Archive for the ‘Wine Country’ Category

Bashed by Bon Appetit

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s Wedding Guide, April 2015

It’s hard to know where to start when you open your longtime favorite food magazine and see your profession denigrated in the first page of editorial content!  Bon Appetit’s April edition promises  “We Do, A food lover’s guide to weddings” and starts off with the questionable moniker, “…the BA guide to the tastiest, booziest, most fun wedding ever…”  Booziest?  Seriously?  But it does not stop there, as they go on to advise “Lose the caterer.”

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s bar and appetizer recommendations, April 2015

Turning to the next page (yes, I’ll admit, the headline got me), they go into the details of how to (1) serve “assemble-it-yourself drinks on vintage trays”, (2) “DIY the Cocktail-Hour Food” and (3)“supplement (the bars) with passed cocktails” (by whom, if you lose the caterer?).

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit says “roast a pig”

Turning the page, we find the directive to roast a whole pig; “…hire a BBQ place to take care of the whole thing….” (isn’t that catering, just asking?),  and then “The best way to make sure your caterer doesn’t serve bone-dry chicken:  Don’t hire one.”  They recommend you contact your favorite trendy restaurant or celebrity chef to prepare the food at your wedding.

BA Weddings

Bon Appetit’s cake and “late night” ideas

As we head into the last page, we encounter suggestions to “Go Ahead, Skip the Cake”, hire a food truck (we’ll get into that later in the discussion) and to “Put your least responsible friend in charge of (the) late night (bar).  It’ll be more memorable than the parts of the night you planned to a T” accompanied with the idea that shots of Wild Turkey are the way to cap off the celebration.  Oooh, aren’t we hip and cool now?

After I took a walk around the office to cool down, I tried to assess exactly which of these irresponsible and inflammatory sound bites I found the most offensive.  I have been a chef and caterer as my full time profession for over fifteen years now, and go to a great deal of trouble to see that my clients get exciting, fun and great tasting food at their wedding celebrations.  Yes, we have all had our experiences with rubber banquet chicken breasts (that’s another post entirely, here) and cold plates of surf and turf, but caterers today are putting out some amazing fresh and innovative food.  Many of us have seen the inside and outside of the restaurant trade before choosing catering as our creative avenue.  I have hired my share of talented restaurant chefs, only to be told what we, as caterers do, is “way too difficult and stressful.”  Caterers are experts at bringing the restaurant to wherever the client chooses, be it an open field, a windy beach, a redwood forest or the middle of a vineyard.  We serve hundreds of plates AT THE SAME TIME rather than in succession as is done in even the busiest restaurant kitchen.  We oversee a myriad of details and timelines to ensure that the entire event flows smoothly and successfully.

BA Vegas Event

Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d

It is ironic that the advertisement placed in the middle of this section is for Bon Appetit’s Vegas Uncork’d food and wine event, featuring three celebrity chefs.  One of the best-kept secrets of these tasting events is who actually prepares the food…..yes, it is caterers!  While client confidentiality prevents us from naming names, we are the ones who prepare the hundreds of tasting plates, peel the potatoes, mince the onion, set everything up in those little glass prep bowls and even prepare the “hero plate” that is shown and photographed.  The celebrity chef or, in some cases magazine food editor slips on their pristine chef’s jacket and steps out in front of the cheering crowd.  We are the ones who scour every grocery store for 100 miles to find the out-of-season stone fruit to duplicate the tart that the food editor created almost a year before for the companion article.  We are the ones who take the celebrity chef’s intricate and multi-step restaurant recipes and prep every single component for their fifteen minutes of fame at the demo stage.  If you have attended a luncheon or dinner at a charity event, supposedly prepared by a celebrity “guest” chef, it is almost certainly your local caterer who is back in the kitchen tent, pumping out the food while the guest of honor is schmoozing with the VIP guests.

Unless you are a Hollywood star or a Silicon Valley mogul, it is unlikely that your favorite trendy restaurant chef will be in the kitchen at your wedding celebration, even if that is who you are paying.  Who do you think restaurant chefs hire to prepare the food at their own weddings?  They hire caterers, who know how to manage the logistics and timing so that the hot food is served hot and the cold food is served cold.

Oh, and yes, all the DIY articles on the internet cannot prepare you for the shock of preparing and serving the large amounts of food required to feed 200 guests, much less keep it safe to consume without the benefit of a fully equipped restaurant kitchen on site.  How many of your friends will want to bus, scrape and wash the mountains of dishes generated by groups of this size, much less sort and box the glassware?  These are all things that your caterer does as a matter of course.

And let’s address the Food Truck myth.  Do you want your 200 guests standing in line at the truck to order their food, being served by 1-2 people taking orders through a small window, and handing each order over to the 1-2 people working the line in the truck?  When a caterer plates a meal for a wedding celebration, they usually have 4+ people plating on the line for each group of 50 guests, and this does not take into consideration the kitchen staff preparing or finishing the food and the service staff (one for every 15-20 guests) carrying the plates to the table.  Yes, food trucks are fun and the food is tasty, trendy and not your usual banquet menu, but if you consider that it takes even three minutes for each order for two x 200 guests, that is 300 minutes , which would equal….almost  5 hours to feed everyone.  Food trucks are great when not everyone wants to eat at the same time, which is why they work so well for festivals.  Not the case at a wedding celebration, where dinner is often squeezed into an hour, maybe two in the context of the complete event.

We can’t forget what this article focuses on the most; the bar.  The same “rule of lines” applies at the bar, which is why the article even goes on to recommend lots of bar staff.  How many of your friends want to be bartenders when they are a guest at your wedding?  Maybe, for about five minutes, or exactly as long as it takes to get themselves a drink.  Professional caterers hire professional bar staff, trained and tested to ensure safe and sane alcohol service.  If you take Bon Appetite’s advice to put your “least responsible friend” in charge of pouring drinks, who is going to be responsible when one of your guests drives off the road on the way back to the hotel from your rustic barn venue?

At the end of this rant, I guess what I’d like to get across is that catering is a profession.  We are not just bored housewives that are throwing parties out of our home kitchens.  As an aspiring caterer, I worked long hours as a server, prep cook and setup person at events.  I pursued a culinary education not only in restaurant kitchens, but at the Culinary Institute of America.  I worked for another caterer in all facets of the operation before considering opening my own company.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and continue to educate myself in the areas of marketing, sales, customer service and accounting and finance.  Our company is licensed, carries liability insurance, we pay taxes and subject ourselves to numerous necessary regulations for food and beverage safety.  I continue to educate myself on food and event trends, attend industry conferences, belong to professional associations and network with others in our industry.  Every catering company owner and chef that I know takes their work seriously, as it is a passion for many of us.

After almost 40 years as a loyal subscriber and reader of Bon Appetit, I will be cancelling my subscription.  But more than that, I will continue to advocate for my chosen profession and all the hard working people who put in the tireless hours to make sure that our clients’ special day is just that, special.  I guess I’m just not hip enough to appreciate the snarky editorial style of today’s Bon Appetit.  I do plan to vote with my pocketbook, and hope you will do so as well.  Had the magazine taken the time to do an in-depth review of wedding catering, and offer realistic alternatives to the reader, this sort of feedback might have been easier to swallow.  However, this piece smacks of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind.  Toss out a few gossipy bits, don’t support it with real research, and laugh your way to the bank.  I count quite a few food writers and editors among my friends, and we are all equally dismayed at that state of food journalism today.  Bon Appetit, I hope you wake up one day and look in the mirror, and see what a shadow of your former self you have become.

Post by Julia Conway on April 2nd, 2015

Because we make it look easy…

After plating for 250

After plating for 250

Off-premise catering is hard work, especially weddings.  Please don’t misunderstand, I love my work.  I have done quite a few things in this life to bring me to the place where I work for myself, doing something I love; preparing beautiful food for life’s celebrations.  There is nothing in the world like working with a couple to perfectly match food and presentation to their cultural heritages, personal tastes and aspirations for this special day.  Often times, this means bringing the celebration to places where someone would not ordinarily go to enjoy a meal, which leads me to the point of this discussion.  We, as caterers, recreate an incredible dining experience for each and every client, and we make it look easy.

The wedding industry is a multi-million dollar machine today.  Just take a glance at all the glossy magazines, blogs and websites that provide inspiration to the newly engaged bride-to-be.  Catering is just on piece in the puzzle of planning and executing the “perfect” wedding celebration.  Some of the talented professionals that come together to create a wedding are wedding planners and coordinators, caterers, floral designers, musicians, artists, videographers, photographers, entertainers and bakers.  Today’s bride must budget for all of these services in order to match the dream weddings as portrayed in the media.  Each takes a slice of the pie both financially and emotionally.

Caterers are magicians and miracle workers at heart.  We often find our way to the business through being exceptional hosts; planning and executing parties of our own that make our guests feel loved and indulged, as if every element of the event was planned for them alone.  We must be creative, but intuitive, quietly figuring out exactly what would delight our guests and clients.  When we execute large and complex events, no one sees what goes on behind the scenes, before, after and during the party itself, to allow this magic to manifest.  We make it look easy.

One of my colleagues, Dine by Design, described what we do in a recent blog post ( detailing a day in the life of an off-premise caterer.  The underlying reality of this narrative is not only what we accomplish, but that we make it look easy.  And by making it look easy, we make our value proposition very hard to sell.  A floral designer can show photographs of intricate and exquisite décor, each component having specific, demonstrable value.  No one can go to Costco or Traders Joe’s and duplicate what they provide.  Anyone who has tried to take photographs with their phone cannot deny what a professional photographer is worth.  A good wedding coordinator knows every perfect venue, vendor and detail that is unique to their geography and speciality.  No one is going to find those things using Google on a Saturday afternoon.  Anyone who has gone to karaoke night knows the value of a professional musician and what that adds to their event.

Caterers, on the other hand, compete on a different playing field.  Food, quite often good food, is something many people enjoy on a daily basis.  They can prepare it at home, buy it to take out, enjoy it in a restaurant, or sample it at a party when prepared by family and friends.  On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple proposition.  I can’t say how many times, after presenting a menu that has taken hours to research and develop for a couple, I am confronted by the opinion that “…we could do this a lot cheaper ourselves.”  When we sell a proposal, we offer tastes of our food, many times at no charge (which is another topic altogether), photographs of our food, and testimonials from others who have enjoyed our food.  We neglect to sell our prospective clients on what is required in order to integrate this food into their wedding celebration.  Perhaps we need to show before and after photographs of the “back of the house” at their wedding site.  Or of the prep cooks scooping and forming the 800+ mini crab cakes their guests will enjoy from the service staff’s passing trays during cocktail hour.  Heaven forbid we show them photographs of the towering racks of dishes and glassware in the dishwashing station, sorted and rinsed to go back to the rental company, long after the last guest has departed.

Instead, we sell them on the beautiful photos and video (if we are lucky enough to get them during the event) of the finished product.  Perfectly garnished trays of passed appetizers, bountiful and inviting buffets, fun and exciting chef stations and exquisite plates dropped magically in front of each of their guests by a smiling server.  It is no wonder we have difficulty “justifying” the cost of our services.

I am not advocating that we take away the magic.  I am suggesting that we do a more complete job of telling the story of what we do.  The only picture a prospective bride gets of a caterer is that reflected in the wedding media.  Since we usually represent one of the largest pieces of the budget pie, a lot of column inches are devoted to getting the best value out of your caterer.  We as an industry must do our part to explain the complex package of products and services we provide.  Only in this way will our prospective clients really understand the value of what they are purchasing.  This also means resisting the temptation to give away what we do for free.  Whether it is setting a fee for tastings (usually applied to the total event cost if booked), refusing to provide a no-cost overage guarantee, avoiding adding in items and services as an incentive to book with us rather than our competition and truly assigning a value in our own minds for the magic we perform.  If we don’t believe we are worth the money, how can we convince our clients?

Let’s be proud of what we do.  A good magician is able to convey the complexity and difficulty of their performance without giving away their secrets.  Today, I plan to challenge myself to tell the story of what I do in such a way that the prospective client is intrigued, curious and a little bit awed.  To be sure, I will make it look amazing, fabulous and magical, but I will try not to make it look easy.


Post by Julia Conway on April 14th, 2012