My friend Sara was kind enough to refer me to her parents, who hired me to cater a luncheon they hosted today for a group from their church. I was, of course, disappointed in my debut, but, lucky for me, the hosts were very kind and easy-going.
I've thrown enough parties that I thought this affair, a lunch for just 14 people, would be a no-brainer, but I was wrong. Under pressure, I made a lot more mistakes than I usually do (which, in total, means a LOT of mistakes), but this time the stakes were higher. Yes, I was getting paid, which is both fantastic and completely new, but any time something goes wrong at a party I'm hosting at my house we can just drink enough to compensate, and, I presume, my friends will still like me either way (if this is not true, dear friends, please speak up in the comments section and I will find another hobby). Cooking for someone else's party, I found, was a whole 'nother animal.
I didn't make anything that difficult; even my two poached salmon were surprisingly easy -- you just make a foil pouch for each fish, fill it with chicken stock and some lemon juice, and bake it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. But, for some reason -- I think a combination of nerves, carelessness, bad planning, and inexperience -- things didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. Some lessons:
1) It's difficult to cook and serve at the same time: I am both cheap and controlling, but it would've been well worth it to pay for a helper or two.
2) There are shortcuts I normally don't take when cooking at home that I absolutely should have taken this time; e.g., when catering a party, don't make your own chicken stock or your own bread. No one can tell the difference, or, at least, no one cares.
3) Strictly follow recipes you know to be reliable, or don't stray too far off the beaten path. I tried to get fancy with potatoes -- potatoes! my favorite and my staple -- only to find I had tried too hard. I made scalloped potatoes with feta and olives, something I've mentioned before in this blog, but, fearing that this quantity would not bake evenly, I boiled them for too long before baking them, thinking it would help the baking along. The result was waterlogged potatoes soaked in brine. Too bad, because other times I've served them they've been a huge hit.
4) There are few things worse than lukewarm soup -- I put a pot of butternut squash and roasted garlic bisque on the burner at a point that I amateurishly deemed too early, and so turned off the burner prematurely. The problem came when I started ladling the room temperature soup into bowls, complete with a garnish of homemade garlic bread croutons and fresh sage. The result of this oversight was a mad rush, and a rejuvenated appreciation for the microwave.
5) If you are serving some kind of spinach dish as the vegetable, and you have prepared it ahead of time at home, do not reheat it at the party. Just serve it at room temperature. Trust me! No one wants to eat airplane food on land.
6) With apologies to Laurie Colwin, who said the same thing in More Home Cooking, always buy more lemons than you think you need (this involved an extra trip to the store at 7:30 this morning).
7) At the same time, don't be discouraged if not everyone squeezes lemon juice onto their salmon -- even after you "plated" lemon slices as a pretty and functional garnish.
8) Though it may depend on the crowd, make a bit less than you think you need (see #6 -- there are exceptions made for particular ingredients). This goes against everything I ever learned about cooking for a party, but I fear it's true: I eat more than most people do, and my views of a serving size are skewed.
9) A good dessert can always help you redeem yourself after a mediocre meal. Try this upside-down chiffon cake, and use whatever fruit is seasonable. I used apples this time.
10) Realize that you, as the caterer, care much more about food perfection than any of the guests -- and possibly even the hosts -- do, and try not to beat yourself up over little mishaps, especially on your first try.