The pros share the planning and organisation that go into catering functions for thousands of guests
By Chandrea Serebro
If you think that having ten people over for a Friday night is a challenge – getting the soup hot and the meat out in time before it’s burned, and let’s not forget taking the ice cream out of the freezer in advance so it’s thawed enough to serve – imagine catering for a thousand or even more! Now imagine that the said thousand are Jewish and it takes it to whole other level. I think it would be safe to say that catering is no easy task, especially when it comes to Jews and their food.
“Over the past 45 years, I have done many spectacular simchas and functions, and the conclusion I have sure come to is that catering is not an easy business,” says Stan Smookler, a stalwart in the South African kosher catering industry. “Getting the food served is the smallest part of what is actually a huge operation to get the goods and plan the whole event,” says Stan. And it’s not the size of the event that is the determining factor because every event, big or small, requires careful preparation and planning by a dedicated team to make sure everything is in place on the night, says Gary Friedman of Gary Friedman Catering. “I was in charge of an event for two celebrated South African public figures on the steps of City Hall. Two people, but with major responsibility and pressure attached. Then I have catered for 6 000 people at the South African Grand Prix across 16 different venues at Kyalami. Any event has its challenges, but with experience and the desire to do it well and to do it properly, without cutting any corners, the people involved in getting the function off the ground can cope.”
The largest Banquet that Stan ever did was Millionex 1 at the Alberton Civic Centre for 2 750 guests. It was a seated affair, which was put on in aid of charity, and Stan remembers it as “one of the best large dinners I have ever catered”. And Stan has been involved in over 900 events or even more over his career, so the podium is not earned too easily, having been party to many memorable and even some wildly innovative events. “It took a lot of planning to get it ready, and somehow we managed to get the catering hire company to order in enough crockery for the guests to use,” which was no small feat because in those days (approximately 35 years ago) the fashion was an amber and charcoal colour plate, and everything had to match. And for 2 750 guests, it was a lot of plates that required colour coordination. “Arranging staff was the next nightmare as we needed 150 waiters and 40 kitchen staff, which we needed to source appropriately. We got quite a few staff from the Hotel School, which was a welcome solution, but then to get the staff to the venue was the next challenge. We hired a few taxis who brought out the Kombis and they did the transporting of the staff,” and luckily, back then the transport was more reliable than it is today, and everybody arrived on time and in one piece. Stan and his crew had to bring in mobile ovens, cookers, fridges – everything – but, he says, it all went off without a hitch. “It turned out to be an amazing dinner,” says Stan.
But sometimes, behind the scenes, chaos can reign, and putting out the proverbial fires takes level heads, good management, and cooperation on the part of all those involved. Stan can recall many such ‘fires’, and his sense of humour and sociability has also gotten him through many a hiccup over the years. Stan recalls another memorable function he did over the years, held at Bruma Lake in what was then a “new style” oval marquee. “This was a disaster of a function. Indeed, the entire weekend turned out to be a disaster.” The event planners involved had planned it for months in advance, and the two main conditions they decided on was to have a generator on standby (this was unheard of 30 years ago, load shedding merely a twinkle in the eye of the next generation of Eskom) and for a proper trench to be dug around the Marquee with a small bulldozer in case of rain. For three months before the function there was not a drop of rain, and it was decided that in the end, a trench was an extreme measure. “Needless to say, the heavens opened up on the afternoon, and the whole of Bruma had no electricity.” The generator kicked in which was a consolation, but the rain never stopped and by the time the guests arrived that evening there was just mud everywhere, and Stan and his crew had to put trestle tables flat on the floor to enable the guests to walk in. “The next day we had a massive chasuna (wedding) in a corporate hanger. When we arrived, the hanger itself was under water and we had to use industrial vacuum cleaners to get the water out.” Luckily, the rain stopped, and the chasuna was successful, but Stan and his crew had spent the weekend averting disaster at every turn.
Thankfully, says Gary, there is never a completely disastrous event – where everything fails and the event falls flat on its face. Rather, he says, every event has its challenges and its failings, but with trained responses and the right team, somehow everything works out in the end. “It is actually a miracle that any event is pulled off in the end,” says Gary, with all the things that have to be considered in place and on time. The most fundamental requirement to pulling off a great function of any size, he says, is a powerful team of staff behind you. “If I have learned one thing over my career, it is that your staff is your most important resource.” The right staff, with the correct training and good attitudes, with good management behind them, can pull off anything, even an event for some thousand people in aid of an important charity with statesmen in attendance.
But one thing that cannot be certain is the weather, and, says Stan, people seem to forget very quickly how the weather can change. “When we go through a dry period, clients start taking chances with simchas in gardens without marquees or backup plans in place, and, when the rain comes, the function turns out to be a disaster.” And keeping up with the trends isn’t always a good idea either, as new ideas can often turn belly up. “Covering swimming pools with a dance floor was the in thing 30 years ago,” recalls Stan, but after a dance floor sunk into the pool, and the guests nearly getting electrocuted, that trend stopped very quickly. These days I see so many nomadic tents being used as they look spectacular, but they do not stop water coming in during a good Highveld storm.” Stan recalls a forward thinking event over 40 years ago where a huge tent was run across the lawn incorporating a spiral staircase. The night before, a massive storm arose and split the tent in half. “They spent the night stitching it up, and, thankfully, it still went off without a hitch.”
The planning and preparation for an event can take place 3 to 5 months in advance of the event and continues right up until the event itself – with menu planning, menu tasting, site meetings, collaboration meetings between service providers, operational planning, staffing, making sure that transport, refrigeration, storage, and cooking requirements are all arranged. There are hundreds of variables to consider, says Gary, from production, to service, clean up, complying with all the by-laws associated, and on and on. And the sheer numbers are boggling. Gary gives an example of an event for 1 000 people with a salmon starter and a scotch fillet main. This takes 13 000 pieces of cutlery and crockery; two function managers, five supervisors, 100 waiters and 10 barmen; 100kg of salmon; 280kg of scotch fillet; 5kg of the herb garnish; 150kg of vegetables for the side. Now imagine what it takes to transport, prepare, store and refrigerate, cook, and serve all of this on the night of the event. We are talking industrial ovens, walk-in fridge and freezers, huge production kitchens, massive storage facilities, 8 ton-refrigerated vehicles for the location, and meticulous planning. Now imagine doing up to five functions in one day! So, I think that it’s best that we leave it up to the professionals and concentrate on just getting through our Friday night Shabbos dinner and keeping the soup hot and the ice cream cold.