TV show Glee and would like that as a theme, you will know how to proceed with food, décor, etc.

You can also rent out or purchase decor to go with your theme. Planning to throw a luau, make sure you get those leis and plumerias. If your child is having a birthday and likes Dora, get that piñata and jungle cut-outs. You don’t have to go overboard on this.

  • Once you’ve decided on the food, tackle the guest list and headcount next.

    Once you’ve decided on the food, tackle the guest list and headcount next.

    Type of service and cuisine

After you decide on a budget and a theme, the next logical step would be to decide on the type of service for your event. A more casual affair could consist of light appetizers or a buffet. Your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary might call for something more formal, like a sit-down dinner with some wait staff.

Ask your caterer what the extent of their cuisines is and what type of preparation it entails. Can they do Mexican food? Can they barbecue at your home? Those are just some of the things to ask.

Are you going to feed the other vendors as well ex. the wait staff, bartender, DJ, etc.? They are sometimes forgotten when doing a headcount.

  • Guest count and type

Now that you’ve decided on the food, tackle the guest list and headcount next.

Who are the attendees? Are they kids, adults, seniors, etc.? If it’s an event for your son’s high school football team, they will eat way more than kids or senior citizens.

  • Rentals 

Do you need tables, chairs and linens? If it’s outside, do you need tents or heaters?

Pick a theme, in order to keep the event details focused.

Pick a theme, in order to keep the event details focused.

Do you want china or very nice disposable cutlery? Or maybe some inexpensive plates and cutlery for that football team will do for those second and third helpings they are bound to get?

Just because a company can provide you food is not your only concern. They should also provide quality and professional service. Food safety is also important whether they’re cooking on-site or bringing the food cooked. Their staff must be trained in food safety and sanitation. When in doubt, keep asking questions or get referrals. Don’t settle for anything less.

Chef Marcus Webster has been a professional chef for over 20 years, starting as a private chef before becoming a corporate chef at the Thousand Oaks-based Auctions in Motion. He is currently the executive chef for NAWLINZ Bistro in downtown Oxnard and Conejo Valley Catering, the catering arm of NAWLINZ Bistro.   


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