So you have a big event (like a wedding or awards ceremony) coming up, and you have to make the BIG decision about which caterer to use, or which menu to choose. How do you do that? Well, you can do as they do in the movies, and book a tasting.
Although not that widespread and well-known here in South Africa, you do get some venues and caterers (like us) who do offer these special services.
But what is it?
Basically, a tasting is an organised event where you book a table and then try (taste) different dishes that the venue or caterer can provide. This gives you a birds’ eye view of what they are capable of, how they present their dishes and what their flavour profile is.
How accurate is it?
Well, it depends on how many guests are attending (the more people, the more accurate since it will be closer to them cooking for you on your special day) and on the menu served. Maybe you didn’t like any of the served dishes, but you loved their style and presentation, and even the dishes you didn’t like were not because they were badly executed – they simply didn’t fall within your taste. Also, the tasting might be presented in a different format to what you would like, i.e. buffet while you prefer plated, or a tasting menu while you expect a buffet. All of these factors matter, but – a tasting can still give you a good idea of what the food will be like on the day.
Tasting etiquette: some do’s and don’ts:
Try to limit the number of people attending
Although a bigger group should be no problem for the caterers, it might become problematic to you, who in the end need to make the final decision. Just like too many cooks spoil the broth, so too many opinions can spoil a menu. Try to limit the tasting party to only those who really need to have an opinion. Planning a wedding? Then it should theoretically be the couple, maybe their best man and maid of honour, and in extreme cases the parents who are helping them pay for everything.
Don’t be too picky about the dishes
In most cases, you will be presented with a menu that will be tasted at the event, with limited if any choices to dishes or even how they will be served. This is to enable the caterers to cover a large number of people’s tastes, and thus service a larger group at the same time. Again, even if the dishes don’t fall in your taste, you will get a very good idea about the caterers’ use of spices, salt, sauces, garnish, etc. Things like hot plates, fast service and a balanced dish can all be experienced at a tasting.
Remember to pay on time, and cancel within a reasonable time
Ever heard the saying “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”? Meaning, that someone always has to pay? Well, in the case of a tasting, you get the privilege of paying. Make sure you are aware of the cost per person, when it should be paid, how it should be paid, what it includes, and until when do you have time to cancel should you have to.
Book your tasting well in advance, and be flexible
Most venues and caterers only offer tastings a few times a year, so make sure that you are aware of the dates before you even book your venue. If you have missed the last one and will have your event before the next one, then get in touch with the powers that be to ask if they will make an exception. But don’t be too heartbroken or disappointed if they cannot. Sometimes there just isn’t any time left in the week.
Tastings are usually held on a weekday since most large events happen over weekends. They usually start early, to give everyone enough time to taste and maybe even chat with the chef, coordinator or organiser.
Some caterers offer an additional service where you can book your tasting to coincide with a planned event. In this way, you get to taste the food (it might be a completely different menu, but we have already covered how that doesn’t really matter) without having to attend the event. It usually works out cheaper, and most of the time you get to do this over a weekend.
Now that we know what it is, what is a tasting not?
A tasting is usually not worked out individually, so don’t be surprised if nothing of your potential or dreamed-off menu is presented.
Tastings can be a difficult event for the cateres, something that they must fit into an already busy schedule. And although they do appreciate the pressure and also understand it, most venues and caterers feel that their reputation, reviews and years in existence will give potential clients the peace of mind to book an event or wedding without a formal tasting beforehand. In most cases, these are the factors that are more important than what something tastes like on the day of the tasting.