How to Fix Sloppy Tasting Events

Fill a room with chefs passing out their food, and you'll probably attract a swarm of hungry diners—and, possibly, create a crowded, stuffy mess. Here are some smart solutions.

August 23, 2006, 12:00 AM EDT

Tall signs showed the names of the chefs and their dishes at Citymeals-on-Wheels' tasting benefit, decorated as an Italian street fair.

To be honest, we kind of hate going to tasting events. Sure, you get to sample dishes from lots of different chefs in one place. But you usually have to fight through a herd of guests for each nibble, then balance your food and drink as people nudge past you, all while noshing on dishes that were not originally intended to be eaten together. It can be a recipe for stomachaches and stained clothes. But lots of people like to go to these things, so here are some tricks for doing them right.

Be Prepared
With the participating chefs doing all the cooking, it's easy to think that the catering work—and expenses—are already taken care of. But that's a mistake. “The philosophy of these events is that they shouldn't cost money,” says Joan Steinberg of Match Catering and Eventstyles, who works frequently with organizers of tasting events to help coordinate the back-of-house operations with the chefs, restaurants, and other vendors. A tasting that runs smoothly requires lots of plates, utensils, cooking and serving supplies, and people to clean it all up. So Steinberg says she often has to remind organizers to devote extra resources to items like staffing and rentals

Chefs who cook dishes one at a time in their restaurants aren't necessarily used to replicating something quickly in mass quantities, and they don't always remember to bring the equipment they'll need. So Match sets up a behind-the-scenes commissary with supplies like mixing bowls, serving utensils, heating equipment, and garbage bags. (The preparations leading up to the event can prove to be extensive, too. Citymeals-on-Wheels director of special events Heather Gere and her team also found themselves tracking down obscure Italian ingredients when they brought in nine chefs from Italy for their annual benefit at Rockefeller Center in May.)

Label Everything
Our favorite thing about Time Out New York's Eat Out tasting event at Skylight last year: Then-TONY event manager Emily Prawda Weiss put blowups of capsule reviews of participating restaurants above each station. Printed by Digital Ink, the signs helped guide the crowd of tasters to the restaurants—and made the event feel like a live version of the magazine's listings. (Another nice touch: Skylight is big enough to have 37 restaurant tables around the room's perimeter—nicely arranged in alphabetical order, from Aix to Xing—and still leave plenty of room in the middle for bars and mingling.)

Citymeals added another element to the signage at its annual benefit, incorporating the name of each dish into its signs, which stood high enough over the tables that guests didn't have to walk up to the table—or push past a crowd—to read them. (It's usually too hard to read small tabletop signs.)

Have a Seat
Walking around and pushing through crowds can be tiring, so New York magazine added a lounge to its Taste of New York event at the Puck Building in the fall, giving guests a place to sit and have a drink between mini-meals. The set-up also allowed special events director Erica Morris to incorporate a sponsor into the event: vodka brand Ciroc, which branded the area with gobos, logos on white lounge furniture, and a specialty bar.

Keep It Clean
With so many people nibbling from so many different plates, the dirty dishes—and the garbage—can pile up quickly. So, to avoid a mess, you'll need plenty of trash bins and plenty of staffers to pick up plates left by diners headed for their next bite. (You might think this should go without saying, but we've seen some pretty messy tasting parties.) This brings us to an important question: Do you serve food on china or plastic plates? While organizers frequently want to use china, Steinberg argues for nice-looking plastics instead. “It's easier to maintain the room—you can have lots of well-placed garbage cans,” she says, with fewer staffers running around picking up dirty dishes. (As a guide, Time Out used all plastics for its 1,000 guests and 50 vendors, with 45 floor staffers and 90 garbage pails in the room. New York had 800 guests, 52 vendors, plastic plates and flatware, glasses for beverages, and 35 floor staffers and 93 trash bins. Both rooms looked clean to us.) Another idea: Plastic plates made with notches for wine glasses can help guests balance their food and drinks with one hand.

Chad Kaydo

Posted 08.23.06

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