Culinary career choices: Catering – working for a catering firm.
Forcing the entire range of food and beverage career options into a list is, in reality, a futile endeavor. The food industry is so vast for one obvious reason: Everybody eats. I’ve worked with something like 15,000 F&B professionals and businesses over the last quarter century – I’d dare say I’ve worked in or for just about every branch of the industry – but I wish I knew more.
Catering recruiting has always posed particular challenges for me, both in recruiting really suitable candidates with the unique skill sets required to run an organized off site production and delivery process form a commissary, and in dealing with obviously highly talented catering professionals who want expand their career beyond the field.
The variety of catering operations, even exceeds that of restaurant or other F&B genres: Corporate group like Dan McCall Catering which deals with such events as Oracle World or the US Open, movie caterers like Tomcat, specialty caterers for intimate parties, and many more. Catering is, furthermore, the area in which I see the most entrepreneurial activity. The alumni administrator of one of the local colleges once told me that most of their students were 28 years old and opened their own catering businesses straight out of the program. A substantial number of employed chefs and cooks, furthermore, do catering on the side and bridge periods of unemployment catering from their own or rented kitchens.
While I can cover the basics of catering jobs from my perch above the playing field, I cannot really speak to the matter of
owning a catering firm, so this category will be broken up into two piece, the second with on the ground information provided by Susan Parish-Schwab, Chef/Owner of Splendid Fare Catering and Events in Ohio.
Catering requires some very specific manager abilities including Analytical thinking, precise planning, strategizing and a high degree of organization. The process of preparation and service is complicated by delivery, set up in outside venues, and on call staff. Complete knowledge of food safety issues, understanding of holding options, heating equipment, the chronology of flavors and heat factors partner with creativity, an eye for presentation and the ability to work with the spread as well as the plate are among the qualities of a successful catering chef. Those in larger companies are nearly all HAACP certified. The chef must remain calm under fire, have communication skills for dealing with clients as well as sometimes difficult on call staff.
Catering chefs who are full time, permanent employees are frequently recruited from convention centers or banquet kitchens of large hotels, and occasionally large restaurants.
Some companies use outside contractors for their outside staff of on call servers, cooks, carvers, etc. While these people may be called or call themselves chefs, they rarely are. Their compensation, workman’s comp and taxes are dealt with by the contractor. Since many of these companies work in museums, sensitive political arenas and private facilities, their staff vetting usually includes background and drug checks.
As in any branch of the F&B industry, compensation depends on the size and professional magnitude of the company, running from below median to a few hundred thousand dollars. Most firms base a fair amount of the compensation on the income from events, whose obligatory 20% gratuities are generally shared with the kitchen.
The advantages of catering include well organized deadlines and ordering schedules, clear financial parameters, and an ever changing diversity of venues. Schedules are determined by the current clientele and planned events, so management generally knows well in advance when they are on or off. While events themselves are high pressure, the ongoing process offers an organized working and management environment.
Some of the firms we have worked with also have stock clients such as schools or office suites, for the organization and oversight of which the chef is responsible.
Negatives include occasional runs of long hours and long days, if the company has extremely large events planned back to back. Sometimes frantic clients and owners or sales people who fail to adhere to cut off dates for changes, forcing last minute orders and substitutions are among the complaints of dissatisfied catering chefs. Most catering chefs, however, appear to enjoy their work.
Working for the visionary independent caterer without a great deal of previous industry experience, whose vision may contradict the reality of available space and time, brings further challenges for some, as does the need to supervise unknown staff whose behavior may impact future business. I once saw a huge chef pick up a stoned contracted waiter by the chin, slam him onto a table and tell him is he showed his face again, there were knives waiting. “Good God, Ray, I said. You are liable for a law suit.” “Nah, said Ray, I am liable if I don’t. Every socialite, politician, important figure in San Francisco is in that dining room. If this guy causes trouble, I get the knives.”
The career track from catering is less open than the one leading to it, as a catering chef loses contact with the day to day ala minute production rhythm and the changing environment of the restaurant or hotel kitchen. Years ago we put a catering chef with an exquisite portfolio