A Matter of Taste

In the beginning, there were banquet menus – “You want the prime rib? $20 dollars per person extra.. or you can do the chicken they served at the Hackenshlafer wedding, it’s all inclusive”.

Yes, so quaint…

As I’ve often shared, when I attended the Culinary Institute of America, most of the students had the choice of enrolling in either an auto mechanics program or cooking school to stay out of a juvenile detention center.

Now of course, the world is  populated with foodies and celebrity chefs, everyone I encounter has an excruciatingly specific knowledge of the differences between sauteeing and pan frying, and are more than happy to share it with me.  For our purposes here, I’m going to stick to designing  menus for weddings and other social events.

I’ll go on record that I agree with the majority of caterers who won’t do a formal tasting before they have the job.  Of course there can be mitigating circumstances where I’ll ask for just that, but for the most part I feel it’s like asking me to do a mini party gratis as an audition (guess my answer?).

The point of a tasting is to suss out what actually can be served, what works together and to try items that have at least an approximation of the look and taste they will have AT THE EVENT.

So, what else can I share with you about tastings?

A tasting SHOULD be:

- A chance for the hosts, event producer and catering person in charge to bond and get a clue into each others tastes and style (with lots of chances for you to get insights that have nothing to do with food). This is the FUN part and should be treated that way, but take good notes.

- A time to assess how many pig products one can rationally serve at one meal or to debate the nuances of “kosher style”.

- Hopefully, a wine tasting (mood-enhancing), even if it’s not the specific wine you will eventually serve, you should come up with something that  complements the meal at a price point that makes sense for this specific client.

- An opportunity to marvel at the clever and beauteous ways that the caterer  (or restaurant/banquet staff) has designed the various plates.

What a tasting SHOULDN’T BE:

- A time for the chef to show that he can cook risotto for four people in his restaurant kitchen (we kind of already assume that) – but a time to address how it might be done for 200 guests on buffet lines.

- The time for the event producer to pontificate on a meal at Per Se (unless of course the tasting is at Per Se) and for her to supply Mr. Keller’s a la minute recipe to be replicated for a birthday party in a field for 2000.

- A haphazard (“oh, great, we have to do a tasting” sort of thing,) where it’s rote, and the clients are expected to just sign off on everything and go their merry way. If  the food is wrong – too salty, unattractive or just plain misconstrued for the event – then there has to be another tasting, because (as we are all painfully aware) chances are pretty good, the foods not going to get any better “day of”.

Some shots from a real-live hors d’oeuvres tasting with the marvelous Olivier Cheng Catering and their Chef Jennie (note all the pens on the table)..