Food Celebrates the Season
Nov 05, 2018 11:21AM
By Jason Huddle
Food Celebrates the Season
Planning a holiday dinner or party, especially for a large group of guests, can be a huge undertaking. Sometimes the best solution is to hire a professional – a caterer.
One might immediately see dollar signs, but today’s caterers want to know your budget. Take Shawn McFalls, executive chef and owner of Kannapolis-based GRATE Catering Co., for example. A Cabarrus County native, he did begin his career in a commercial kitchen – at the sink washing pots and pans when he was 15.
A temporary fork in the road after high school brought him back to food service when he was 22 and realized it was the career path he wanted to take. Employment with Charlotte Motor Speedway and Levi Restaurants – a food and entertainment food service company based out of Chicago – was the beginning of his culinary adventure.
“I went to culinary school when I started working for the speedway,” McFalls explains. “Then I traveled nationwide for all of Bruton Smith’s speedway properties. I traveled for eight months out of the year and, when you’re single and have no family, there’s really nothing better. I was living the rock star life.”
Returning home after literally catering to thousands of people at events like the Grammys, PGA
golf tournaments, the Country Music Awards and tennis tournaments, McFalls is pumped about the potential of the Kannapolis Downtown Revitalization Project and the continuation of his catering work with Kannapolis city government.
His outlook might be a bit different than other caterers, however. “We aren’t quite like other people. Yes, we’re in it to make money, but we’re in it just as much, if not more, to make people happy, which is the whole reason I do what I do. It’s the satisfaction I get making someone happy and making their life easier.”
Yes, making life easier. Professional caterers meet with potential clients, offer advice in creating a menu, then cook, present and serve the food and drinks at the event. They typically charge by the plate or number of people they’ll be feeding and can often provide lighting, linens, plates, silverware and stemware for a fee.
And, as we all gear up for the holidays, McFalls offers both some advice and some seasonal services to those looking to hire a caterer. “In the next week (end of October) we’ll be rolling out holiday package deals. We can deliver it, you can come buy and pick it up the day before and have a whole meal that’s ready to re-heat…that’s how I started my catering – doing family meals in my off-season,” he shares.
What he refers to is something similar to Blue Apron or Plated, except for the portions. “I would do three meals a week and have enough left over so the parents could have lunch the next day or have it for dinner that night again. So that’s three meals that carry on for at least five meals,” he says. “I don’t do that as part of my business anymore, but, for the holidays I’m bringing it back.”
McFalls caters plated meal dinner parties, corporate functions serving heavy hors d´oeuvres, even concessions at public events throughout the year, but is finding that his service fits for just about any event and eliminates the hassle of taking a large group out to eat.
“I have a lot of doctors now that, whether they’re bringing a new partner in or it’s a regular
business meeting, they cater. They would normally go to restaurants but they’re trying to seat 20 people, there always seems to be something wrong, they want to have some drinks…”
He’s also a bit different in that he doesn’t enforce minimums. “Most caterers stick to their 25-person minimum,” he says. “If somebody comes in with 20 people, I look at it as, ‘I don’t care how small you are or how big you get.’ We’re able to execute any menu, any ethnic food, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
That includes the sweet potato casserole funnel cake. “It’s one of my favorites that I did about five years ago. It was awesome! I had to come up with a traditional flavor spun into something that’s non-traditional. I topped it with a marshmallow cream that I kept in a squeeze bottle. I also used candied pecans and cinnamon/sugar.”
As for foodie trends this holiday season, McFalls gives me one guess. “Pumpkin spice,” he laughs. “In the past, I’ve been asked to make something that can be promoted, marketed. Usually it’s something that’s completely, obnoxiously oversized or things that just aren’t supposed to work together, but they do. So every year I probably have to come up with eight to 10 items – sweets that are attention-grabbing.
Another memorable event that ties in with the currently trendy themed party (see sidebar) was a holiday gathering at Hotel Concord with a Roaring ‘20s Great Gatsby theme. “This was a stationed event, my favorite kind,” McFalls says. “All menus were a modern twist on popular foods of the time. Chinese food was beginning to get popular with migration from the Far East; Italian food was starting its popularity as well for the same reason.”
Dishes included Ahi tuna wonton crisps with seaweed salad, soy-ginger glaze and wasabi aioli; antipasto skewers Prosciutto di Parma, with Soppressata, olives, roasted marinated artichoke hearts, provolone, roasted peppers and fresh basil; roasted cauliflower and brussels sprouts with fresh garlic, lemon juice and seasoning; and house-made individual upside-down pineapple cakes from the dessert table.
Not to sound narcissistic, but McFalls says, “Everything we do is special. I don’t say we step it up because we operate that way every day, 100 percent. We know what our set-up and service are, and pride ourselves on being able to do things that aren’t supposed to be able to be done. But we will not take on something if we cannot provide the level of quality and service that is our standard.”
That’s his nod to overbooking, so he looks at 30 days out as a good period of time to notify GRATE of an upcoming event or party. “It’s nice, for a larger event, to know 30 days out. The bigger the event, the further out because caterers may not be available.”
But he also concedes that 30 days really doesn’t mean anything when a customer calls him at
3:00 in the afternoon and wants to feed 100 people the following day. He says, sure he can sometimes put something together in 24 hours but it really pushes his staff. He doesn’t like to rush through something that he typically likes to spend more time on.
As mentioned, McFalls’ number one request is customers communicating with him about their catering budget and what they’re looking to serve their guests.
“When a customer wants prime rib and lobster tails on a chicken tenders and rice budget, I go back to what they do for a living,” he says.
He uses the scenario of a car dealership. “You kind of like the Cadillac Escalade but you only have the money for a Geo Tracker. Just tell us your budget and you’ll get more bang for your buck. I’m more concerned with impressing my customers than anything else.”
When considering whether or not to utilize a caterer, McFalls wants the prospective customer to look at whether they really have the time to deal with planning their own menu.
“You start having that anxious feeling of how you’re going to pull it off for that many people,” he says. “For a normal person, that’s 10 to 15 people you’re really wanting to impress. It can be overwhelming. Everybody’s coming into town, you don’t want to spend three days on getting all the stuff together. If you start feeling that overwhelming anxiety, it’s time to call somebody.”
If a person doesn’t have the money to bring somebody in to cater, McFalls says, “At that point, I tell them to call me back, ask me some questions. I can still help them without them using us as a caterer.”
And that’s the proverbial cherry on top. For information about GRATE Catering Co., call 704-925-3259 or visit gratecateringco.com.
Article By: Kim Cassell
Photos Courtesy: Grate Catering