Friday, 17 February 2012

Notes from the kitchen....

Snapped on a rare day off!
Head chef, Patrick has taken over the blog today...

At Thames, Catering & Events we want people to be excited about and enthused by our food.  So a lot of thought goes into the menus we produce for our clients. 

First, and foremost, it has to be what they want - we try and incorporate as many elements specifically relevant to each client as they wish. Secondly, we need to be sure we can produce it, to the best standard, at their chosen venue, which can sometimes be in a temporary kitchen in a marquee in a field!

trio of desserts
Once we've agreed a final menu, it’s onto the tasting.  Hosted at our premises in Henley, the clients are served the full menu, including canapés if required.  We take photos of the food as it is served, so that we can use those to ensure any other chefs working with us on the event can see exactly how the food is to be presented, making sure it meets clients’ expectations.

We also recommend prospective clients take up references – it’s easy for a caterer to provide a meal for two in a commercial production kitchen, but the clients’ need to be satisfied their caterer can do this in a tent in a field for 150 hungry guests!

After the tasting, there’s a break for the kitchen until the big day approaches, while Pennie keeps in touch with the clients, working on the front of house and event management aspects of the day.

prep menu showing special diets
While we do events on any day of the week, Saturday is naturally the most popular, especially for weddings. The prep menus for the week’s events will be brought to the kitchen on Monday, with all final numbers and special dietary requirements having been confirmed the week before. From these final menus, I write my prep lists, I will go through all the finer detail to ensure we haven’t missed anything important, and double check the front of house equipment orders include everything we need to serve the particular dishes. I then also compile my order lists and place all the food orders for Thursday delivery.

Once Thursday arrives, its all systems go!  For the kitchen, this is probably my busiest day as I like to get as much done as possible. Each event will have an allocated chef, who will also start the prep for whichever event they will be cooking for. Why is this?? This ensures they are familiar with their menu, and also whilst he works through his prep list, I will be able answer any questions he may have (and decipher the writing! – Pennie). The first day’s prep lists may take 6 hours, may take 14 hours, but we work until it’s all done - this is part of the job when using the freshest produce.

prepping one of our chicken main courses
Friday comes and with it more prep! Also, importantly, we go through the job stacks in our walk-in fridge and check them off against our menu. (As food is prepped for each event, we use stacks of clean, brown bread crates to separate each menu in the fridge – a ‘job stack’.) This will highlight anything we may have missed, crucially at a time when we still have time to fix any problems.

Also on a Friday, most of our hire equipment gets delivered to the site. At this stage, I’m reliant on Pennie and her team to set up the temporary kitchen and check everything is working correctly. After all, no one would want to me or the chefs to turn up on-site to produce a hot meal, only to find the ovens didn’t work! Once I am happy that everything is as far prepared as it can possibly be, only then will I finish for the day.

Event day arrives, and this generally means an early start, usually being at the kitchen by 6am. I generally finish any outstanding prep myself, usually having canapés to finish, desserts to garnish and bread to cook. Again, we check the menu against the food loaded on the job stacks.

Why this obsession with constantly checking?? Well, sometimes some of our jobs are over 40 miles away - too far to be coming back to get something if we’ve forgotten it! Also, we don’t want to disappoint our clients, and making it as seamless and stress free on our side as possible means we can do the best job towards making their big day really special.

job stack in a catering tent

So, it’s into the van and off to site, Once there, it’s all hands on deck to get the food unloaded and into the fridges, and then the magic starts! Service can be a very stressful time in the catering tent (!! - Pennie), but more so if you’re not organized, so that’s another reason why we pay a lot of attention to the finer detail.

If the menu includes a cold starter these will be plated just before service starts and will have the final dressing as the waiting staff take them to the guests’ tables. Once we’re happy the kitchen is ready to go with the next course, the starters are cleared and we start sending out the main dishes.  This is a carefully choreographed process with the service teams working closely with their chefs to make sure all the hot dishes goes out still hot, on hot plates, presenting all this carefully prepared food in it’s best possible light.  Once the main course is served, it’s down to the chefs to get the cold desserts plated up, and again these have final dressing as they go out to the tables.

All in all, service of a three course meal will usually last for 2 hours and is very satisfying once finished and it has all run smoothly.

cooking giant paella
Often a wedding party will have more food in the evening, this may be a hog roast, or even a curry cooked in front of the guests. This is my favourite way of cooking as it allows the guests to interact with me and talk about the dish I am serving and also gives me chance to gauge feedback about the wedding breakfast.

Then comes the hard bit. By this point, we’ve often been on our feet for around 12 hours, but we now need to start breaking the temporary kitchen down so that the hire equipment can be collected on the Monday morning. Our van will also need to be loaded with the equipment we have brought with us to be taken back to the kitchen and unloaded.

Around 16 hours after we started, the kitchen is locked up and it’s time for the chefs to head home.  This is common during the summer months as Pennie and I like to work on every job we have booked, giving the client a recognizable point of contact for the day. 

Sunday is clean down day. The kitchen, all the equipment & the van will be cleaned down in preparation for the coming week.  And on Monday, the cycle starts again.

Days off?? These are at a premium during our summer season, although we try to make it up during October and November, once the season ends.

As I hope you can see, Pennie and I put a great deal of effort into making our clients’ event days special.  We believe this personal commitment is the extra added value that distinguishes us from other caterers.  We hope you’ll come to believe this too, as you book us for your next big event!

Thanks for reading

Monday, 13 February 2012

5 things to consider when choosing a caterer

For the majority of our clients, contacting us about their big event is the first time they've ever dealt with a caterer.  Not to mention the fact that with the kind of investment a wedding represents, for example, it's always wise to get more then one competitive quote. It's a daunting prospect with all the different types of menus and quotes, so here's a few things to think about.

1) Are they genuinely like for like quotes?

So you've narrowed down your food choices so that in theory your potential suppliers are quoting on a like for like basis.  Before you make a decision based purely on price, arrange a tasting with the chosen short listed caterers, and make sure the food quality and presentation styles are the same.

If the companies you're looking at are of similar size and market area, there will be a reason why one is several hundreds of pounds cheaper and it could well be the standard of the ingredients they use.  Remember, budgets notwithstanding, you get what you pay for.

2) Added value

Once you've worked out the quotes all include the same equipment, staff, and other fixed costs, find out what extras the supplier will be giving you that you're not being 'charged' for.

For instance, when you want a meeting, how flexible are they on times and places, and how many times will they be willing to meet you?

Equally, how willing are they to provide additional advice about elements of the day, particularly if it affects their profit margin.  For example, if you're about to invest time and money in sourcing vintage crockery for your wedding for 150, will they be willing to provide you with a list of what you need, and advise you whether items will be suitable for the use you're planning?

Can they recommend additional suppliers, such as florists, bands, venues etc, and at what stage of the process will they offer that advice - from the beginning or strictly once the contract's signed?

3) Flexibility of menu

Weddings and events are undoubtedly expensive things!  When you're working with the caterer to decide a menu are you getting what YOU want, or are they telling you what you can have?

Obviously there are parameters within which everyone has to work, such as budget, venue restrictions, practicality of producing the finalised menu for 200 guests in a tent in the middle of a field!

But that aside, if you want to incorporate elements into the day, such as the national dish of your fiance's Finnish homeland (yes, we've done that!), how willing are your short list to let you do that?

4) Event Management

Many caterers will say an event manager is included in your quote, but make sure you find out just how broad the service is - is it just where the food service side is related, or will it cover other things?

For instance will they make sure all your other suppliers have their mobile number so if the band gets lost on the way to the venue, none of your wedding party has to interrupt the enjoyment of the speeches to go and deliver directions? 

What happens if someone runs over the cable to the portaloos, and suddenly they stop working?  Will the event manager deal with that discreetly so you never even know about it, or will one of your ushers be crawling through the flower beds in his rented morning suit trying to find the problem...?  

5) References

Tastings are fantastic - we recommend them to all our potential clients as it makes a huge contribution to establishing a warm working relationship.

However, any caterer should be able to produce a menu for two in their production kitchen.  The big question is whether they can do that for 80 in a village hall with no kitchen facilities.

Ask them for contact details for previous clients who have had similar events and menus to yours and do take up the references.  (Bear in mind, of course, they are going to give you the names of clients they know they did a good job for!) 

Monday, 6 February 2012

Recipe of the Month

As promised, here's our first Recipe of the Month - chargrilled breast of chicken stuffed with Boursin and spinach, with a cream and white wine sauce.  

So, to start, and the ingredients you need.  These quantities are for two people:

2 x chicken breasts, preferably skin on 
handful of fresh spinach leaves
150g Boursin - you'll only need about a quarter of the pack

for the sauce:
150ml white wine
150ml cream
150ml chicken stock

OK, so now you've got all those, let's make a start....

We normally buy our chicken breasts from a catering butcher, but for this exercise, we took them from a whole chicken.  If you feel confident enough filleting the chicken, this is a more cost effective way of buying the breasts, and you can then use the remainder of the carcass to make the stock. 

So, feel along the breastbone to find the ridge in the centre and cut along that. Then, with one hand pulling back the breast as you remove it, run the tip of the knife along the carcass to gently remove the breast meat.  Finally cut though the skin to separate it from the leg and wing.  We leave the skin on for the chargrilled effect later, and it also keeps the meat moist as it's cooked.   You should then be left with two plump chicken breasts like so:

Reserving the legs for making something else, you can then chop up the remaining carcass into smaller pieces to make chicken stock for the sauce.  Here's Patrick's instructions for making the stock:

With the carcass that is remaining, I cut this into 8 pieces, and then brown these off in the oven for about 20 minutes on 180°C.

I will then roughly chop a carrot, onion, some garlic and some herbs such as fresh thyme and rosemary.  Brown these off on the stove top in a saucepan with a little bit of olive oil in the bottom to stop them sticking

Keep stirring these vegetables as you don’t want them to catch, otherwise you will have a bitter sauce. Once the 20 minutes is up on the chicken, add the chicken to the vegetables in the saucepan, including any juices and caramelised bits which may have stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan.

Cover these bones and vegetables with cold water, add some salt and pepper, bring to boil, and then let it simmer. Don’t let them boil dry !!!!

What you are looking to do here is reduce the stock right down, this intensifies the flavour, if you don’t reduce it down you get a tasteless stock

After the stock has simmered for 2 hours, sieve into a clean container. You should have around 150ml of lovely, fresh stock.

For those of you who bought the chicken fillets, here's your starting point.

1) remove the inner fillet from the breasts and finely chop to use with the stuffing.

2) pan fry the spinach in a little butter to wilt, and allow to cool.  Once cooled, squeeze to remove any excess liquid and then combine with the Boursin.

3) add in the finely chopped chicken, and mix well

4) Take the chicken breasts and insert a knife through the top edge, to make a pocket for your stuffing.  Make sure you don't push the knife all the way through, but go deep enough to make sure there's room for lots of the lovely garlicky filling.

5) next you need to put the filling mix into a piping bag and push the nozzle into the pocket in the chicken breast.

6) Squeeze the bag until the pocket is full of the filling mix

7) Next is the chargrilling bit.  We use a griddle pan for this, to create the stripes across the skin, but you could use a barbecue grill or even a hot metal skewer to give the same effect.  Remember, this is just for colour and presentation, not to cook through, you'll do that later in the oven.

Once the surface is chargrilled, turning the chicken through 90° to get the criss-cross effect, transfer to a clean tray or plate, lined with baking parchment if you have some, and season with salt and crushed black pepper.  

Once that's done, cover with cling film and put in the fridge till you're ready to finish cooking them.

8) When ready, cook the chicken breasts in the oven at 180°C. for 20-25 minutes depending on their size. 

9) OK, next make the sauce, which should take a few minutes, and again it's over to Patrick for this part... 

Taking 150ml of chicken stock (either the fresh stock you made from the carcass, or make up 150ml using stock cubes), add it to some finely chopped shallot in a frying pan and cook without colour.

Add 150ml of white wine once the onions become transparent, and simmer to reduce again so you have taken the acidity off the wine.

Then add a 150ml of double cream (NOT SINGLE).

Reduce down so it thickens enough to coat the back of a tea spoon. Correct the seasoning. Do not over reduce it otherwise you will end up with a salty sauce

The sauce will be ready to serve now

10) Once the chicken breasts are cooked and the sauce is ready, slice the chicken breasts across, into four pieces, and arrange on your warmed plate.  Pour the sauce over.

11)  Add your potatoes and vegetables of choice, and you're ready to go.

Why not make this for that special someone next Tuesday (Valentine's Day) and really impress them?

So, there it is, the first recipe of the month.  What did you think?  Too long? Enough photos? Too much detail? Not enough?  Please let us have your feedback in the comments section below - but be kind, it's only the first one!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Watch this space......

Tomorrow, we're hoping to launch our 'Recipe of the Month' feature, with either a canape selection, main course dish or yummy dessert from tomorrow's tastings being our first offering.  

Please drop us a comment below and let us know any other recipes you'd like us to feature, especially if it's something you've eaten at one of our events.

Check back tomorrow and see what we decided to showcase this month...!