I spent a lot of time cooking in OPK (other people's kitchens) before I started my own company and while I'd like to say I learned loads of great dishes to serve to others, the truth is that I cook very few of the recipes I learned on my way up the culinary ladder. That doesn't mean the lessons I learned in those peeling potato years weren't valuable, far from it. The biggest gift was learning all the things not to do.
Feed the feeders
Back in the 80's when I started catering, the front of the house (waiters, maître d, bartenders) and the back of the house (chefs and kitchen slaves) hated each other. I'm not saying that's entirely gone these days, but back then it was like the Hatfield's and McCoy's. I watched many a mean chef refuse to give snacks to the waiters and the waiters in turn, would take the hors d'oeuvre trays filled with canapés and devour handfuls of them before the guests ever saw a bite. For crying out loud! Feed your waiters!
Death By chafing dish
The one invention I can't believe still exists is the chafing dish. I'm quite certain they were invented by the anti-Christ to torment us into staying at home and not throwing parties -- and I'm Jewish. Some chefs seem to feel that as soon as the food is left in the chafers, it's no longer their responsibility, as if chafing dishes were invented to have something on which to blame overcooked string beans. Personally, I think anyone who orders string beans for their buffet deserves "mush amandine." Plopping delicate food in a chafing dish is kind of like having your hair done, then sitting in a steam room. It leaves you and the food flat, damp and totally unsexy.
Since the whole point of chafing dishes is to keep food hot, I say who needs hot when you can have marinated!
A gorgeous wild rice and sundried cranberry salad kicks butt over a steaming starch any day of the week. A marvelous mélange of root vegetable slaw is far more perky and delicious then squishy squash. If you have to put it in a chafing dish, choose dishes that can stand up to the chafe, like mac and cheese, roasted potatoes, carrots, corn. If its green, it probably means" hell no we should not go to the chafer."
Do a little herb, man
The first caterers I worked for were what you'd call Industrial caterers. Everything was large-scale and meant to get out, still be hot and still be edible. No one cared if the scent of fresh thyme wafted up from the vegetables. The kitchen would be filled with buckets of dry herbs and the only; I mean the only fresh herb around would be parsley for garnish or possibly dill for the fish.
Okay, yes there is a place for dry oregano, thyme, marjoram and dill. Dry spices are great in fry batter, great in dry rubs for meat, great for seasoning shrimp before you grill them and great for being cheap. But fresh herbs, now that's a whole other bounty. Fresh basil adds pizzazz to pizza sauce. Simmering a rosemary branch in vegetable stock makes for a sexy soup. Throw fresh oregano in chicken marinade to perk things up and cilantro, glorious fresh cilantro, you can use it many more places then salsa, (salads, soups, sauces, sex... whoops went too far).
Herb is like rad, man.
Take the extra step.
My biggest culinary lesson over the years is always taking that one extra step if it's going to push the food to the next stratosphere. Don't take un-necessary ones dear. 12-steps to make one hors d'oeuvre means no one at this party is eating tonight.
Looking at two hundred people eating and smiling and knowing it's because you decided to sear the beef before roasting, marinate the shrimp before grilling and toast the rice before boiling, woo weeee that's exciting.
Cook from the solar plexus
I don't pretend to be a four star chef or even a three star one. I never graduated from a culinary school. I'm an alumni of "Earn while you learn" university. My qualifications are simple; I'm a bigmouthed girl with a lot of chutzpah who loves to cook and loves to eat.
I cook from my solar plexus.
Recipes are great, but I encourage all my chefs to cook from their heart, not from the book. That's why all my recipes are super loosey goosey. I don't want you to sit there with measuring spoons. I want you to make it your own!
When you taste your culinary creation, if you feel butterflies fluttering in your solar plexus reminding you of the first time you fell in love, you know you nailed it!