When teaching a modern banquet and catering course to freshmen at The Culinary Institute of America, it’s imperative to convey the importance of the guest’s overall satisfaction. It’s critical that students learn to home in on consumer food-industry trends and to focus on the details that can make or break a customer’s perception: ingredient selection and presentation.
Currently, the farm-to-table movement is making a huge impact in the world of catering, as is the current influx of incorporating nutrient-dense ingredients that deliver great flavor and nutrition, such as grains and legumes. It’s vital to keep up with current food trends while focusing on quality of ingredients and perfectly executed cooking methods. At the CIA, we teach our students how to work with strong, flavor-forward ingredients that can hold up to the rigors of large-scale preparation and, simultaneously, have mass appeal to a wide variety of palates. So how do we do that while keeping in mind consumer trends and focusing on the details? Well, first it’s important to understand the differences between preparing a banquet and operating an à la carte restaurant.
The CIA teaches: Preparation is Everything. In catering, off-premise and on-premise preparation requires a different mindset. The off-premise caterer is responsible for transport, storage, and off-site preparation of food. For the on-premise caterer, the infrastructure is already in place, thus providing an advantage in the entire process, where ingredients can be stored and prepped on-site and served immediately. Another factor that separates these two categories, and is a huge consideration, is what the time element will do to ingredients or prepared dishes. Some foods, like risotto and polenta, are simply too delicate and won’t stand up to the rigor of volume cookery and will lose quality very quickly. As caterers, we need to select foods that are more durable, that will not lose their quality, and will hold well. In most cases, food that is local and seasonal will perform well, as it is fresher and has more natural flavor because of its ripeness. For example, when melons are in season a great starter is a simple prosciutto with cantaloupe pairing. To elevate this dish, and take our students to the next step, we stress the importance of details and that a chef must design the presentation in a memorable way.
Details can make or break a customer’s perception. For instance, there’s a reason why chicken, fish, and beef tend to pop-up on wedding menus, where guests typically range from children to grandparents. For a wide-ranging audience, caterers need to serve protein sources that are “understood,” yet have a level of quality reflective of “expensive.” In most cases, venison or lamb turns people off because of their strong aromas and unique flavors.
While ingredient selection is critical, the presentation, or serving style, can make a huge impact on customer satisfaction. A strong finish to a menu is a must for a great party, so make the dessert course just as strong as the main course. Selections can vary, but again, focus on quality and choices with strong general appeal. The traditional slice of cake is always a good standard, but set yourself apart by selecting creative vehicles to serve desserts on, or offer a variety of desserts with different textures and colors. As markets change and consumer demands broaden, the catering industry is directly affected. The bottom line is that catering is more profitable than an à la carte restaurant. It is one of the largest market segments of the food industry. As CIA faculty, we remain actively in-tune with key factors in the changing world of catering, and we prepare students to enter not only the present day catering industry, but also the future of the industry.