1. “WE RELY ON THE ‘FULLPLATE’ THEORY”
It’s your firstborn’s wedding, and you want to lay it on in style. You’ve picked the venue and called the whole town. Now, it’s time to live out your food fantasies. You envision this milelong table spilling over with every thing under the sun, from Panang curry to baby idlis to baked corn to the current favourite—the chocolate fountain. (How else will every one know how well your importexport business is doing?) Aha! This is exactly what your caterer is relying on. “Catering is all about showing off, not about food,” says Papa Singh, a Delhi caterer.
“At least, in north India, that is an undisputable fact.” He describes how his clients want to put prawns on their menu only because it spells out e-x-p-e-n-s-iv-e, not because it may also taste good. And instead of focusing on quality, people want to have hundreds of different dishes laid out. This attitude is yummy for the caterer, because he or she knows that even if you have set out 17 different food-items, people have only one tummy. A person can only eat 250-300 grams of food per meal. As Papa Singh says, “The guy who eats the Chinese stuff is probably not going to eat daal.”
So what do caterers do? Here’s the inside scoop. Let’s say you’ve ordered 20 dishes—15 vegetarian and five non-veg—for 500 people. The caterer is doing the math. He knows that every one won’t eat every thing. So if the enthusiastic host has ordered for 500 people, the caterer isn’t going to make each dish for 500. He will make Indian food for about 200, Thai food for 100, Continental for 100, and so on. Also, if the host has a surname like Gupta or Agarwal, you can be pretty sure that a lot of his guests will be vegetarian so you cut down on the non-veg dishes. What if a dish runs out? “Quite simple. We just take it off the table when it starts looking empty,” says Papa Singh. Catch any one noticing.
2. “THERE’S A TRICK TO LAYING OUT THE FOOD”
Experienced caterers have found that there is a curious pattern in people’s consumption. Generally, they eat the most from the dishes closest to the place where the plates are kept. As they move away, plates get filled up and they lose interest, unless they are particularly savvy about what they want. So, caterers who have stinged on the expensive mutton vindaloo will make sure it is placed at the very end and then count on food fatigue. If it is Thai food, the order of placement would go something like this: you would put the rice first, then the vegetable curry, then some more vegetables, and finally the chicken and prawns. If the live pasta counter is all the way at the end of the line, you can calmly get away with being frugal on the fussilli and know that it won’t run short.
Caterers save a lot of money on this carefully planned food chain. Some dishes are definitely more expensive than others. For instance, South Indian food is the cheapest because it generally consists of two ingredients—rice and daal. Chinese comes pretty close because you can pad almost every thing with corn-flour and add lots of ajinomoto to make sure it tastes good. Expect the prawn curry to be at the end of the table.
3. “STARTERS AND LESS IS THE WAY TO GO”
A caterer confides that the best place to get away with lesser servings is on starters. The way to do it is to make sure that the tray of, say, liver pate and crackers goes out at far greater intervals than the plate of sesame toast and mushrooms.
The other key thing, says a caterer insisting on confidentiality for obvious reasons, is to make sure that the host gets served the good stuff regularly so he or she thinks that everything is in order. “We actually train our waiters to keep the host or hostess happy,” says the caterer.
4. “WE COOK UNDER GROSS CONDITIONS”
If it’s a big outdoor catering event, you can safely expect to consume vast quantities of e-coli along with your food. You can only imagine what the back-end operations would be like, whether it is the cooking or the washing. In a city like Mumbai, very few kitchens can accommodate mass-scale cooking. So the kitchen venue tends to be a maidan or football field, with no refrigeration, or proper covering. The yummy crunchy thingy in your vegetable kolhapuri may well be a grasshopper or beetle (but at least you are on a protein diet).
Says food-man Moshe Shek, “Be thankful that the wedding season is in December. At least in this weather, there are less chances of your food rotting in the heat.” As for clean dishes? Well, there is no running water, so don’t expect the earth. The glasses are usually the worst offenders. Don’t be offended if your guests carry their own water. Because even if you’re serving bottled water, you have no control over the lipstick marks on the glasses.
5. “WHO SAID WE WERE GOOD AT MATH?”
It’s the oldest trick in the book. You ordered food for 100, but the caterer ends up billing you for 120, and you have no way of verifying the fact because you don’t know how many people have eaten. Nowadays, more and more party hosts tend to position their own person at the point where the plates are dispensed to count the number of heads. In fact, caterers complain that some cheap customers tend to do the reverse, which is under-count the number of plates that went out.