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Outdoor Catering

Warm weather is nearly upon us. We’ve all been holed up in our cozy kitchens for months now, huddling over the pots and pans, waiting for the chance to breathe fresh air and smell smoldering charcoal again. As we move towards the long-awaited thaw, let me tempt you with some thoughts of what’s available from the Off-Site Kitchen (OSK) for your outdoor party.


The catering program at the OSK has grown quite a bit in the last year, expanding from smaller functions staged in our neighborhood—company picnics and the like—to lunches for tour groups at Troy Gardens, dinners for events generated from the Mayor’s office, and now, as we move into summer of 2007, an increasing demand for wedding catering. You might be tying the knot this year or you might just be tying one on—you might be doing both. In either event, Willy Street Co-op and the Off-Site Kitchen are the perfect choice if you want to provide your guests with food that is wholesome, homegrown and delicious.


At a rough estimate, the indoor/outdoor split of our events since I began has been about 50/50, but this year promises to tilt the scales in favor of the bee-loud glen. As we grow to meet these newneeds from our members, we are re-imagining our profile as a catering service. We have, up to this point, kept our catering program on a relatively modest level. Particularly where the service aspect of a catering function comes into play, we have been limited to delivery and drop-off. We do not retain a service staff or own off-premise heating equipment as such, so it has been a challenge to respond to requests for actual plating and running of food and/or demonstration cooking at the event. Now, though, it seems that these services may be called for in greater degree where Willy Street Co-op is providing food. I am committed to doing whatever possible to help clients coordinate the particular services they need for their event while also advising where I think it might be more practical to contract separately. The Kitchen is expanding its self-image as a provider to the Madison community, and I would like to extend the invitation to those considering the catering services from the OSK to ask for exactly what they want from us. We will do whatever we can to oblige and also to offer counsel on the smoothest course of action.


The OSK is prepared to cater events for up to 200 people in an outdoor setting (greater numbers are possible depending on the mix of hot and cold food needed for the event). Many events we have catered in the past have been substantially smaller, along the lines of 50-100 people. For these, we typically need no more than 48 hours notice, especially if the food is ordered straight from the template that I provide as a first step in composing the menu. And since I’m on that subject, I’d like to state here what I always tell people when I forward our menu—it is by no means set in stone. It was evolved as a response to typical requests from members and typical circumstances for catering we were doing often. That’s a way of saying you’ll find food choices on there that are both popular and easy for guests to deal with like lasagna, casseroles and fresh vegetable salads. If you contact me to set up a catered function, it is what I will send out as a first step in the process—that’s all it is. Some people find exactly what they want on the menu as is, some make up their menu from scratch out of favorites from the Deli, and some even source out recipes and bring them to us for expert execution and presentation, as was the case with a Brazilian theme party we catered last year. I really enjoy working with people who bring a lot of energy and ideas to the process of composing the menu, so don’t be shy.


We don’t change our approach all that much when dealing with outdoor events—if anything, it’s typically easier to identify where the attendees are and where the food is going if everything is in plain view. The main detail to take into consideration when eating outdoors is how to keep hot food hot and cold food cold—the best-laid plans can change suddenly and it can be hard to corral 100-200 people into following a strict timeline. Many outdoor venues do not offer any kitchen facilities, so my recommendation if planning a large outdoor party is to rent a few thermal carrying boxes. These can hold food at temperature either hot or cold for several hours and can really save the day if you don’t want to, say, put four pans of tortellini salad on the table at once for the bees and ants to enjoy. We use them in our Deli and find them invaluable.


An open book


So, in sum, the catering program at the Co-op is an open book and we’re ready to grow into the expanding needs of our members. Many catering jobs, through their unique menus, provide us with a wonderful opportunity to break routine and shine creatively. If you’re looking for great food showcasing organic and local produce and prepared to your specifications, contact me at .
I look forward to working with you.