Exhibition Opening 2: Catering- How Much and What Not To Serve?

Thali meal Bigstock photo

A delicious Indian Thali dish- great for a restaurant; potential disaster at an exhibition opening.

Picture this:  It’s opening night and the best art piece in the show is a long, suspended, drift of silk, painstakingly resisted with stitch, and dyed in several dye baths. As it wafts on the currents of enthusiastically breathed oohs and aahs, it brushes over an exquisitely presented platter of hommus being passed around among the guests.  Oooh!  Aaah! indeed.

Better still, look at that party pie which has just been so extravagantly anointed with tomato sauce.  Oh, dear, it’s bled on that embroidered box…..

WAFTA AS blog stock-photo-australian-meat-pie-and-tomato-sauce-80724895

Think of the pain of realising that the excited textile loving guest (it could be you), unable to resist lightly touching a small embroidered bowl, has just finished one of those delicious, albeit greasy, crispy fried chicken wings.   And watch the fellow who leans down to look closely at the detail of a  small work just as he bites into that succulent slider whose contents promptly disgorge onto the plinth below him!

Hard to believe?  Then I reckon you’ve never been to a catered event and had it almost, if not actually, happen to you or your work! None of the people featured in the above vignettes actually intends to damage the art, of course.  Far from it.  They are at the opening because they are art lovers. But if they are given greasy or easily shattered or overly large items then accidents are entirely predictable.  Moreover, even the lucky guests who don’t cause any damage are probably distracted from their enjoyment of it all by the need to be hyper-vigilant when biting into something!

Horace food fight DSC_8512-web

Food fight: It won’t be as bad as this but it could be bad!

Fear not, however.  If the task of catering for the next exhibition opening has fallen to you and a couple of friends there is a way to do it without tears or smears.  I know because I am part of a now quite seasoned small team of three.  One is a close friend and the other is my sister. We had all done a lot of “white glove” type duties at exhibitions and shows so we got off to a good start in terms of a shared understanding of what we were up against!

Horace rules logo images

We have developed a simple set of rules about  what not to serve.  It’s so simple, in fact, that I hope it’s not insulting to you the reader:

  1. All hors d’oeuvres must be able to be put into a mouth whole; no burgers or shashliks!
  2. No dips, no sauces, no soups, no cream, no loose garnishes that can drip or fall off
  3. No wet or oily surfaces that will stay on fingers- few will go to the other end of the gallery to fetch a napkin. Even if you dispense napkins with the hors d’ouevres the “glass in the other hand syndrome” makes them difficult to use consistently..
  4. Encourage guests to place any devices such as toothpicks or small spoons back on the server’s tray immediately by providing a suitable and obvious receptacle for them
  5. Generally avoid having hot canapés as these require more planning, vigilance and management from the kitchen throughout the opening period
  6. If you must serve some  heated items, ensure they are served warm rather than hot to avoid risks of burning. This is especially a risk  with liquid (fatty or sugary) centres,
  7. Likewise, avoid nibbles that need to be served frozen or chilled as these are harder to manage correctly so they remain solid and palatable.  See Rule 2.
  8. Avoid seafoods both because of their allergy potential and because they can be a food safety risk if improperly handled.
  9. No peanuts or peanut products eg satays.  You have no way of knowing who has allergies and no guarantee that your servers will remember to tell people what is in each canapé.
  10. Have food available as soon as alcohol is poured.  If you want to delay food service until after the official proceedings finish, keep the corks in too.


Horace loaves and fishes 2

There are a lot of online and printed catering resources that will tell you how much per person to serve.  The most common guidance for a two hour cocktail type event, such as most exhibition openings,  is to allow 6-8 pieces per person.  We have found this about right.  However, we sometimes finesse it a bit.

Some factors to consider when doing your particular quantities planning are:

1. the ratio of men to women expected to attend. The smaller the proportion of men, the closer the requirement will be to 6 rather than 8.

2. we emphasise bites rather than chunkier pieces, and this reduces the total weight of food unless you  provide more per person to make up for it.  Generally, I don’t let it bother me. See 4.

3. a function held just after normal working hours finish (say, from 6pm) will result in hungrier guests than one held just after lunch. See 5.

4.the purpose of providing refreshments is to foster a relaxing and interested vibe among attendees.  It is NOT to give them dinner!

5.that said, there are advantages in over-catering a bit,  not least because it removes the anxiety of possibly not having prepared enough!  Excess production often happens naturally anyway as you prepare particular recipes and the inputs go a bit further than you originally estimated. If the opening event is really swinging and sales are going nicely it’s good to have the option of continuing the hospitality.**

**(That is, of course, provided there are no other restrictions on extending the time, such as security officers going on overtime rates after a certain hour!)

So that’s our advice on what NOT to serve and how to estimate overall quantities.  The next and final blog will pass on some tips about catering in an inclusive way for a wide variety of guests.  It will also comment on  pacing the delivery of platters and on the role of the kitchen co-ordinator in bringing the event to a conclusion!


WAFTA Catering 5 (170) Abigail Harman




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2 Responses to Exhibition Opening 2: Catering- How Much and What Not To Serve?

  1. Julie Devereux says:

    Great Margaret. As always entertaining to read. 👍🍸cheers

  2. lizarnold28 says:

    I can safely say that the nibbles shown in the last photograph are delicious and totally appropriate for an opening.

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