Catering 101Published on October 2, 2009

  • The Firestone Group's Lamb Chop Pops. Photo by Mark Holleron.

  • Shawna Almeida of Hautething sets up a bar for a home party. Photo by Mark Holleron.

  • A two-mix drink bar is high in style and low in hassle. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Planning a party this fall? Read on. Several local experts have graciously shared some party-perfect tips with Ottawa at Home, giving you the tricks to transform your cocktail parties from fun to fabulous.

Experts like event planner Shawna Almeida of Hautething agree that a unique event is more fun and memorable. This is where a party planner's creativity is invaluable as they can suggest food and wine pairings, organize tasting stations, and help with pacing food service throughout the event.

If you love to cook, consider having an event planner on site just for the duration of the party, to oversee the food service and cleanup. "Hiring a few staff will ensure your party goes smoothly," explains Shawna. For a cocktail party with 50 guests, she recommends having a bartender and three or four servers to clean, clear and refill serving dishes.

Bradley Johnson of Party Time Rentals says that renting linens and dishware for a party is both more elegant and environmentally friendly than using disposables. And, best of all, you can return them without washing them. One wineglass in an 8 or 12 ounce size is great for all wines and signature cocktails (calculate 2 to 2.5 glasses per person). Side plates, perfect for canapés, are similarly inexpensive to rent (1.25 to 2 per person should suffice). As for other items, he recommends one or more high-top bar tables, also known as cruiser tables because they improve the flow of your party. Coat racks, beer tubs, ice buckets and rectangular platters are also popular and inexpensive items to rent.

Flowers are an essential décor element of any party. "People really notice them," says Diane Langdon of Langdon's flowers. "They can illuminate a whole room and bring warmth to a table. But centrepieces should not be elaborate or massive - they should accent your table rather than overwhelm it."

She adds that creative, simple arrangements of orchids or gerbera are popular today because of their dazzling array of colour choices. Diane also suggests having a florist create an arrangement with lots of hardy greenery which allows you to replace spent blooms and prolong your enjoyment of the centrepiece for weeks.

How much food should you plan for? Popular local caterer Tulips and Maple suggest that for a three-hour cocktail party, plan for at least eight canapés per person. "Ideally, if you are having more than 36 people at your party, you really should use a caterer to make your party more impressive and far less stressful," says their catering consultant Cara Strong. When using a caterer you can also prepare some of the food yourself, although Cara recommends only doing this if you have a signature dish that you feel your guests are expecting.

Tulips and Maple has launched a new catering line of pre-made items that Cara says are a great alternative for people who don't want to use a caterer but want help serving up more elegant party foods. Current offerings include crab croquettes and jumbo prawn skewers, which come with garnishes and instructions for serving. The cheese and fish charcuterie platters are also extremely popular.

Noah Firestone, General Manager, Firestone Restaurant Group (which includes the trendy Stella Osteria, Luxe Bistro and Blue Cactus Bar and Grill), explains that some restaurants may offer takeout, even though it's not advertised. Stella's antipasti platter is a favourite among hosts looking to fill the gap in their party's menus. "It is very cost-effective and makes for a beautiful presentation - you can even bring us your own platter to fill if you'd like."

He also recommends planning your menu carefully to ensure you can do as much advance preparation as possible. Foods should be easy for guests to consume, with as little debris as possible. If they are going to be left holding skewers, olive pits or Chinese soup spoons, make sure you have some bowls scattered about the party where they can easily discard them.

While Noah suggests planning for a little more food than you may need, he notes that the food doesn't have to be costly. "Think about inexpensive, braised preparations like short ribs or pulled pork, and decide which items are worth spending more on - like a few wedges of really nice cheese." He adds that you can also make any food look more elegant with tall presentations. Consider wrapping prosciutto around vertical breadsticks, or stacking brownies in pyramids, as well as elevating some of the plates on the table.

Paul Carrière is an LCBO product consultant at Ottawa's busy Rideau and King Edward location. He believes that offering a party cocktail or sparkling wine to people as they arrive makes a great first impression. "Do something fun with sparkling wine or come up with a signature cocktail, or two, in festive colours using some of the great new liqueurs. You can even give them funky names to fit with the theme of the party."

For a group over 25 people, he suggests limiting the selection to keep things manageable, and he urges hosts to check the LCBO's online planning tips and party calculator. Today, people are leaning towards premium liquors, such as Grey Goose or Chopin vodkas, but a standard brand is fine for cocktails. The other basics he recommends include white or spiced rum, rye, premium scotch and a premium tequila such as Patron. You can round out your bar with a nice selection of wines and microbrewery beers.

Paul agrees that having a bartender, and some appealing mocktails, is the best way to keep people from overindulging at a party. However, the biggest mistake is to run out of wine or liquor. "That's a real party killer," says Paul, who advises buying more than you need and returning unopened bottles.

Planning a way for guests to get home is as important as planning your bar! Responsible Choice is available for both valet parking and as a drive-home service that gets tipsy guests and their cars safely home, usually costing less than taking a cab both ways. As Darren Burrows of Responsible Choice explains, "Hosts can now be held liable if they let guests drive impaired, so making plans to ensure everyone is safe takes away a huge worry." Above all, strive to make your party as seamless as possible, with tasty food appearing magically throughout the evening. Keep things simple by offering a two-mix drink bar, such as a Tom Collins bar. Play music at a sound level that doesn't stifle conversation, and vary the guest list to keep it interesting but familiar enough for everyone to be socially comfortable. As Shawna says, "The best parties are those that just don't seem to last long enough."

Hosting Tips for a Great Cocktail Party from Hautething:


Prepare hand-written invitations. This shows you are putting a lot of time and attention into your party and guests will RSVP more promptly.

Plan ahead. Set up the day before including placing unfilled platters on the table and determining which canapés you are going to serve on them and when.

Hire a cleaner for before and after the party.

Clear out your hall closet completely. Rent a coat rack if necessary (about $20).

Make sure your bathroom is well stocked. Have common use items visible for your guests' comfort so they don't have to root through cupboards.

Use smaller platters to serve food and replenish them often. Always use white dishes to make everything look cleaner, fresher and more expensive.

Have a small bar or trays of cocktails by the front door so your guests' path to their first drink is shorter.


Spend too much on a large, elaborate floral arrangement. Get something smaller and rent a floor length linen tablecloth (about $30) in a gorgeous colour.

Serve food that doesn't play well to a crowd - avoid nuts, curries, anise, cumin, too much garlic or onion.

Spend more than necessary on wine as it will kill your budget and be underappreciated ($13-$15 bottles are fine).

Forget to stock lots of non-alcoholic beverages including sparkling water and mocktails.

Leave getting dressed to the last minute.

Feel you have to make all the food yourself. Consider pre-made canapés or prepared platters of food from Epicuria, Thyme & Again, Nicastro's. Ask you favourite local restaurant for take-out appetizers or pick up terrific sushi-to-go at Kinki or Sushi 88.

The Firestone Group's Lamb Chop Pops

Luxe Catering was happy to share one of their most popular home catering recipes. ?Lamb Chop Pops are as impressive as they are tasty.

Buy a full rack of lamb with the legs Frenched (have the butcher do this for ?you if you aren't familiar with the process). Prepare a basting sauce by combining ?1/2 cup balsamic vinegar; 1/4 cup honey and 1 tsp. water; boil in a saucepan until it has reduced and is a syrupy consistency. Mash 2 tbsp. pureed mint leaves into the sauce; reserve 2 tbsp. of the sauce for drizzling over the cooked chops. Cut the rack into ?individual chops and place on hot grill; baste liberally with the sauce; turn chops until crisp all over on the outside. Lay the chops in a circle on a serving platter and drizzle with reserved glaze. Serve while hot.

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