It’s easier to criticize a dinner rather than to organize it. And saying, at the end of it, “it would have been better if…” instead of asking, before it, what we’d like. But to ask we have to know. Here’s some clues:
1. Catering or Banqueting?
“Catering” and “banqueting” are terms used to define two separate services, related but very different in everything that concerns logistics, organization and costs. Usually the suppliers can work in both the directions, but there are companies that focus on just one of the two. Catering is a refreshment service that does not imply the production of the food on the spot and often requires some equipment. It is often used, for example, for coffee breaks and buffet lunches; it requires the transportation and preparation of tables, linens and cutlery, etc, but the food is prepared beforehand and somewhere else. This is the catering service.
Banqueting is completely opposite, requiring the preparation of the food directly where it will be served. It is commonly used for gala dinners, when the expectation is very high: the food thus becomes the key element for the success of the event, it will be more complex and it will require a flawless quality. In this case, catering is not the right service anymore: to offer sophisticated dishes and guarantee a perfect result it will be necessary to employ a banqueting service, with its team of cooks and a professional kitchen.
2. What are the differences?
As it’s very clear, we are talking about two different services both logistically and technically, especially for what they need from the venue. For the catering service, it will be enough to have a space – even if a small one – where to place on the plate the food prepared in our kitchen or, if necessary, to reheat it (for example the lasagne for the lunch).
On the other hand, the banqueting service will require a complete equipped professional kitchen or the chance to equip one provisionally. This service will require a greater effort for what concerns equipment, staff (especially the cooking staff) and time: the work will begin at least four hours before the dinner, with an ideal ratio of 1 chef every 50 guests.
The catering service does only require a couple of hours tops for the preparation of the food and 1 chef every 100 guests: the difference is striking. The features of these two services are of course reflected on their costs: the catering offers an ideal quality/price ratio and it is the perfect choice for quick lunches, cocktails, delicious brunches, snacks, etc; on the other hand, banqueting is absolutely necessary in case of a gala dinner, a food tasting or of events featuring prominent figures: meaning when the event is partly or mainly revolving around food.
Usually the catering is organized as a standing buffet while the banqueting absolutely requires a waiter service. A “Buffet Placé” (a buffet meal with tables and chairs for everyone) fits for both.
3. Your “menu of the day”, hour by hour, euro by euro
Once you chose the service more indicated for your needs, you’ll have to work on the ideal menu. To figure out what you need and take a decision, you’ll have to analyse the budget, target and program of the event. Let’s try and simulate an event lasting one full day, from the breakfast to the dinner.
- 9:00 am: guests’ arrival, it is customary to welcome them with coffee (possibly espresso), tea, milk, fruit juices and breakfast food: croissants, puffs, pain-au-chocolates, … possibly mini, because easier, cuter and because everyone can have many of those. To offer a lot of food, in case of a buffet is always a good choice: better many and small that a few and big. A perfect welcome coffee for around 100 people shouldn’t cost more that 10 euros per person.
- 11:00 am: coffee break with a selection of mignon pastry and biscuits. Pay attention to the quality: they have to be exquisitely handmade. The cost should be similar to that of the welcome coffee.
- 1:00 pm: lunch, central moment of many congressional events. If you don’t have much time (60-90 minutes) and the participants are informal enough you could go for a lunch buffet (starters, 3 courses, dessert, fruit) or a light lunch buffet, that doesn’t offer starters, cutting around 4 euros per person. Total: from 25 euros up.
- 6:30 pm: the working day is finally over and it’s time to offer an aperitif before dinner, thus helping the socialization of the participants. The ideal it’s a cocktail with a choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and, most importantly, a selection of appealing appetizers: mousses, julienne-cut vegetables, fish delicacies, a selection of DOP (protected origin) cheeses. If the cocktail is intended to last past 7:30 it will be advisable to offer also two first courses in a buffet solution. Indicative cost: between 20 and 45 euros.
- 8:30 pm: sit-down dinner, maybe in a different location: an out-of-town resort, a dwelling surrounded by vineyards, a charming castle. A gala dinner worthy of the name will have to be planned as an event inside the event: a buffet cocktail will be offered to welcome the guests arriving in ones and twos, before starting the proper dinner. The ideal solution? A starter, two first courses, a second course, two side dishes and a dessert. A cost of around 80-85 euros per person (for a group of around 100 people) it’s enough to make a very good impression on the participants. If the budget for the event is a bit too modest for such a dinner, giving up the cocktail will ensure a saving of around 7-8 euros per person.
4. Practical tips to “guide” your menu
For the lunch, you will be provided with 3 or 4 similar menus among which to choose. What to do? Most of the clients decide according to their own taste or, even worse, don’t choose at all, thinking that it’s all the same. That’s a mistake! There are specific criteria to make the educated decisions.
If we are organizing a standing buffet the most important thing is to be “practical“: spaghetti (and long cut pasta in general) and meat dishes that require the use of a knife are to be avoided; it would be much more advisable to serve the food in functional and fun mono-portion containers (small glasses and spoons for finger food) or to choose food easy to divide in portions (such as timbale and meat rolls); a very good idea is to use skewers to serve fruit, unusual combinations such as pineapple and bacon or to give a new shape to traditional recipes such as an eggplant parmigiana; it’s better to avoid the use of the spoon, except for the dessert.
If we are talking about catering (pretty much everything is feasible in banqueting!) it’s better to cook the pasta in creamy recipes, that dry slowly and are kept warm in elegant chafin dishes or to bake it (lasagne, cannelloni, crepes). During summer, a cold first course it’s definitely the right choice. If you think that cold pasta may seem boring you could try with basmati rice, cous cous or spelt.
The most common mistake in the choice of wine, if you pick one for the whole meal, is to go for a full-bodied red wine with a bitter after taste because – even if of good quality – it may not be suitable for all the courses and people may not like it.
A high quality white wine (ie. Vermentino di Gallura or Sauvignon from Alto-Adige) is a great choice because it be served with fish, white meat and pasta with a tomato-based sauce. Sparkling wine for the toasts and a sweet wine (ie. Moscato d’Asti, preferably biological) for dessert are absolutely a must.