Entertaining well in a city so noted for excellent cuisine can be intimidating, but hosts need not despair. There is a wealth of caterers just waiting to dish up mouthwatering specialties for your guests as well as alleviating anxiety for the host.
"We do as little as dinner for two to parties as large as 12,000," says Nanci Easterling, owner of Food Art, which plans parties for both corporate and private customers. "What we do at Food Art is create, whether it's new food, design ideas, or the whole event."
Many people flinch at the thought of using a caterer, assuming the expense is prohibitive. The range of services offered by various businesses in the city, however, range from having only hors d'oeuvres supplied by a caterer to having a party planner, supply food, beverages, waiters, bartenders, decorations and a clean-up crew. Many restaurants in town offer catering services either in their own banquet rooms or off-premises. Others, like the Gumbo Shop, sell their most popular menu items like gumbo and jambalaya by the gallon and half-gallon but the host must pick it up. Even Bayou Bagelry, which has locations all over town, offers sandwiches made with their housemade breads and bagels as well as party trays and desserts.
Once considered a luxury for the monied, help from caterers is becoming more commonplace as harried schedules make it more and more difficult for hosts to pull together even a dinner party. Caterers have stepped up to the plate, allowing customers to set the menu of services they need. There are tricks, however, to getting the biggest bang for your buck when employing these professionals. First of all, disclose your budget and what you need the party to include. Then, put the caterer to work.
"In order for me to do the best job for a client, I need to know what they are expecting to get out of it," Easterling says. "What do they want to remember the next day -- how beautiful it was, how good it tasted?" Once that is established, the caterer can determine how to accomplish that goal within the budget available. Sometimes changing the time of day of the event, say from an evening dinner-time get together to an early afternoon soiree, will change the menu from a full buffet to hors d'oeuvres and thus will cost less.
"Some customers who are having an intimate dinner at home for eight or 10 guests might want just an appetizer and entree and they'll do the salad and side dishes," says Lea Freeman, who operates Partysist with her sister, Renee Freeman. "Some might just want one exciting dish to wow everybody and they don't feel confident that they can make it. [Customers] can do it in pieces or the whole thing."
Partysist has even catered intimate dinners for two in which a cook arrives with flowers, sets the table, cooks the meal, chills the champagne, serves it and stays out of sight until it's time to clear the table, clean the kitchen and go home.
Type of cuisine can often have an affect on which caterer comes to mind. For instance, if you want sushi at your event, you need to contact an establishment, such as Kyoto 2, which will provide a sushi chef and preparation bar for your event. Other caterers employ chefs whose epicurean creations are as varied as the palates of their customers.
"We don't specialize," Freeman says, "but most people come to us and want local cuisine with an eclectic touch to it. We have created all kinds of themes: Asian, Creole, French."
Many of the benefits of caterers are intangible in terms of cost but invaluable in determining how an event will turn out and how much the host enjoys the experience.
In addition to the party planner, some caterers also have excellent contacts with florists, beverage experts and special event consultants. The advice of these people is available even if a customer only uses the caterer for food.
"We have an on-site bridal consultant that has been in the business for 15 years, so [customers] get all his knowledge and experience," Freeman says. "Even if you're having four people over for dinner and want to pair a wine with it, even if you don't want to purchase it from us [the beverage purchaser] he will help you select a wine and tell you where to get it."
Easterling urges that hosts also consider the aggravation and expenditure of time involved in trying to piece together a party themselves. Often, having a catering supply the food, flowers, tableware and everything could save the host a day's worth of driving around.
"Caterers don't make money off things like acrylic forks and paper plates," Easterling says. "People need to get into the mind-frame that their time is valuable. If you have to go to Party City or somewhere to get plates, napkins and forks, it takes at least an hour. Then you have to pick up the flowers and ice and whatever else. You could spend your entire Saturday doing it, rush to take a shower and be tired when your guests arrive.
"I think people who don't use the services caterers provide are crazy, but some people insist on getting the little stuff themselves. What we want to do for our clients is make it where all they have to do is open the door. When we leave, your house will be as clean or cleaner than when we came. If your caterer is not doing that for you, you need a new caterer."
There are other hidden advantages as well. They can help find sites for your event, and if you hire them to plan the entire party, you may save money in the long run. "Caterers don't necessarily charge you for the decorations if they're doing the whole event," Freeman says. "We like to do our own decor because we want to make sure it all matches. We own so many of our own food vessels that we don't have to rent them."
Having a relationship with a caterer, even if you don't use the services often, also can benefit customers because the business knows their needs and preferences. The caterer also will go an extra mile to help out when, for example, your boss instructs you to set up a nice business luncheon in a day. "If we have a relationship, I can step in and get a nice business lunch together without you having to pull your hair out and worry," she says.
"I think the way people approach catering has changed so much over the past five years," Freeman says. "It's come into its own. People should think of their caterer as a great resource for all kinds of options. We even book restaurants and hotels for our clients from out of town. It's all about trusting that the [catering] company will come through for you."