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Eating alligator.

The tangy tactical world of food catering -- where the procession of plates is well-planned

Baked Alaskas had just been served -- one at each of 17 tables. Just then, with perfect bad timing, the speaker stepped up to the podium and started talking. The audience hushed, and guests decided to wait for his speech to end before slicing into their desserts.

Elsie Friesen, catering manager of Winnipeg Art Gallery and her staff glanced nervously at each other while they watched the desserts slowly melt off the platters into the tablecloths. More than an hour later, the speaker was finally finished. So were the Baked Alaskas.

The occupational hazards of the catering business involve far more than fretting over melting desserts. To keep a corporate client coming back again and again, caterer-managers must constantly bridge between their chefs and their clients to ensure the client is satisfied, while chefs must keep coming up with imaginative, tasty, affordable cuisine and deliver it on time. Both must keep special needs in mind, and make no mistakes. A tall order? Maybe, but once a firm finds a venue or caterer it likes, it is unlikely to change for a long time.

More than 200 caterers compete for tables in Manitoba. For most, business functions such as club wind-ups, award banquets and annual general meetings account for a small but vital piece of the pie.

Planning involved in a corporate event depends on who you talk to and the type of event. A cocktail reception for 50 is a far cry from a sitdown dinner for 350. Catering managers, head chefs and client reps all play key roles with separate concerns.

Jeff Gill, head chef for the Sheraton Winnipeg and Radisson Suite Hotels, stirs the pot with eyes on the clock. Says Gill, "When we're preparing for 300 or 350 people timing is the most crucial factor. We know how to do the banquet. That's not a problem. Even if a delay runs 15 to 20 minutes, that's fine. But once it runs over half an hour, it can really throw you off."

For large functions, it is impossible to serve everything to order. Major hotels have special food warmers and proper refrigerators for salads and cold appetizers. Holding ovens are high-tech, precisely heated ovens designed to hold 50 to 160 plates of food for up to 90 minutes without overcooking. At Winnipeg's Radisson Suite Hotel, Gill works with state-of-the-art equipment. "The nicer the equipment, the better the food. It's the difference between driving a Jaguar and a Chevette."

Gill believes business planners know this. "They'll say to me 'I was in Milan and I had this. Can you do it?' Sometimes cost is a factor. Sometimes it isn't." During the past few years, however, Gill has noticed cost has become a much greater consideration. Firms will select a lower-cost plate dinner, trim the invitation list, or cancel the event altogether.

Served dinners range in price from $16 to $40 or more, with exotic main courses and appetizers quickly pushing you to the high-end plates. Increasingly, when firms entertain people from across Canada or from other parts of the world, they want to show off Manitoba products. For an upcoming banquet fresh turkey (hot turkey Thai salad), smoked pheasant, wild boar, peas (chilled pea and tarragon soup), vegetables, rice and strawberries are all Manitoba products featured on the menu.

Although most business functions involve less than 150 guests, Gill often coordinates food for three or four simultaneous functions. Suppliers deliver meat and poultry products the day before the dinner. Chefs prepare pastries the day of the event. Cheesecakes are prepared ahead of time.

On a peak evening at the Radisson, Gill's catering team includes eight to 12 cooks, one server for every two dozen guests, bartenders and dishwashers. Chefs cook chicken breasts, for example, then place them in holding ovens. At the set time, waiters serve the appetizer, soup, salad, main course and dessert non-stop, one after the other. For the main course kitchen staff dish out last-minute sauces or vegetables on plates coming out of the holding ovens. With precise timing and well-trained staff, it comes off without a hitch. Their reputations depend on it.

For cocktail receptions timing and organization are less sensitive, but presentation is important.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery is equipped to handle 175 people at the penthouse level or up to 400 in Eckhardt Hall for cocktail receptions. Elsie Friesen meets with the client weeks before an event to discuss dates, times, number of people, budget and special requests. Because platters range from $50 (finger sandwiches) to $375 (seafood platter), and hor's d'oeuvres from $10.25 (mini quiches) to $14.50 (mussels) per dozen, a budget helps her arrange a menu within the client's price range.

Friesen attends all functions to make sure snags are smoothed immediately. And they happen -- regularly. A lecturer spills a water jug at the front table. The meeting runs longer than planned or breaks sooner. She is always slightly nervous beforehand. Says Friesen, "If you're not nervous, you're not on your toes. I'm constantly checking details."

Friesen believes the chef and the manager have to work together and trust each other's abilities. She covers her territory. The chef makes sure the food is on time. "We must be ready right before the meeting comes out -- which is difficult to predict with some annual meetings. Bartenders are at the bar. Servers have trays ready to start serving hor d'oeuvres. Kitchen servers stand at food stations to help guests cut salmon or to talk about pate selection. At larger functions, the chef may have to flambe something special (like beef tenderloin)."

Caterers can even come to you. Jacqueline Provencal, secretary of corporate services and planner for executive luncheons at Investors Group Inc., says their caterer, Amici's, suggests six luncheon menus ranging in price from $15.75 to $24.00 per person with choices like cold poached salmon, chicken breasts stuffed with mushrooms and herbs, and apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream. Once approved, Amici's chef and server turn up on the day of the luncheon at Investors 18th-floor executive kitchen ready to cook up a storm.

Alligator Tidbits and Blackened Shark Spiced up One Menu

Often, caterers get unique requests for food. Alligator was the tidbit of the day when Busch Gardens, in Florida, held a promotional evening at the Gallery penthouse last year. Says Friesen, "They wanted tons of everything. We had a seafood bar with alligator, crayfish and blackened shark. My supplier didn't sound shocked at all when I ordered alligator."

At one promotional function held at Westin Hotel Winnipeg last year by Singapore Airlines and Tourism Malaysia, travel agents sampled authentic Malaysian fare from an elegant buffet. Paul Haverstock, director of catering, explains how they deal with exotica. "We're lucky executive chef Fritz Engelhardt has a wealth of information on different cultures."

Caterers are first to be blamed when mistakes are made regardless of who is at fault. They must be prepared to offer advice or overrule a decision if clients make poor choices about amount, type, or serving time of food.

Friesen recounts one memorable night (the night the Baked Alaskas melted) when an elderly man had a heart attack. While everyone waited anxiously for the ambulance to arrive, the client ran into the kitchen shouting "serve the salad, serve the salad." She wanted guests to be distracted. But, Friesen waited until the victim was attended to before continuing.

Chefs would like to think food alone draws people to a place. But, for business meetings or lectures, location and building layout often come first. Richard Irish, associate secretary for Investors Group Inc., explains why they use the Winnipeg Art Gallery year after year for Investors' 300-delegate annual meeting. "It is close to our head office. Muriel Richardson Auditorium is conducive to a meeting, and the main floor foyer (now Eckhardt Hall) is a large, interesting space for our cocktail reception following the meeting."

Friesen believes food presentation and service are of utmost importance. "You've got to do better than just okay. When people are entertaining clients, they want to know we will do everything we can to make their clients happy. You have to treat every individual at the event as if they were paying the bill."

(Catherine Senecal is a freelance travel writer with an interest in all things.)
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Title Annotation:includes related article; food catering service
Author:Senecal, Catherine M.
Publication:Manitoba Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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