Catering Challenge

Catering Challenge

Padma Lakshmi reflects on Ted Allen's party, and the difficulties of catering for a crowd.

Talk about a team coming together with all the right moving parts; Sam's team could not have been cast better if he'd picked them out himself.

Sam's dream team was comprised of:

1)The Quiet Leader

2)The Smiley, Warm Caterer

3)The Steadfast Technician

4) The Consistent One

Add to that, starting by gently asking Betty and Marcel to put their differences aside before it became an issue, was a great show of leadership on Sam's part. It was wonderful that since they decided to do so many dishes everyone had a chance to realize their ideas. Marcel seemed particularly excited to be at work, saying how he was planning to work flat out and give it his all. It was nice to see that positivity, passion and pride on display. And the team had much to feel pride about. Their table looked exquisite, it was a festive, bountiful cornucopia of colors and flavors and had all sorts of tasty morsels that would easily satisfy a wide variety of palates. The table was always full, the food was always hot. Also, the presentation was stellar. The garnish ingredients were never superfluous. They always worked as a component of the dish (as a sauce for instance), and they were colorful and done beautifully, on the same level as some of the most well regarded professional caterers I've been exposed to. I remember many of the items to this day, and I had quite a lot of them if memory serves. I didn't even notice that they went with "lower ticket ingredients." All I tasted was succulent, yummy food. And it kept coming and coming.

Now, it's amazing that the other team, with the same number of chefs and the same financial and kitchen resources, could fail with the same zeal as the other team flourished. Elia, in spite of being a talented and imaginative chef, was unable to lead her team. Beyond that, her insistence on doing such a seafood heavy menu was a fatal mistake.

Part of being a successful host is catering to a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements. What if half those people were allergic to seafood? Would they make the other guests promise to leave the non-seafood for the allergic guests? It's easy to see how gravely this careless lack of consideration for others' tastes and preferences, cost the team. But you don't have to be a professional caterer or even a professional chef to know that, because when throwing a party, whether a cocktail party, a sit down or buffet dinner party, a luncheon or even just having a few folks around to gather by the t.v. to watch a football game, a host must take into account the various palates of the guests. Serving 200 people, a number they were told about in advance, especially in LA, where you have vegetarians of varying orthodoxy, different religions and cults, as well as waist watching actors, and other health nuts, add to that the food allergies, and to that the just, plain old finicky eaters and it's obvious that you need as much variety as you can squeeze out of your budget.

Also the gross miscalculation of how much food her team would need to feed the guests sunk that team before it even got started. They were told that they had to feed 200 guests for a two-hour cocktail party. This holiday season, when many will be celebrating, count the number of little appetizers you pop into your mouth. I bet it's a lot more than you think. I know that I can put away anywhere from 1/2 -2 dozen the first hour and then maybe 5-12 the second hour, depending on how heavy they are, and how hungry I am.

A cocktail party is always just before dinner, when everyone is starving. And most of us don't want to (rightly) drink on an empty stomach. So you'll need a lot. So given a conservative estimate of say, my pace of consumption at the event, for 200 guests you would need 2,400 little canapes. I don't believe they came close to that number. Also, their table looked anemic. And the food was not coming out in a timely fashion. They did not put the guests in a festive, holiday mood. I will say that those strawberries were scrumptious, and I did eat many of those, well, as many as I could get my hands on that is.

Elia also suggests gaspacho. Which is ill advised at a holiday party. I am not a fan of drinking a cold, creamy liquid at that time, unless it is eggnog. I know she meant to do what she thought people would like based on her own experiences, but even when my colleague Tom went to check on them and made remarks which, had they chosen not to disregard, could have helped them save themselves somehow. They were unmoved, and unaffected and didn't listen to him, even though they knew his opinion carried 25% of the weight of the judges final decision. Again, a lack of consideration for other palates. I think this team just had an awful day at work. It happens to the best of us, it was just unfortunate for them that that day had to occur in such a beautifully cinematic location with 200 people in the office.

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