There’s no need for a restaurateur to totally revamp their existing menu when they decide to add catering to their operation, in fact doing so would cost a lot of hard-earned popularity from their current fans. However, some thought needs to be given to every existing menu item to determine how, or even if it might translate to an off-premise, or even an on-premise banquet situation.
Depending on your restaurant’s style of food, price point, level of service and customer expectations, adapting your menu to a banquet situation can range from fairly easy to quite challenging (but still very much worth the trouble.)
The simplest scenario would be if customers were expecting a low to low-mid-priced establishment to simply drop off items, whether hot, chilled or room temperature, that are durable enough to travel well at their individual serving temperatures. Examples of this are a typical Tex-Mex menu with items like enchiladas, beans, rice, chips, salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo, queso, tortillas and fajitas. Other styles of menus falling into this category would be basic Italian (lasagna, Caesar salad, chicken Marsala…), barbeque, sandwich and salad platters or boxed lunches. In these cases, anything hot or cold can be transported in covered disposable hotel pans inside of insulated containers specially designed to carry them.
These containers, although somewhat of an initial investment, last for years with periodic maintenance and frequent cleaning. Be sure not to mix hot and cold foods in the same transport container. Hot or chilled sauces can be transported in Styrofoam containers inside of ice chests (with or without ice, depending on the temperature.) No refrigerated truck is necessary for this type of catering, a simple cargo van will do. If you’ll be using chafing dishes at the site, be sure to use disposable pans that will fit or, since you’ll have to go back and collect the chafers anyway, use real, non-disposable 8-quart pans and save some money on disposables. With any off-premise catering, especially if multiple orders are going out at the same time, you must have a good, reliable system in place to make sure that the right amount of the right food is going to the right place at the right time. Pretty much the minute the system isn’t followed, mistakes will be made.
Things start to get a little more complicated if your menu consists of items that depend on last minute cooking, delicate ingredients, more ambitious presentations and multiple courses. One important point to always consider is the amount of kitchen staff that will be required at the site. While it might not be a big deal for your salad station to produce certain complicated canapés for a reception at your restaurant, you might be better off offering items requiring less last minute preparation for off-premise affairs. Things like crab cakes that just need to be popped into an oven for 3 minutes then sprinkled with chopped chives, or salmon pinwheels that only need to be sliced and put on serving trays will be popular and can be put out by only one cook at even fairly large events. In general, if you do as much of the prep as possible in your restaurant kitchen, especially portioning, it will make life easier at the party site and improve your odds of producing the same quality food you do on-premise. To take it one step further, try to offer as many items as possible on your catering menu that can be prepped the day before the event they are on, leaving the day-of prep for only a few delicate items, like seafood. It’s always nice to have a little safety net, and always a miserable feeling to be behind when the clock is ticking.
On buffets, beware of dishes that are not able to tolerate time in a chafing dish. Chilled seafood items, like cold poached salmon or shrimp, or smoked salmon are usually better bets on a buffet than hot seafood items. Even if your signature dish is a great seared snapper with crab in lemon butter sauce, realize that after 10 minutes in a chafer, the fish will be overcooked, the sauce will separate and the crab and fish will both start to fill the room with an aroma that guests won’t equate with a good time. You might be better off only offering a dish like that on seated dinners. Some delicate vegetables, like snow peas, also don’t thrive in a chafing dish. There’s nothing wrong with offering grilled, chilled vegetables in a balsamic vinaigrette, instead. Hot pasta is another example of a food that’s great à la minute, but doesn’t age well. With a little thought, you might be able to come up with room temperature versions of some of your pasta dishes that will work on a buffet; fusilli with pesto is a good example.
If your customers will be expecting perfectly cooked examples of expensive meat and seafood, you’re going to have to cook at the party site. A $5.00 portion of lasagna that’s been held at temperature in an insulated cabinet while being drive across town will probably be well received, but a $30 ribeye delivered in the same manner won’t be. Items like individual steaks or whole PSMOs should be well chilled, then briefly seared in a screaming-hot pan or marked on a very hot grill, immediately chilled again, transported to the party cold and finished in an oven. Never sear at the party site. Insulated transport containers are made that will fit either standard or half sized sheet pans. You can store the steaks on the appropriately sized pan (depending on whether you’ll be using a home or rented commercial-sized oven at the site), in the transport container, in your walk-in, ready to take to the party in a standard cargo van. The same system will work for seafood like salmon, halibut, shrimp or scallops. You can also put pre-portioned, blanched vegetable “bouquets” on the sheet pan that you’re going to cook them on at the site in the same way. If you have the opportunity to do a party so large that you can’t fit the prep into your walk-in, a refrigerated truck can be rented for a few days and used as a cooler to store the prep in on speed racks, and then driven to the party. Be sure to get a truck with an automated lift gate, and to tie down the speed racks. Outdoor grills are available to rent or purchase, but should probably be considered only if they are an integral part of your concept. An exception to the idea of cooking on site is any braised item. Things like osso buco and coq au vin can be heated in hotel pans in your restaurant and transported hot to the party in insulated containers with no loss of quality. Mashed potatoes are also happy to travel this way, and are a lot easier to prepare in your restaurant than they would be on site.
Frying is something you typically don’t want to do at the party site. Many fried foods such as chicken, oysters and crab cakes can be fried in your kitchen, and then successfully re-heated in an oven right before service. A good way to make rice on site is pilaf-style, in hotel pans in an oven. To help goof-proof the procedure as much as possible, transport the correct amount of raw rice in the pan you’re going to cook it in, covered with plastic wrap, with the right amount of liquid marked on the plastic with a sharpie. Little things like this make the crew think through things better and stack the deck in their favor. This might be a good time to make the observation that, in catering, you can’t really plan too much.
The application of heat, in general, is one of the trickier things that happen in any kitchen. In an off-premise “kitchen”, it’s even trickier. I put “kitchen” in quotes because, many times, the workspace you’ll be using at the party will be improvised, temporary and seldom ideal. That being said, think through the menu you’ll be serving and be sure that you’ll have enough workspace and firepower (ovens, Cajun’ cookers for soups and sauces…) to pull it off. Do the math and make sure that you won’t need to have 12 sheet pans in the oven at the same time, but only have room for 8. Rent another oven, or try to change the menu to something that will work under the circumstances (a chilled first course might do the trick.) While, as we’ve already stated, you may not be able to get away with no cooking on site, it behooves you to keep it to a minimum, without harming the overall experience of your guests or your restaurant’s reputation for producing great food. If you can encourage your catering salesman to steer guests towards some chilled or room temperature items, or hot things like beef Burgundy that will travel hot, you’ll be doing everybody a favor.
Lastly, have systems in place so that your staffing, receiving, prepping, storing, packing, loading and transporting practices will ensure that the right food, equipment, staples and staff will arrive at the right place at the right time. Write checklists appropriate to your situation that cover everything you’ll need at any party, especially the things that can easily be taken for granted. The more organized your operation, the more profitable and less stressful it will be.