David Turk is the founder and president of Indiana Market & Catering, a full-service caterer in New York City. Over the past 30 years, David’s leadership has made Indiana Market & Catering one of New York City’s top caterers. Read more »
Founder and President
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Whether it’s an intimate dinner for six or a gala for thousands, the parties that we cater are each individual projects and need to be treated as such. At the very least, simple project management tools must be put in place in order for us to be successful in running our respective businesses.
Here are a few simple steps that we use to make sure that we are consistently on track to cause our most important result to occur: happy customers and their guests!
THE FIVE STEPS TO EFFECTIVE PROJECT MANAGEMENT
1) Identify the Outcome
2) Build the Right Team
3) Schedule Everything!
4) Honor your Word
5) Celebrate your Success!
Identify the Outcome
What are the specific results you are looking to create?
For instance: to create 1000 hors d’oeuvres, crafted up to a particular minimum standard, by 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon
What are the tools that you can put in place in order to know that you are on track (i.e. timelines, pictures)?
Build the Right Team
What are the areas of accountability that are needed to fulfill on your specific results?
For instance: the kitchen, led by our chef
Who are the best people to fulfill on these duties?
The chef will want to determine which teammembers are best suited to the task
Identify what’s in it for them
Good feelings, knowing they did the job well; pizza lunch for the whole kitchen; a small bonus
Create a timeline that makes clear what will be done when
Schedule the actions necessary to produce those results
Build in time to account for the inevitable breakdowns
Honor your Word
Do what you say
Do it when you say it would be done
If you don’t, make that public
Deal with the impact of not keeping your word
Respond to that impact, if necessary
Celebrate your Success!
Make sure everyone knows about the job well done and that the customer is thrilled!
Caterers around the country report the continued popularity of the less-formal serving style.
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Le buffet est mort, vive le buffet! (The buffet is dead, long live the buffet!)
The question of whether or not buffet service is still a popular dining option recently arose amongst some of my colleagues within the hospitality industry. In our research with caterers around the country, we’ve found the answer to be a resounding “yes!”
In fact, there have been quite a few indications that there is a move toward even more buffet service. Just as the disparity in wealth between the 1% and everyone else increases, we notice that the very upper end of the income spectrum can’t seem to get enough of plated sit-down dinners, whereas most of the other 99% are seeking a less formal environment.
Joan Taylor, owner of Diva Catering and Cakes in Salem, Ore., wholeheartedly agrees. “There has been an increase in buffets,” she says. “As a matter of fact, I would say 90% of our events require buffet service. I have been told by most clients that they feel plated meals are either too formal, too expensive, or both.”
Dressing for the Occasion
Not only are buffets increasing in popularity, they’re getting dressier than ever. Innovative and exciting designs allow the caterer to exceed the client’s expectations. Adding striking colors, and the use of dimension and height are just a couple of ways caterers are punching up their signature look.
Lon Lane, owner and president of Inspired Occasions in Kansas City, Mo., has been utilizing “interesting and unique servingware,” eschew- ing florals for more candles and architectural pieces. “We like to go in the direction of clean, simple and crisp,” he says. “We are doing more and more with lighting, candles, glass, floating candles and ice.”
Lisa Teiger, owner of boutique catering company CuisinEtc in New York City, goes a step further. “We like to pair colors that our staff wears with the buffet décor,” she says.
“A server dressed in a red chef coat, and a waitress with a red beret, might complete the look for some of our themed parties. Also, we are finding clients continue to love the vintage displays.” For example, Teiger has repurposed antique dresser drawers for a salad bar display, with cups of lettuce surrounded by the salad add-ins, as well as for a salsa bar.
Here in New York, all of us at Indiana Catering receive lots of requests for low-cost, high-impact methods of feeding people. Interesting, elegant and tasteful meals that demand more effort on the guests’ part can mean saving money on labor costs. In particular, our “Spice Party” invites and inspires the guest to eat, drink and be creative by selecting from bowls of exotic spices to flavor a palette of soups, stews and even popcorn.
Fire and Ice
Caterers are also being innovative when it comes to maintaining temperatures on the buffets, according to David Sandler, executive vice president of Catering by Michael’s in Morton Grove, Ill., just outside of Chicago. “In addition to the various products in the marketplace, there are many creative ways to design the serving vessels, depending on the products and look that’s desired for the station,” says Sandler. “For example, in order to keep food hot or cold, we don’t just rely on chafing dishes. We use products like butane, induction stoves, canned fuel, torches, thermal- insulated cookware, battery-pack heating and cooling elements, just to name a few.”
And sometimes servingware inspires the caterers’ designs. Now that there are more interesting and highly developed compostable diningware options than ever, we are seeing a lot of ways to bring an exciting edge to our buffets in an environmentally sensitive yet moderately priced way. JB Prince (jbprince.com) provides New York caterers and restaurants with a sensational variety of novel dining options. Their corrugated geometric dish can even be baked in!
Small and Exotic
As for food choices, small plates are still going strong. Judy Beaudin, owner of Scrumptious Catering Company in Franklin, Tenn., just outside of Nashville, has found her clients have been favoring minis. “Clients are loving mini things,” she says. “Mini tacos, mini shrimp and grits, mini mac and cheese...this is the South. We like rich, but minis allow it in small, manageable doses without the guilt!”
At Diva Catering, “small plate offerings have become popular; for instance, beef three ways or global small plates,” says Taylor. And at Inspired Occasions, Lane has seen an increase in the type of cuisine being requested by those with an appetite for the exotic. Korean food, Brazilian cooking, farm-raised game (including wild boar, venison tenderloin, bison rib eye, tenderloin and quail), create-your-own ceviche bars and mixology stations are all on the rise.
Working and living in New York has many advantages when it comes to being inspired. The greenmarkets and multicultural markets in the city offer so much beyond that which can be found in even the largest of our grand food emporiums. Walking around the streets of Manhattan; looking into stores specializing in home goods, such as ABC Carpet (abchome.com); and, of course, attending the multitude of trade shows that hit New York regularly, especially the International Gift Fair, provide much fodder for the imagination.
But you don’t need to live in New York City to come up with great and innovative new ideas. Lane looks to the retail world, especially, he says, “Z Gallerie, Pottery Barn, Saks’ windows, Tiffany & Co.’s windows, Neiman Marcus, and Crate & Barrel for their serviceware and color.”
Whether your client is on a limited budget or not, there are more ways than ever to offer your guests a visually stunning buffet with creative and unique cuisine choices. With buffet service still trending upward, your imagination and creativity are all it takes to turn what used to be traditional buffet service into an extraordinary and unforgettable story for your clients and their guests.
An introduction to international condiments for your next event
By Deanne Moskowitz
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Not long ago the term ponzu on a proposal baffled clients of Cuisine Unlimited Catering & Special Events, Salt Lake City, says Maxine Turner, president. Many trained chefs also were unfamiliar with katsuobushi.
Thanks to TV cooking shows, Olympic coverage and travel, now everyone speaks the language of ethnic seasonings, and katsuobushi – commonly known as bonito flakes – is recruited regularly by Cuisine Unlimited’s kitchen as a fish base for soups or sauces.
Elaine Bell, chef/owner, Elaine Bell Catering, Napa and San Francisco, serves such condiment-enriched dishes as fried pupusas with curtido (an El Salvadoran cabbage condiment) and corn tamales with pasilla chiles and water- melon rind salsa. She finds clients are more adventurous about setting out spicy condiments for guests to try such as: Sriracha, chile powders, or salsas.
Tom Mueller and Nancy Goodier, chef/owners, Pineapple Alley Catering, Washington, D.C., were traveling in India, when I called. Condiments (blackening spices, preserved lemon, pestos, pepper sauces, etc.) always were important in their business, but increasing interest, especially by corporate clients, was one reason for the trip, Mueller explained.
Brooke Vosika, executive chef, Four Seasons Hotel Boston, is enthusiastic about the polyglot of condiments expanding culinary possibilities. For instance, switching from a Madras curry in a dish to a Thai curry paste might suggest a complementary change from chicken stock to coconut milk, producing a new flavor profile from the same recipe.
David Turk, president, Indiana Market & Catering, New York City, has seized on seasonings and condiments to help clients create inexpensive but exotic experiences for guests during these irksome economic times. A perfect example was an East Meets West event, which featured a décor of bazaar-inspired vessels brimming with exotic oils, sauces and seasonings. Guests enjoyed seasoning dishes themselves and coloring gigantic outlines of leaf designs on canvas using “paints” concocted from spices mixed with glue.
Condiments may be little extras but they loom large in catering kitchens lately. Multiplying with each ethnic wave, they help chefs raise flavor volume, quell dietary concerns, and interject affordable fun.
Though some caterers insist on only house-made condiments, many express enthusiasm for pre-prepared products, available now in a dazzling array of choices.
Turk and Turner shop trade shows for inspiration, and Turk has an employee peruse local specialty stores monthly for promising introductions. Whereas Indiana once made chimichurri and harissa in-house, Turk now saves time and money by substituting pre-prepared Chimichurri Wine Jelly and organic Bart Delicatessen Harissa Paste, respectively, the latter’s chili bite cut by mustard, crème fraiche and sour cream.
Among Turk’s finds is Hawkshead Relish Company’s Fig & Cinnamon Chutney, with its hint of garlic, which he pronounces excellent on everything from duck to waffles; and Mustapha’s Moroccan Green Aniseed Spread, a minty base for dips and spreads served with items from crudités to grilled chicken or lamb skewers.
While Cuisine Unlimited’s kitchen produces fresh condiments including flavored butters, the chef has pre-prepared favorites, often tweaked to improve or personalize them. LifeForce Naturals’ Palouse Red Sauce, currently topping tortellini salad, is a staple in his kitchen, and he’s perking up various plates now with enhanced chipotles, pomegranate reductions, and ponzu.
Getting the nod from both Turner and Bell, Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce, served straight, is a spring roll dipping sauce at Cuisine Unlimited; and heated with lime juice and Kaffir lime leaves dresses grilled shrimp at Elaine Bell.
Other store-bought sensations beloved by Bell are: Kecap Manis Sweet Soy Sauce, drizzled on wasabi mashed potatoes served with citrus glazed sesame salmon; Huy Fong Sambal Oelek, for Asian-style sauces and soups or to top Asian fish tacos; Edmond Fallot Dijon Mustard, mixed with mayonnaise, on broccolini, and Huy Fong Sriracha Sauce on “anything.”
While pre-prepared condiments have their place, nothing beats home- made for creating a signature stamp.
Although Worcestershire and Tabasco are mainstays of Mueller and Vosika, they mainly use fresh. Homemade mayonnaise makes the difference in Pineapple Alley’s shrimp salad, Belgian Fries and Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich.
Vosika does “a huge amount of pickling,” sometimes serving his version of kimchi with Korean barbecue sates. Recently he was planning a bloody Mary bar piquant with pickled garnishes such as asparagus spears and cauliflower.
Bell loves creating one-of-a-kind condiments for clients: Among them blackberry Cabernet jam and fresh almond butter, wonderful on panettone panini; and yellow Brandywine tomato and golden raisin chutney, perfect on poached fish.
Cuisine Unlimited’s apricot/mustard sauce has three applications, as do all condiments made there. The nectar and whole grain French mustard mixture is the dip for rumaki; the plating sauce for glazed, coconut-encrusted chicken breast, and the accompaniment to grilled ancho-chile rubbed shrimp.
Vosika notes an artisanal trend in condiments. For example, salt is available in a dozen varieties, from pink Himalayan to black Hawaiian to two types of Sel Gris, one made by reducing sea water, the other from just its foam.
Additional local restrictions on sodium are threatened and it’s likely that this year’s updated government Dietary Guidelines for Americans will recommend further reductions in sodium consumption. But caterers interviewed aren’t shaking the salt habit, although many limit sodium in the cooking and opt for finishing salts instead. Avoiding iodized salts and going beyond kosher ones, they are experimenting with dozens of mineral and sea salts, many infused with herbs and spices.
Instead of disguising great ingredients with heavy sauces, Vosika accentuates them with finishing salts, selecting them for each dish based on taste, color and flake. Maldon is his favorite because of its lighter texture, subtler saltiness, and satisfying crunch. He likes the color pop of black Hawaiian sprinkled just before serving on a medium-rare veal chop or strip steak; the smokiness of Cypress Sea Salt on strong flavors such as game; and pink Himalayan slab salt grated as a garnish at table.
Elaine Bell chooses Sel Gris de L’Ile de Noirmoutier as an all-purpose and finishing salt; Maldon’s on grilled vegetables, fish, salads and such, and Halen Mon with desserts. She showcases these salts at a French fry bar, letting guests select from three types of potato and four aioli.
Turk enjoys the “fun” of flavored salts: A sprinkle of smoked sea salt on fish or poultry. Truffle sea salt, while expensive, goes a long way, he says. Cuisine Unlimited’s chef is playing with such flavored salts as black sesame seed, lemongrass, lemon ginger, and thyme. They kick up salad dressings, grilled chicken, and kabobs.
Since condiments can be made without allergenic ingredients and used at the diner’s discretion, they help chefs cater to an increasing diversity of dietary demands. Serving condiments alongside a dish is one way that Mueller addresses allergy anxiety in menu planning, which is on the rise among brides, he observes. Bell calls condiments an easy way to up the flavor intensity of a dish without excessive salt.
Receiving more requests lately for health-conscious menus, Turner is taking help from irritant-free, pre-prepared formulas. She’s ecstatic at the virtual elimination of MSG from pre-prepared ingredients and has been tapping into some health-conscious distributors. One is More Than Gourmet, which makes preservative-free, low-sodium sauces and a gluten-free line.
Though clients rarely request “no salt,” Turk says they like to give guests “high-concept” dishes that happen to be low sodium. Several from an upcoming menu include: chili fire-roasted shrimp with low-salt, paprika-based, garlicky aioli; Moroccan lamb skewers with cumin- infused yogurt sauce, and pida (a Syrian flatbread), piled with robust red and yellow tomatoes that were slow-roasted in season.
Salt-free spice mixtures and marinades are quick, healthy ways to boost protein flavors. The rub specialist in Cuisine Unlimited’s kitchen created an ancho chile vinegar wet rub that revs up brisket or Spanish rice. Liquid smoke is one element in his secret “cowboy” marinade.
Lighter than typical barbecue rubs, Vosika’s so-called seasoning salts can be sodium free. One designed for duck combines coriander, white and black peppers, cumin, cardamom, and sumac.
Infused oils and vinegars also add salt-free flavor punch. Cuisine Unlimited sauces tiny lamb chops with reduced pomegranate balsamic.
Vosika selects different vinegars and oils for different dishes. Instead of brown balsamic, he uses white in vinaigrette destined for a springtime salad: Bibb lettuce with crumbled blue cheese and crisped shallots. Yellingbo Gold extra virgin from Australia lends young fruitiness to ceviche or crudo; the heavier, nuttiness of Italian extra virgin matches the acidic pungency of a caprese salad.
Condiments let chefs multiply menu possibilities of even otherwise limited items, such as chicken breasts and salmon.
Cuisine Unlimited’s chef glamorizes grilled chicken by topping it with mango chutney and serving it with coconut/mint rice.
Vosika applies condiments to complete a dish, like the final brushstrokes on a painting. Copper River salmon and Vidalia onion are the makings of a masterpiece, when he sears the fish and prepares the onion three ways: As a side salad, a plating sauce, and a crispy garnish.
Ethnic nuances keep expanding, as uncharted global territories are explored.
Turner and Turk have produced Persian parties recently. Among cuisines new to Mueller’s repertoire is Peruvian, marked by huancaina (spicy red and yellow pepper sauces) and huacatay-spiced ceviche bars. From his Indian trip he intends to add various pickles; and curries spiced with curry leaves, green cardamom, and a desert bean called Ker.
The condiment-rich cuisine of India is second-nature to Bell, and last year she opened an Indian catering division with Indian chef Anila Chaudhary. Servicing the weddings of Indian and mixed race couples, as well as Americans in the corporate sector, she gives them such exotic fare as: Tamarind date and fresh mint chutney with samosas and pakoras; and coconut chutney and papaya mustard pickle with curries and roast lamb raan.
Comfortable with foreign flavors, chefs are personalizing them or applying them to American classics. A Serrano pepper might be substituted for a traditional Scotch Bonnet in classic Caribbean jerk, Vosika observes. Showcasing such reinterpreted American classics as Thai pumpkin shooters, salmon mini- burgers with curry aioli, and five-spice popcorn, Indiana’s East Meet West event illustrated how ethnic condiments and seasonings are coming full circle.
It all depends on the context, of course, but the steps that we take to come out on top in day-to-day life are generally quite similar to the ones we have to take in the world of catering if we want to remain in business.
The skill-set a capable caterer must bring to the table is incredibly complex, and often seemingly paradoxical. Planning, executing and running a wrinkle-free event requires the organizational skills of a four-star general, the amicable spirit of a camp counselor and the patience of a Middle School Sex Ed teacher. Many of the challenges that we face – delivery delays, on-site power issues, broken equipment, last-second client demands – can be classified as “acts of God” that must be dealt with a la minute.
But others, such as grooming a competent event kitchen team and wait-staff are completely within our control, despite the challenges inherent in managing what is often a sprawling menagerie of characters from all walks of life.
There are certain key qualities we look for in all of our employees: knowledge, skills and a positive, can-do attitude. And not all of these attributes are created equal: The last quality is virtually impossible to instill; either someone has a great attitude, or they don’t – and only people with open minds and positive outlooks will be open to being trained to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to help you run your business effectively.
With 25 years of catering experience under our belt at Indiana Market & Catering, we’ve come up with an (almost) fool-proof system to hire, train and retain a crackerjack team.
During the busy seasons, sometimes it’s tempting to just hire warm bodies to contend with the onslaught of parties. But resist, resist, resist! While it’s next to impossible to gauge the knowledge and skills in the first five minutes of meeting someone, it’s often easy to ascertain what a person’s attitude is.
Two factors that often make or break a person’s prospects can be determined before they even open their mouths: timeliness and grooming. If a person shows up late or in unkempt clothing inappropriate for an interview, we don’t hire them. Period.
Seemingly minor things can cause big problems at parties; our policy is that if the potential hire can’t get it right for the interview, we shouldn’t risk them getting it right when the curtain rises at the party.
Next, trust your gut: is this person someone you’d like to spend some time with? If so, chances are, you’re onto something. Are they engaged in the conversation? Do they make eye contact, ask questions, answer questions with clarity and enthusiasm, carry themselves well and engage in appropriate pleasantries? These are all hallmarks of the kind of attitude necessary to be successful in the service industry.
Train to retain
The second step we take to decide whether a potential employee’s baseline knowledge and skills are elevated enough to merit our company’s investment, is by putting them on an event to “trail.” (It’s also an opportunity for them to evaluate whether or not they want to work with the company). There’s no better way to find out how a party cook or floor staffer will operate than by seeing them in action. If their attitude isuptoparandtheyseemtobeopento learning, but their skills are rusty, it’s up to you to decide whether you have the time, energy and resources to bring them up to your standards.
If the trial is successful, we make it a priority to immerse them in the company’s “way of being” as quickly as possible.
We send out a biweekly newsletter to all employees with simple tips and instructions on what to remember to bring to events, how to answer common client questions, etc. It may seem minor, but it’s amazing how quickly one staffer’s failure to iron his shirt or to stand up straight can spread like wildfire to the rest of the team; it’s best to continually remind everyone that presentation is an essential part of every catering package. Simultaneously, we put them through our Catering Academy, our finely honed training program where they get to brush up on certain skills, learn new ones, mingle and be reminded of our core mission. Our more established staffers are also invited to attend, as well as to lead the trainings.
Many caterers say that retaining employees is their biggest challenge. We’ve found that by establishing a friendly repertoire between the company leadership and the staff while simultaneously instituting a strict chain of communication at events helps people feel like they’re part of a winning, successful team. It also gives them confidence that if something appears to be amiss, they know to whom they can turn, eliminating unnecessary panic and frustration.
A couple of other tips: post a detailed menu at every event so the floor staff knows what they’re serving, what’s vegetarian and so they are aware of any potential allergy issues. This gives them a sense of control and confidence to go forth and speak intelligently when inevitably asked a laundry list of questions by guests. Also, consider listing every single person’s duties and responsibilities. Giving each staff member sole responsibility for the successful execution of two to three activities before, during and after the event (i.e. setting up buffets, checking the floor for debris, staff uniforms) creates ownership and motivates them to shine.
On the other hand, if a general or vague instruction is given to several people to do something as a team, the leadership within them doesn’t have a chance to emerge, human nature takes over and each staff member assumes someone else will pick up the slack. Big mistake!
Indiana’s chain-of-communication system prevents miscommunications, ensuring an event for 5,000 people with 50 staffers is as beautiful, smooth, enjoyable and stress-free as a small, intimate dinner in your client’s home.
So, hire smart; train to retain; then retain. Following these three simple steps will bring success to your teammates… and to you.