The Taste of Success

Originally published in September 2006, Successful Meetings

A menu tasting can be a great way to ensure your catered meal is exactly what you want. Here are a few tips to help make your event a memorable—and delicious—occasion for your guests.

A menu tasting is especially important if you have a very large or upscale event. Most caterers will be more than happy to prepare a tasting when many guests, and subsequently many possible referrals, are involved. You will also want a tasting if you are unfamiliar with a food service provider and want to see, firsthand, the level of quality and standards they deliver. If you want a custom menu and the chef will be creating items you have not seen before, you should also have a tasting.

The first thing to do is communicate your specific expectations. If you do not want items from the regular menu, you will need to request a custom menu. Give general guidelines about the menu (style, region, beef or chicken) and let the chef use his or her own creativity for the selections. If the chef is not familiar with an item that you are requesting, he or she can usually recreate it for the tasting. Be advised, however, that the chef's staff may not be familiar with the item, and the actual banquet may be different from the tasting. Bear in mind that recipes and menu items that worked well in the kitchen of your Aunt Judy, or that were created by your Uncle John, will not necessarily be successful for a large catered event.

It is also important to settle on a budget before the tasting menu is created. There is no point in tasting prime filet mignon if your budget is $16.99 inclusive.

You will want to approve the tasting menu in advance. A tasting menu should have two to three choices for each course, including different starches, vegetables, and sauces for all items.

The chef will appreciate you letting him or her schedule the day for the tasting. There is actually more work for the chef to prepare for a tasting than to prepare for the actual event. At a large banquet, the culinary staff does most of the food production; but a tasting usually requires the chef to do the bulk of the work.

Another way to ensure a successful tasting is to control the number of "tasters." The more attendees at a tasting, the harder it is to achieve a consensus. Two to four people is ideal. When entire committees attend a tasting, it is easy to lose focus and often more difficult to make decisions.

At the tasting, make sure that pictures of the menu items are taken. For major events, many months can separate the tasting from the event, and you do not want to rely upon memories for plate presentations. This will also help in the event that a change in chefs has occurred.

The chef should describe each dish at your tasting. Ask questions about anything you are unsure of or don't understand. You can also mix and match the various dishes—if you like the chicken offering but prefer the rice from another dish, it is not difficult to change the menu.

For high-volume events, you should ask how long the hot food will be held before service. Then ask how long the food at the tasting was held before service. If the answer is different, confirm that there will be no change to the food quality from the tasting to the banquet. Holding time is an important variable in determining quality.

An often overlooked factor in food quality is the event program. It can be difficult to stay on a service timeline when speakers run over their allotted time. As I discovered firsthand, a "guaranteed five-minute introduction" can run to more than an hour. A pre-set salad will not remain fresh at room temperature for an unlimited amount of time. The same is true for hot entrées. An accurate timeline can help the chef control the finished quality of the food.

By following these guidelines, you can feel confident about using a tasting as a tool to interact with the chef and exchange information that can be critical to the success of your event. You will also experience a preview of the quality of the banquet meal your clients will enjoy. Buon Appetito!

John Dooley is the director of culinary operations for the Centerplate Company at Yankee Stadium. He is also the regional executive chef for the Northeast for Centerplate. He has been executive chef for major convention centers and has conducted hundreds of tastings. He can be reached at [email protected], or call (718) 538-6913.