This week, I am straying a little from my usual topics as we all get ready for the summer party season and sharing a wisdom I have gathered over my years as a private chef, serving over 100 clients.

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Photo by Juanedc “El Chef” Teruel, España

Hiring a great chef, planning the menu and collecting your RSVPs is just the beginning! Here are a few tips on how to make sure your event is as smooth as possible, kitchen to table:

SPECIAL DIETS

Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan— there are so many people, especially in the Bay Area, who are careful about how they eat. Be sure your chef knows about requirements and is skilled in preparation of any special diets. And try to gather as much information from your guests as you can. Gluten-free may be a dietary preference, or it may mean your guest has Celiac’s, which has much stricter cooking standards. Also remember that your chef is not working in a restaurant setting with several Sous Chefs and most likely cannot prepare 3-4 different dinners as a restaurant chef does. Make your requests known up front, in case you chef feels the need to bring in extra staff (if your kitchen is ample enough), and expect to pay additional for complicated menus.

COCKTAIL PARTIES AND APPETIZERS, HOW MUCH FOOD DO YOU NEED?

When planning food for a cocktail party, how much to serve is determined by the length of your event. Assuming there is no main course or dinner to follow, you should figure 5-7 nibbles per guest for the first couple of hours, then 4-5 nibbles for the next couple of hours and if your event goes longer, just 3 or so bites during the final hours. You may want to switch from savory to sweet bites towards the end of your event.

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Photo by Ole Christian Helset “Tapas”

If you decide to go with “Small Plates“ or Tapas, which are heavier than traditional appetizers, or a combination of both appetizers and small plates, you should count each small plate like you would two appetizers. Your chef should be experienced in portion control and is there to help you with planning, so don’t feel you have to manage all this on your own. Remember, some guests may want to enjoy more than one serving of a particular appetizer….

KITCHEN AND BBQ

  1. Dishwasher should be empty (and working– if your dishwasher is NOT working its best to be up front with your chef/caterer as they will need to hire a person to wash dishes by hand). If you have any china that you are planning to use that cannot go into the dishwasher, likewise your chef will need to know and have someone to wash dishes.
  2. All kitchen surfaces should be made available to your chef, so as much as possible, store your small appliances and kitchen decor. For plated dinners, especially for larger crowds (more than 8-10) you may want to make an extra space available for plating. In some cases, this may even mean renting a table.
  3. Make some space available in your refrigerator (more space will be needed if you have extreme perishables on the menu, like seafood).
  4. BBQ grill (if appropriate to the menu) should be clean and ready to use. If yours is not a gas grill, be sure to talk to your caterer about who is responsible to provide charcoal.

Provide large garbage bags, make sure your receptacles are not too full to receive the refuse from your event. Most chefs strongly prefer to have: recycling/compost/garbage.

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Photo by David “Glassware”, January 2013 Random collection of drinking glasses

RENTALS, GLASSWARE & BAR

1         If  your event is a sit-down dinner, you will need glasses for the table (water and wine) as well bar glasses and/or wine glasses if you are having a cocktail hour, or champagne glasses if there is a toast. You should figure 2 glasses per guest for the bar. Due to breakage liability, many caterers will not wash your crystal or wine glasses; they will be rinsed with clear water and set aside. If you or your caterer are arranging for rental glasses, these can be returned to most rental companies without any cleaning at all (same for rented china and flatware).

2         You may be responsible to provide ice, one bag of ice per each ten guests is recommended (plus additional ice for cooling if you are having beer, soft drinks and/or white wine).

3         It is best to either have water pitchers for the tables or provide bottled water.

DON’T SURPRISE THE CHEF! (GUEST COUNT & OVERTIME CHARGES)

1.     In most cases, the event duration as stated in your contract is based on the average time required to set-up, cook/serve and clean-up for your particular menu, service style and party size, plus your stated expectation of how long your party will last. Overtime charges may apply when the stated event duration, which should be specified in your Catering Agreement, is exceeded. This is particularly common when guests arrive much later than anticipated and service is delayed. While this doesn’t mean you need to impress upon your guests that they arrive on time, it does mean that you communicate clearly with your caterer. After all, you know the crowd!

2.   If there are additional people who need to eat (i.e. your musicians, your babysitter) please advise your caterer in advance and they will gladly increase your guest count. If the actual number of guests at your event exceeds what is stated in your contract, you should expect to be charged for those additional guests (even if no additional food is prepared). If a minimum guest count policy is in effect (this is the usual way things are done), you will be charged for number of guests in your contract even if they do not all show up.

PETS AND GUEST TRAFFIC THROUGH THE KITCHEN

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photo by lindyi “helpin'”

1.   We all love dogs, but not in the kitchen. For the safety of your pets (there’s hot stuff goin’ on in there) and catering staff, its best if you can keep your best friend elsewhere during your dinner party or catered event.

2.   Although it may seem obvious to you, it may not be to some of your guests, especially if they are friends and family accustomed to making themselves at home in your kitchen; it’s not ideal to have guests opening the refrigerator to look for beverages, trying to be helpful by serving themselves seconds, or looking for a snack. Catering staff is there to attend to your guests’ every need and are happy to do so. A little extra planning (like having a cooler full of bottled water somewhere where people can easily help themselves) goes a long way towards preventing kitchen accidents.

LEFTOVERS

Have a discussion with your chef. Some caterers (like myself) donate leftover food to the homeless if no previous arrangements have been made. It is usual that some munchies will be left for late night dining (these don’t qualify as leftovers). It’s best to anticipate that there may be some food, even a substantial amount if not all your guests show up, leftover and have a plan before your event begins so you can enjoy your evening without interruption.

PAYMENT

Most caterers and chefs require at least 50% of event total beforehand and some even require that your event is paid 100% up front (usually in 2 payments, one of which is a deposit to hold your date). This amount will typically NOT include gratuity and this is something you may want to discuss up with your service provider. It best for you if the caterer doesn’t need to bother you with final payment at the end of the night when you are with your guests and enjoying your 3rd glass of wine!

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