How did one regular guy with a normal kitchen manage to cater a 157-person wedding for $501? (And yes, that price includes ingredients, serving trays, and even his cab fare to and from the store, although not dessert or drinks.) If it can be done in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the US, it can probably be done in your hometown, too.
Have you cooked large quantities before? The answer doesn't have to be yes. "Regular guy" Damien Chacona had cooked in fast food restaurants previously, but had never catered anything before he single-handedly prepared his friends' wedding feast. He shares some helpful tips from his own experience below. If you're ready to devote a week of your life to intensive food preparation, you may be able to pull it off, too.
A word to the wise: These tips are for friends attempting to cater their friends' weddings. Do not try to cater your own wedding, or you will miss out on the experience of getting married.
Plan your menu around foods that don’t spoil easily to give yourself more room for error. While you should always be careful to keep foods the proper temperature, you'll be glad you opted for a vinaigrette instead of a mayonnaise dressing when you get stuck in traffic the day of the wedding and all of your ice melts.
The menu in question was: pulled pork salad with homemade barbecue sauce on Kaiser rolls; Mediterranean pasta salad with tomatoes, black olives, celery, parmesan cheese, capers, and basil; garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing; and fruit salad with melons, strawberries, grapes, apples, oranges, blueberries, and nutmeg. Additionally, there were crudités of broccoli, celery, carrots, and green bell peppers to dip in homemade hummus.
Stick with foods you feel comfortable making. Now isn't the time to stray from your comfort zone. You're going to need a lot of attention to spare when the pots start bubbling.
Prepare your expectations as well as your kitchen. You will probably not be able to produce a spread that looks like a professional catering company did it, so don't spend all of your money on mimicking the "professional" effect with silver platters and candelabras. Your friends asked you to cater their wedding to add a personal touch, so embrace your strengths and prepare the feast with that in mind. Emphasize good food and the rest will follow.
The larger the guest list, the better news for your budget. Find cheap ingredients in bulk at stores like Costco or local farmers' markets. The most expensive ingredient is often the meat (the example wedding's meat cost $70), so you may be able to shrink your budget if the couple in question are vegetarians. Also keep a budgetary eye on foods with a large number of ingredients, as the cost can add up. (Making the BBQ sauce from scratch was almost $90.)
Have a solid plan for how you will store the food and how much refrigerator / freezer space you will need. You may need to call a few friends to annex their kitchen space as well. Start thinking about how you will serve the food. If you don't have a large number of cute bowls and utensils, you may want to ask around to see who does. Again, don’t worry if all the spoons don't match exactly; you're not a professional caterer and no one expects you to be.
Start cooking at least five days ahead of time. Before you begin, make a list of what foods need to be served immediately and which have a longer refrigerator life. Damien started by making the BBQ sauce and salad dressing, since those would keep the longest without spoiling. The pasta salad and the fruit salad, on the other hand, had to wait until the day before the wedding so they wouldn’t dry out.
Do as much prep work as you can ahead of time. Wash all of the fruits and vegetables you buy before you even put them in the refrigerator. The key in bulk cooking is making sure your preparation happens like a lab experiment: precise and strictly-controlled. For example, if two different dishes need onions, prepare two different bowls ahead of time with the right amount of onions for each dish.
Even if you can prepare the dishes in your sleep, practice by preparing them in small batches ahead of time. This way, you can have a friend follow you around the kitchen and keep careful notes of everything you do. Even something as small as adding a pinch of salt "to taste" could make a huge difference when the recipe is expanded to feed hundreds of people.
Do you own large pots and pans? If you start scouring stores a few months ahead of time, you have a better chance of finding good deals on large cookware like stockpots. Make sure the bottoms of the pots are thick so they heat evenly. You will need more large containers, bowls, serving spoons, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil than you think; aim for triple the amount you estimate, and you won't regret it.
When cooking, keep an assembly-line mentality. Bulk cooking is much more industrial than cooking dinner for yourself. Expect to use an outrageous amount of spices. Yes, your recipe might actually call for a cup of pepper. Yes, you might actually need to spend 20 minutes just cutting basil.
It's easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to do simple things on a large scale, like cutting fruits and vegetables. It's tempting to dismiss these as the easiest parts of the preparation, but it took three people three-and-a-half hours just to cut the ingredients for our example meal.
Another unexpected loss of time comes from wandering around the kitchen trying to find ingredients in the sudden jungle of cooking supplies. Keep your counter space well organized so you don’t get lost.
Even gentle ingredients like noodles can grow terrifying in bulk. Damien cautions against putting so many noodles in the stock pot that, once they absorb all the water, they've grown so massive you can't stir them anymore.
Clean as you cook. Don’t wait until you're done or you'll run out of dishes and leave yourself no room to clean. You'll probably be running the dishwasher constantly for a day. (That's also why you wash the produce ahead of time, so you don’t need the sink once it starts filling up with dishes.)
The Day of the Wedding
You've made a delicious feast. Now you'll need to make sure it's presented at its best.
Store the food in disposable aluminum chafing dishes. They're cheap and recyclable. You also want sturdy plates, especially for juicy foods. If you're not borrowing "real" plates, buy heavy duty waxed paper plates and sturdy cutlery. The biodegradable kind made from potato starch works very well and doesn't create plastic garbage.
To transport the food, you'll need to use a large vehicle like an SUV, or split the food into multiple cars. Cars with seats that fold flat are ideal, because chafing trays don’t stack easily.
To keep the food safe and tasty, it's important to maintain the right temperature. This part is absolutely crucial if you don’t want to give the guests food poisoning.
Keep hot dishes hot by putting them in chafing dishes with Sterno under them. Take their temperature every half hour with a food thermometer and adjust their positioning as needed.
Keep cold dishes cold by placing them above trays filled with ice. Bring lots of ice in large coolers so you can keep refreshing the ice throughout the wedding.
Lastly, keep the food covered when not in use to protect it from insects.
A Delicious Gift
When catering by yourself seems like an overwhelming task, just remember: you're giving your friends a fantastic gift. (Professional caterers quoted the couple in our example 12 dollars per person for a much simpler menu, and this came out to a little over three.) If you over-prepare, and leave yourself plenty of time, you should be able to pull it off.