You Too Can Work In Catering: A Guide
You too can work in catering and serve dinner at big weddings in an elegant event space. Follow the steps below.
Show up to the ballroom you are helping set up for tonight’s wedding. Find someone who knows what they’re doing. Ask them where the tables are supposed to go. Play whisper down the lane with the rest of the team about which tables are going where. Eavesdrop on a groomsman’s conversation with the DJ. He’ll be really into what the DJ is doing in a patronizing way. He’ll talk about how he wishes he were a DJ. The DJ will ask what he does, and he’ll say, “Private equity finance. Boring, I know.” Two of your managers who hate each other will give conflicting direction on the table linens. Never, ever choose a side. Find something else to do. Go fold napkins. They are in a trifold tonight. Not a swan fold. Know the difference. Someone who’s better at folding napkins will tell you that your folds are getting a little puffy. Escape to the back to put ice in glasses. Spend some time with the kitchen guys for a standard food industry 50/50 blend of sexual harassment and good clean fun.
THE FOOD MEETING
Before the guests arrive, assemble with the other servers to go over the menu. Do not ask your shift leader to borrow a pen. Repeat, do not ask your shift leader to borrow a pen. Chef Kenneth will lead the food meeting. He’s the opposite of Gordon Ramsay. Gordon Ramsay explodes at his staff and says that a piece of cooked fish looks like Gandhi’s flip flop. Kenneth answers all questions with a warm smile and delivers a podcast’s worth of inspiration on how corn fungus is harvested and prepared. By the time he’s done, you've added a Bon Appetit subscription to your Christmas list.
SERVING THE APPETIZERS
Study the following types of guests you will encounter while serving appetizers. You’ll learn how to deal with each of them.
The Interviewer: This guest wants to know everything about what’s on your platter. They’ll call you over and start by commenting on the aesthetics like they’re judging an MFA senior thesis. “How cute! The grilled cheese bite is right on top of the shot glass of tomato soup! That’s adorable!” They have some more questions. What kind of cheese is it? Is that challah bread? Sourdough? Does the bread have butter on it? Is there cream in the soup? Is it spicy? Is it very hot? Give everything to your sales pitch. You never know how near you are to closing the deal. The Interviewer has studied the five Ws of journalism and will come up with a few more questions. After they find out the cooking process and your personal opinion of how it tastes (walk the line here), they’re satisfied. That’s when they will say “No, thanks,” and wave their hand with a flat smile to dismiss you. Thank you for coming in today.
The Hungry Bear: This guy is on your side. There’s one in every crowd, and your job is to locate him and make him your friend. He’s thrilled to see you coming. He’ll grab several pork belly skewers and push everyone in his circle to take some. “You guys gotta try these!” The key is to treat him like a VIP. When you finally serve the shrimp cocktail after you’ve done multiple rounds with quiches, give him first dibs. Joke about how he’s helping you do your job. A win for everybody.
The Aristocrat: This guest is absolutely appalled that you would invite them to eat bruschetta on a Melba toast round, and they are not afraid to let you know. Sometimes they’ll raise a hand in a reverse karate chop and snap, “NO.” Other times it will just be a tight head shake, or -- a personal favorite -- the scornful laugh. Since you don’t know where an Aristocrat will pop up, it’s best to appear non-threatening at all times. Make no sudden movements and offer all invitations in a near-whisper preschool teacher voice: “Date with bacon?” The key is to avoid any trace of aggression, as you don’t want the Aristocrat to think you are challenging them. When you do happen upon one, you’ll know. They are not just saying no. They are angry. Leave them alone! Get the platter out of their face! Don’t you know who they are? If they wanted scallops, they would order their own iced barrel! They’re not trying to be part of this Oliver Twist gruel line! Your job is to maintain a gentle smile and nod, delicately withdraw the tray, and float away in a seamless Swan Lake transition.
The Normal Guy: This guy doesn’t have time for food world flim-flam. You’ll murmur “Vichyssoise?” and he’ll bark, “WHAT? WHAT’S THAT?” There are two choose-your-own-adventure options. You can give up the game and say in your regular voice, “It’s potato soup.” Or you can repeat, in an exaggerated tone, “VISHY-SWA? It’s a mingling of leek and onion pureed with Yukon gold potatoes, in a cream base blended with chicken stock. And it has a garnish of chopped fresh chives.” Either way, Normal Guy will shrug and decide to give it a try. He’ll cram a meaty hand in between the rows of delicately balanced glass vials, trying to grip one with his thick Jimmy Deans. Plant your feet to hold the platter steady. You know you’re both wishing these were hot dogs on cardboard trays, but please, don’t say so aloud.
The Sinner: This guest gives more decision weight to accepting an appetizer than she would to getting a tattoo. It is extremely important to her to translate to you that she thinks she SHOULD NOT accept the invitation to eat said appetizer. There’s an entire therapy session in the transaction. She may audibly shout, “Ugh! Oh my God!” when you offer your platter. Remain neutral. This is part of the process. There will be a physical transformation: hunching over, squinting, tightening the mouth into “I want to do this, but SHOULD I?” She’ll look to the rest of the group for support. After conferencing, the Sinner purses her lips and gives a heavy sigh. “I guess I’ll have one,” she’ll say shamefully. Then she will reach delicately toward the platter and pluck a mushroom tart with two fingers as if picking up an eyeball with tweezers. The rest of the group stays stock still, leaving her out on a limb with a mouth full of buttery crust. An interaction with the Sinner always leaves you feeling guilty. Try not to watch as she chews with knitted brows. Let her bear the burden alone.
The Cult Leader: The strategy here is boldness. Approach a group and insert your tray at a pre-identified weakness in the circle, like breaking a Red Rover line. Announce yourself: “Kobe beef?” Let the words hang. Don’t rush off; the circle will take some time to carry out their group dynamic. There will be a general bodily freeze. Some will stare at your platter, not daring to make a move. Others will check in with each other with quick and fearful eye movements. Finally, the Cult Leader says, “I’ll go for it,” and reaches out. Four additional hands will fly toward the food in one quick movement to display enthusiasm for the leader’s decision. The Cult Leader vocally enjoys their bite of meat and the others chime in on how delicious it is. Cult Leader is on the same Venn Diagram as Hungry Bear, but Cult Leader is more fully aware of his power.
The Pity Party: This guest is just so sorry that they can’t help you out. They see you lurking and say “What do we have here?” to humor you. They listen to your hopeful description and say “No thanks,” but give the consolation prize, “It looks good though.”
CHECK YOUR TABLES
Check orders before dinner to make sure everyone is seated in the right spot. Hover behind couples having intimate conversations to peek and see if they have put out their meal cards with the graphic of a sad cow or perky chicken. The count will always be off. A girl who is used to having exceptions made for her will lean close to you. “Uncle Sherman stayed. Uncle Sherman wasn’t gonna stay. Uncle Sherman messed up the count.” Interview girl to figure out where the hell Uncle Sherman is supposed to be. Track down Uncle Sherman. Cause family argument. Do mental math, write down order totals and go back to the kitchen.
After dinner, guests are going to start getting wild. When someone drops a glass and it breaks, create a safe zone around the mess and call in a friend for backup. While they get a broom, stand over the glass in the middle of the room as drunk people dance around you. Do not tell the couple nearest you to leave room for the Holy Spirit. Get down on hands and knees to gather the biggest pieces. A guy will come over and start Riverdancing on top of the broken glass while people clap around him. Feel free to get a good grip on his calf muscle and shove him as hard as you can.
Operate as a team with your fellow servers. It’s expected that you give others the heads up if there’s a tray of untouched dinner rolls that is up for grabs. At the same time, look out for yourself and go for it when you have the chance. If a coworker you’ve never been introduced to holds out a skewer of unknown meat and your hands are full of dirty plates, open your mouth and let them poke it in. Think about how you’re going to approach the evening. Are you willing to eat something off a plate that was served but hasn’t been touched? Remember these cuts of beef are worth sixty bucks apiece. Your apron pocket is deep, and can hold lots of macaroons for later. There’s no right way or wrong way, but for efficiency’s sake, do some goal setting ahead of time.
CLEARING THE ROOM
Over the course of the event you will transform from Gracious Server to Surly Waitress. This is natural. Let it ride. While it's still early in the evening, do your best to clear dirty glasses in a subtle manner, taking care not to disturb anyone’s elbow space. By the end of the night, feel free to turn your hand into an indelicate arcade game claw descending in the middle of someone’s conversation. Do not care. Keep going.
When the DJ plays Sweet Caroline, you’re in the end zone. After the bar closes, watch the groom try to steal bottles from behind the bar. When the bartender stops him, he will fight his way into the kitchen. “I want a couple bourbon neats. This is MY wedding. This is MY wedding. You’re ruining everything.” Don’t get distracted. The lights are on now, and you can up the aggression level to ten. As soon as someone’s bottom leaves a chair to search for an abandoned high heel, whisk the chair out from under them and shove it toward the wall to start stacking. Approach a guy clutching a martini glass and talking to a woman. Ask him, “Can I take your glass?” Do not break eye contact as he looks right at you and says ever so coolly, “Actually, I’m not finished with it yet.”
Accept that it has become a power play. The wedding is over, the room is being packed up, but the gentleman is staking a claim to his right to continue drinking his martini. Stare hard at his girlfriend. Stare hard at him. Walk away and circle the room one more time, practicing the angry line of dialogue you will deliver. Prepare for a fight. Finish your circling and stride for the gentleman’s table. The martini glass will be sitting there empty. He'll be walking away.
You lost the battle. You won the war. The night’s over, so wrap some rolls in a napkin and go to the bar. Don’t forget to clock out.