How to hire a caterer
An interview with Deborah Williamson, an event planner and co-owner of James restaurant in Brooklyn.
I recently went to a party where the host did everything himself for 40 guests, and not only was it a bit of a disaster—he ran out of food, there was nothing for vegetarians—the worst part was how stressed out he was. Having a professional handle the food, not to mention the cleanup, lets you enjoy the night.
Know where to go pro. Personally, I love the idea of having a chef cook for a small party—it’s fun and intimate and you can almost turn it into a cooking class—but most of us can manage that kind of dinner on our own. Once you get to ten people or more, calling in outside help is a great idea. Rule of thumb: If you’re having a dozen guests or fewer, you’ll need a chef and one server. For every additional dozen guests, you’ll need another server.
Listen up. Ask friends for recommendations, or if you go to an event and love the food, find out who catered it. You can also call the owner of your favorite restaurant to see if one of the sous chefs would be available.
Cook in house. Drop-off meals may be half the price, but don’t do it. The food is usually prepared the night before and rarely tastes good. Instead, hire a chef to be on site. And don’t worry about having a small kitchen. I’ve seen the most incredible dinners prepared in a utility closet—chefs will bring in their own equipment.
Get ideas. Typically, caterers don’t offer tasting unless it’s a wedding. Contact two or three and ask them for proposals for your event and budget: They’ll outline a menu, wine pairings, and any special requests. Go with the person who pays attention to details, asks you a lot of questions about your style and taste, and customizes the dinner accordingly.
Mind the details. Ask the caterer what time the chef will arrive, exactly what the menu will be, the number of courses and wines, and the total price. Be sure to discuss gratuity ahead of time. In many cases it will be included; if not, plan to tip at least 20 percent.