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As one San Diego catering director puts it, “Many times we have a client who wants to shoot for the moon, but can only afford an asteroid.” Here, successful catering pros offer their insights on keeping costs from soaring into the stratosphere while still delivering an out-of-this-world eating experience.


When the catering budget is tight, a tray-passed hors d'oeuvre reception is right, says Susan Jaffe, associate vice president of catering for Lincolnwood, Ill.-based Food for Thought.

Not only does a tray-passed menu mean more effective portion control, but service requires far fewer staff than a traditional plated meal. On top of that, “Equipment costs are reduced because we do not have to rent tables, seating or linen,” Jaffe says. “Additionally, by not plating individual servings or presenting a buffet, we reduce the number of costly serving pieces we need to rent.”

Substituting high-price food items with “less-expensive ingredients in more-interesting treatments” can also be a budget-saver, she adds. “Instead of serving tenderloin, serve herb-marinated rib-eye. Instead of rack of lamb, serve braised lamb shank. Instead of sliced duck breast, serve duck confit.”

And just because hors d'oeuvre make up the menu, guests needn't leave longing for more food. Jaffe notes that a well-chosen appetizer selection fills guests up fine. As an example, she offers the fund-raiser reception Food for Thought catered with demitasse cups filled with crudites and red pepper dipping sauce, mini mugs of tomato-basil bisque, and mini bleu cheese and bacon burgers, among other offerings. “Guests will leave the event with the sense that they have eaten a full meal, while our clients will not have had to pay for all the equipment that would be necessary to execute a similar menu for a buffet or seated meal,” she explains.


”Believe it or not, in the world of catering in Las Vegas, it is more cost-effective for the client to have a sit-down dinner than a buffet,” says Lisa Lynn Backus, CMP — and as senior catering manager for Caesars Palace, she should know.

Backus offers such options as a budget-minded “duet dinner,” available with a pairing of grilled beef filet and chicken breast, or beef filet and halibut, both served with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. With tasteful and tasty flourishes including port-shallot sauce and forest mushroom ragout, “These elegant dinners are priced to accommodate our local community's nonprofit business budget, which allows them to focus on raising donations,” Backus notes.

Acknowledging that in buffet-crazy Vegas, sometimes a station setup is the only option, the catering manager offers a few recommendations for keeping costs in check. For starters, “Food stations spread throughout the room will cause food to be ‘hunted,’ and last longer,” she notes, while “food stations lumped all together cause a critical mass ‘feeding frenzy.’” Also, “Jumbo shrimp cocktail displays should be avoided by those on a tight budget,” she cautions. “Jumbo shrimp are among the first items to be chosen by guests, and they tend to take three or four shrimp. That can really blow a budget.” Another money-saver? Order cheese displays for 50 percent of the guest total. Such displays “often are not fully consumed and should not be ordered to serve the actual guest count.”


For Carma Williams of Orlando, Fla.-based John Michael Weddings and Special Events, plated dinners, “although good for portion control, require additional rentals, service staff and time to prepare,” she says, and are therefore not a “viable option for the cost-conscious client.”

Buffet and heavy hors d'oeuvre menus, meanwhile, are excellent choices, she says, especially when food items are selected with maximum flair and minimum price in mind.

A John Michael sample buffet menu may include favorites such as baby greens with raspberry vinaigrette and walnuts, a dish that is “viewed as a gourmet salad but the same cost as a traditional, and passé, garden salad,” Williams says. She also cites the appeal of a wild mushroom cream penne — “Pasta is a cost-effective side item, and a wild mushroom cream sauce, usually prepared with a touch of basil, is a guaranteed hit,” she notes. Another stalwart: a chef's choice vegetable medley. “Giving a caterer the option to prepare your menu with ‘chef's choice’ means the chef can use product they have on hand, or are already ordering for another event,” she explains.

On the hors d'oeuvre side, Williams suggests among other treats John Michael's assorted phyllo cups. “A creative chef and caterer can make this an excellent option for bite-size but impressive items,” she notes. Another hit: mini gourmet sandwich bites — “This is a filling and creative selection that allows for good portion control, which yields a good cost savings.”


Guided by a commitment to creativity and food integrity, and a “never leave dollars on the table” rule, Tracey Amernick of San Diego's Bahia Resort Hotel, Bahia Sternwheelers and Evans Garage makes food presentation a top priority.

“Rather than using martini glasses for the tired old mashed potato station, we've had great success using pastry shells lined with baby spinach and filled with wonderful toppings ranging from duck in sun-dried cherry merlot sauce to wild mushrooms in port and truffle sauce,” she says. Not only does the display eliminate the need for martini glass rentals, but it creates the “retro-comfort-food feel of a mini pot pie.”

A budget-friendly dessert choice — the family-style dessert — served at table rather than at a buffet station gives the chef an opportunity to control portions — “one platter or cake per table,” Amernick notes. She adds, “Guests tend to limit themselves to one dessert per person if they have to share.” At the same time, she says, family-style dessert “gives the guests an opportunity to relax after dinner, and eliminates those nasty dessert buffet lines.”


Bahia Resort Hotel, 858/539-7722; Caesars Palace, 702/731-7076; Food for Thought, 847/745-5140; John Michael Weddings and Special Events, 407/894-6671

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