I just celebrated my sixth year as owner of Dinner … By Susan. I’ve cooked a lot of meals. Planned a lot of parties. Worked for a lot of people. And learned a lot of lessons. Here are my top 10:
1. Label everything. You may think you know what’s stored in your Gladware containers. I was sure I was spooning honey-ginger dressing over the lovely fruit skewers I served at a lunch for 60. Fifteen minutes before mealtime, the fruit smelled a little off. I took a taste and realized I’d poured chicken broth over everything. A masking-tape label would have spared me the panic of rinsing off all those skewers and redressing them. (Funniest luncheon comment: “The fruit is fabulous. It has a really interesting flavor.”)
2. Know what you’re cooking on. And know if it has any glitches. I once baked a ham in an oven that automatically turned off whenever the timer beeped. After removing the ham, I popped in a 10-pound tenderloin, not realizing the oven was no longer on. Thirty minutes later (and 20 minutes before dinner for 25 was to be served), the tenderloin came out pretty much raw. (“Oh, honey,” one of the guests said as she saw me furiously slicing the meat to get it under a broiler. “Do you like your beef that rare?”)
3. Check the oven before you turn it on. Not everyone uses theirs for cooking. Some use it for extra storage.
4. Ask questions. People are pretty specific in their likes and dislikes. But they aren’t always forthcoming. “We’ll eat anything,” one client told me. “Anything” turned out to exclude meat loaf, chicken sausages, soup and meatless entrees. I could have saved a lot of menu-planning time by asking a few simple questions: “Do you like meat with every meal? Do you prefer whole cuts or ground meats? Is soup as a main course ever an option?”
5. Talk money. The most common question I get from new clients: “What do you charge for a dinner?” Well, it depends. Do you want chicken or steak? Appetizers and desserts with your meal or just an entree and side? Know what different menus cost per person and give your clients a range to choose from. And be ready for the common response of “I could do it cheaper.” Yes, you could. But do you really want to?
6. Ask for help. Know your limits. And let your clients know them! I can handle a buffet for 30-40 people on my own. But when a longtime client told me her husband didn’t want servers at a sit-down, plated dinner for 10, I should have said, “Too bad” … particularly when I realized I was going to have to wash all the soup bowls and reuse them for dessert, in between plating composed salads and the main course. I drank a lot of wine after that party.
7. Always have ice cream in your cooler. It covers a multitude of sins. A friend of mine made raspberry souffles for a book club party and shared the recipe with me. I decided they’d be the perfect ending to a small dinner party I cooked for. My friend’s souffles came to the table warm and puffed. Mine deflated the minute I took them out of the oven. They were a liquid mess. But they worked just fine poured over the top of vanilla-bean ice cream.
8. Test recipes. See above.
9. Realize that someone wants you to fail. Who knows why, but somebody in your circle of acquaintances is going to wish nothing but ill-will toward you. They may keep the venom to themselves or actively try to cost you business. Don’t try to understand why. Just keep your head down, do what you love and let karma work its magic.
10. Know that more people want you to succeed. For every one venomous person, there are 10 people who love and support you. They will plan parties to showcase you; they will refer you to friends and family; they will give you business leads and referrals. Focus on them. (And cook for them often!)