|by Amanda McDougall
It was Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Florida. Indianapolis Colts vs. Chicago Bears. The NFL had parties to throw – big parties – in the week leading up to the big game. And they needed a caterer – a good one – to supply a lot of food and beverages. The grand 4,000-person Super Saturday Blast is the crown jewel.
Sean Brasel, Executive Chef and Partner of Touch Restaurant and Touch Catering, had plenty of restaurant experience, but he was fairly new to the catering scene when the NFL came to town. In fact, Brasel and his long-time business partner David Tornek founded Touch Catering in 2004, and this was the largest set of events the company had ever bid for. » more
by Chef Sean Brasel of Touch Catering – Miami, FL
- Charred Mini Steak with Black Tomato Salsa, Onion Rings, and Corn Tamale
- Watermelon Gazpacho with Stone Crab Salad
- Miami-Style Ceviche with Spicy Taro Chips
Brasel isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, and certainly not one to turn away from the opportunity to grow his business. Brasel and Tornek started Touch Catering when their restaurant, Touch, had reached its peak and had no other way to grow. So to add another source of revenue, they launched their catering business leveraging the success and reputation of their restaurant.
But the leap from restaurant to catering isn’t always an easy one, especially when you’re catering for 4,000. The sheer logistics and uncontrolled environment of catering can turn a sane chef mad. As Brasel puts it, “catering is twice as hard as a restaurant.”
It’s all about organization and planning for the unexpected, be it foul weather, missing equipment, or AWOL staff. “You have to look at even the smallest details for every event,” he explains. There are no stocked walk-ins to raid if you leave behind the mixed greens. Brasel also had to learn to compromise – perhaps a little less frill for that first course plating – but without sacrificing quality or flavor. “We make our goat cheese in pyllo from scratch; other caterers will purchase them frozen.”
In hopes of finding a jumping off point for other chefs contemplating a move into catering, we asked Brasel about his experience in making the transition from successful restaurant to successful caterer, and how he pulled off the NFL party of the year.
Amanda McDougall: After so many years in the restaurant business, what made you take the leap into catering?
Sean Brasel: There was a lot of demand for it from the restaurant. People wanted to take the concept at the restaurant off-site. And it was another revenue center. A restaurant will get to a point where it can’t grow any further, and you need another source of revenue.
AM: What was your very first catering job? And how did it go?
SB: It was a simple art exhibition for 120 people. We went a little overboard with it – we had two trucks filled with food and supplies for the event.
AM: What were some of the most important lessons you learned in catering when you first started?
SB: Anticipation and organization are the most important things. Anticipation means anticipating all the problems before they happen. Early on we had rented all of this kitchen equipment and when it arrived we needed to put some of the parts together, but we had no tools to do it. Now we have what we call “The Blue Box” filled with tools, pliers, blow torch, skewers, wrench, sternos. It’s our emergency kit; no matter what happens, you have something to fix it.
Organization means being a lot more organized than in a restaurant. You have to look at every little detail, make sure you have everything, and get it done on time because the trucks are ready to go and they have to get there so the event can start on time.
AM: How do you think your restaurant experience helps make you a better caterer?
SB: It’s two-fold: it works for me and against me. It works for me because I want to make everything on-site and à la minute, like in a restaurant. I don’t have stuff sitting in hot boxes like most other caterers. For me, it’s about real flavors and quality. I will make risotto à la minute. Other catering companies will cook it in advance and just heat it up on-site.
But my restaurant experience works against me, too. We had an event that was a sit-down dinner for 1,700 and we were doing filet mignon steaks – cooking and cutting on-site. It was a really cold day, 46°F which is unusual in Florida, and the wind was blowing at 40 miles per hour. At one point during the day, before the event, the fire department evacuated us out of the kitchen tents because of the force of the winds. I had decided to use chateaus for the filet mignon steaks, so they had to be cut and that was a lot more work than I thought it was. A lot more. I had our first courses garnished with these fried basil leaves and they were being blown off – it was like autumn in New York there were so many leaves everywhere. Everything that could go wrong this day did.
AM: And has your catering experience made you a better restaurant chef/owner?
SB: Yes. With restaurants you have a lot of pressure, and a lot of issues come up. A customer isn’t happy, or someone forgot to order something. But it’s still a controlled environment. You can’t complain if you have a working oven. With catering you could end up with no grill or no fryer. One time we didn’t get a fryer, and we had to fry 700 croquettes out of a sauté pan. You’re forced to cover for these things because it’s not the client’s fault the fryer didn’t show up. You have to learn not to pop and not get stressed – find the answer before you decide to fight or flee.
AM: How do you approach catering differently than a typical catering/event planning company?
SB: I try to meet with every client. We don’t have set menus for clients to choose from. We find out what they like and their event theme, and we create a custom, tailor-made menu for them, including specialty drinks. And making as many things à la minute is different too.
AM: Do you use the restaurant in any way for your catering business? If so, how?
SB: The first year we were catering we cross-marketed the restaurant and the catering businesses. All the catering was done out of the restaurant kitchen. We would have refrigerated trucks parked outside for the food. We did this while we were growing the catering business in the first year, and then moved the catering to its own location. Now having both the restaurant and catering company, we have a lot of purchasing power and flexibility. We can use the restaurant’s sorbet machine for catering parties, or prep appetizers at the catering kitchen for a large party at the restaurant. We can also handle last-minute parties without a problem. We can just ship over leftover ingredients from a catering gig to cover for a restaurant party, and vice-versa. Being able to do that is very profitable.
AM: What was the largest event you did before the Super Bowl parties?
SB: The 1,700 sit-down dinner with the filet mignon…the 46 degree/40 miles an hour wind. We had to accomplish it to learn.
AM: How many people did you serve at each of the Super Bowl parties?
SB: The two Pepsi Smashes on Thursday and Friday were each 700 people. The Super Saturday Blast, with the trophy unveiling, was 4,000.
AM: Did you approach the Super Bowl events any differently than other catering jobs?
SB: Yes. It was good because we did the kick-off party before so we had an understanding of the clients, and they knew us. When I did the walk-through for the Saturday event, the location was set up like an amphitheater and I didn’t see a large flat area to prep the food and set up the buffet tables they wanted. Then I thought about the vendors that are usually there, and I thought, why not do several small high-end food booths? It would disperse the food and the people in the space. We had a total of 17 stations, eight of which had two each, and one huge center grill-to-order station. Each station was set up to serve one whole entrée, like the braised pork with rattlesnake beans and corn bread.
AM: How did the food you serve differ from restaurant food?
SB: The only thing that was different from a restaurant was that it was on plastic plates. We served white truffle and lobster lasagna, coconut fried shrimp, the braised pork… with just a little less frill. It was really a tasting menu that happened to be at an amphitheater instead of a restaurant.
AM: What were some of the greatest obstacles to overcome to make this event successful?
SB: Staffing. It’s always an issue. We had three other events that night that I had to send staff to do without me. I needed 50 cooks for this event, and only two of the 50 I had worked with before. Catering staff is always problematic because they just see it as a one-night thing and not a real job. It’s not taken very seriously, so you have a lot of no-shows. If you book 50 people, 30 will actually show up. So you always have to book 20 to 30 percent more than what you actually need. For this event, I got lucky. The day before the event, I was having a training session for 36 cooks. Twelve showed up. One was a culinary student who said to me, “I’ll get a whole bus-load of students to come.” The next day, the day of the event, I see a bus pull up; 25 white coats spill out and start coming toward me. They were like sea monkeys. I got lucky. I got a little gift that day.
AM: Do you think the event was a success?
SB: I do. I felt it was a success in the first hour of the event. 300 buses came and dumped people out. I checked on everything, every station, every person. No one needed me. I felt good, I felt great.
AM: If you had to do the event all over again, what would you do differently, if anything?
SB: I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe change some dishes around, tweak a couple of things, but nothing else.
AM: What advice would you give to a chef who is thinking about getting into catering?
SB: Know what you’re getting into. I’ve been at events where I had to stand on top of a table screaming at everyone, losing my voice, and watch waiters grabbing dishes from each others’ hands to get food out. Catering is twice as hard as a restaurant.