Exhibition Opening 3: Catering- What Works?

The Story So Far

Recapping the two previous blogs on this topic: serve  6-8 clean and tiny things per person over two hours.


It’s time to think about vegetarians, vegans, coeliacs, dairy intolerances, and whatever else manifests itself in a typical gallery gathering.

I am not a vegetarian but I always think that vegetable hors d’oeuvres are safer to serve than non-vegetable ones. I’ve never met anyone who was not able to eat a vegetable only nibble!

Bear in mind also that your servers will probably not be professionally qualified wait staff.   As such, plating up a range of exotic offerings that they either can’t pronounce or have never heard of will result in unhappy guests who don’t know what they are (or are not) accepting.

So, another  set of “rules” we have made for ourselves: importantly, none of these is incompatible with the 10 simple rules in the second blog on this topic.

1. Keep recipes simple.  No need for haute cuisine here.  What matters is that servers know what they are serving and guests know what they are eating.

2. Based on experience, we would recommend that at least half of all the canapés are vegetarian. We usually go higher.

3.The balance of non-vegetarian nibbles should lean towards fish rather than meat.

4. At least one quarter of the total number of recipes used should be gluten free.**

5. At least one quarter of the total number of recipes should be dairy free.

6. Provide at least two vegan options, unless you think there will be a high proportion of vegans in the attending group, in which case definitely up the proportion!,

7.  For all recipes, keep added salt to a minimum.  Guests with high blood pressure will appreciate it and it will keep the drinks bill down.

**For accuracy I should say here that I am just talking about omission of wheat, barley and rye.  True gluten free cooking requires a strict regime not really feasible in the average home cook’s kitchen.  If you made something with chocolate in it and  the chocolate had malt in it from a barley source, you could not technically claim it was gluten free. However, many attendees will be looking for reduced gluten rather than no gluten.

How Much to Make

Consider a worked example: say we are expecting 150 at our opening which will run from 6-8pm on  a Friday night.

150 guests @ average 7 bites/person = 1050/12 = 87.5, say, 88 dozen bites needed.

88 is a number that (to me at least) conjures 8×11.  Propose we have 8 dozen each of 11 different types of “bites” including some packets of pretzels (you knew I’d mention them again!) as a  vegan/dairy free option.

So ten recipes are needed. In total they will need to meet Rules 1-7 above, and, of course, the 10 simple rules set out in Blog 2.

Here is a hypothetical table, but it’s just like those we use:

V Vegan GF Dairy free
GOAL (from “rules” above) over 11 items 5-6 2-3 2-3 2-3
pretzels Y Y Y
Mini Greek salads Y * Y *
strawberries Y Y Y Y
Sundried tomato pinwheels Y N N N
Herbed pinwheels Y N N N
Salmon balls*** N N Y N
Meatballs N N Y Y
Curry relish on toasts Y Y N Y
Cheese biscuits Y N N N
Mini muffins w. olives and capsicum Y N Y N
Cucumber, capsicum and chilli jam on toothpicks Y Y Y Y
*Mini Greek Salads are very simple.  Feta cheese cubes; (deseeded) cucumber cubes; pitted kalamata olive slivers; and red capsicum cubes. Take a toothpick and put any three of these at random onto it.  This results in tasty nibbles that vary so that an olive hater, or a cheese avoider, can still select one to eat. Some will therefore be dairy free and vegan. 
*** Later edit Jan 2019  I have just discovered the veto (sorry, Freudian finger slip; I mean keto)  diet. It’s not for me but I hear it’s been good for some. The salmon balls are just the thing it seems to me.  They have only cream cheese, cheddar cheese, salmon, Tabasco, tomato sauce, gherkins and spring onions in them. So they are high in protein and fat, no carbohydrates and little sugar. If the tomato sauce and its sugariness worries you , it’s mainly there for colour so there are a couple of options.  1. I use a mix of pink salmon (cheaper) and red salmon (for colour). Go extravagant and use only red salmon, omitting the tomato sauce, and the colour will be beautiful.  2. Omit the tomato sauce and substitute some extra water and some finely minced sun dried  tomatoes (these are a great match with salmon).



WAFTA Catering 5 (170) Abigail Harman

L-R: curry relish on toast; herbed, and sun dried tomato, pinwheels; strawberries; and cheese biscuits at WAFTA Altered States exhibition opening 15 September 2017. Image by Abigail Harman Photography, Perth.

Delivering our hospitality

OK, we have worked out how many nibbles, and the specific recipes, that we are preparing and delivering to the opening venue. It sounds enormous to be talking of eight dozen each of eleven recipes! It is. Believe me, though, you won’t have many left overs!

How to deliver these to guests?  It’s an option to put it all attractively on a nicely draped table as a kind of buffet.  There are three good reasons NOT to do this although I am not saying that it would never be a good idea:

  1. Guests who go to the table for a nibble are leaving the group/person they were talking to and this is disruptive and not to be encouraged.  It’s not about the food; it’s about the art appreciation and the talk!
  2. In the kind of small openings I am writing about, the involvement of servers who are often also artists is a bonus contribution to the bonhomie  and the talk about the works on exhibition; they should not be cut out!
  3. While not a big consideration, some simple hors d’oeuvres dry out rapidly and loading them onto a table to sit for a couple of hours is to condemn them to death.

So, clearly, I favour using volunteer servers at openings.  If they are the artists, all the better.  What a great opportunity for shy artists to meet their viewers!  What a good opportunity for guests to ask questions!

WAFTA Catering 4 (169) Abigail Harman

Top to bottom: Salmon balls; herb, and sun-dried tomato pinwheels; strawberries; and meatballs.  Image by Abigail Harman Photography, Perth

Pacing the service of platters

Servers hate going around with platters of food no one wants.  They are volunteers, usually, so we want them to be welcomed rather than waved away…..

The secret is to ensure they go out with their platters at the right time.  

The right time is determined by the kitchen co-ordinator.  This is the person on the catering team who oversees plating up of platters, briefs the servers on their ingredients  (GF, V, dairy free, etc), and controls the rate at which platters go out to guests.

The kitchen co-ordinator (KC) plays a vital role in the success of the event. They send out food “just in time” so that guests have enough, but not too much, food offered to them over time. They ensure that servers can answer questions about the content of different items, especially about dairy, meat and wheat content. They ensure that the available food is served fairly evenly over the entire time period scheduled for the opening so that it is still being served to latecomers who walk in close to the end.

Or to put it in more negative terms: the KC avoids pushing food to guests at too high a rate; avoids running out of food; and (hopefully) ensures no one gets sick as a result of eating something to which they are allergic.

WAFTA Catering 1(156) Abigail

L to R: Tuna and egg spread on toast; ricotta mini-muffins; and cheese biscuits.  Image by Abigail Harman Photography, Perth

Scheduling Platters

This is only a guide for novice Kitchen Co-ordinators.  You will rapidly find that it is best tempered with judgement  based on observation of the progress of the event. Until you get there, however, and actually feel the appetite and flow of the gallery, you will want to have the backing of a formula!

To go back to our worked example, we have 8 dozen each of 11 different items,.  We want to serve them over two hours.  Consider two hours as 8 x 15 minutes.

Every 15 minutes we should be sending out 11 dozen nibbles. Think 4 platters with 33 items each on them or two platters with 66 items on each. The latter is preferred. Remember these are bite-sized nibbles! Two servers per session is easier to achieve than four!  (Of course, if in the first couple of fifteen minute periods there is only one man and dog present, you will not send out two platters!)

At this rate, with mixed platters of 66 items each going out to the exhibition crowd at the rate of two every fifteen minutes for two hours, you will serve 2x66x4x2=1056 or 88 dozen items!!! [See How Much to Make – it’s always good when the arithmetic works!]

It’s Time Gentlemen, Please!

One good thing about pacing the delivery of platters well, is that you can influence the recognition by guests of the time to go home. By ensuring more or less even distribution of platters of food throughout the evening you will have conditioned guests to that stimulus. They will recognise, consciously or unconsciously, that the platters have ceased and will be influenced to take their departure. Happily, without coercion!

So, even if you  have, as I have recommended, over-catered, let your Kitchen Co-ordinator pace distribution of platters so as to send the appropriate “lights out” signal.  You will all go to bed happy and fulfilled !!!!

Since this is the final of three parts on catering for an exhibition opening, I would like to thank again my colleagues: my friend Julie Devereux and my sister Prudence Ford.


WAFTA Catering 3 (165) Abigail Harman

L to R: Mini Greek salads; herb, and sun-dried tomato pinwheels; salmon balls; and curry relish on toasts. Image: Abigail Harman Photography, Perth













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2 Responses to Exhibition Opening 3: Catering- What Works?

  1. louise708 says:

    Great series Margaret! Really useful advice for anyone catering for an exhibition.

  2. lizarnold28 says:

    Fantastic series Margaret! Well thought out and very timely for me 🙂

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