Culinary School & menu design? feasible or not?

Joined Jan 21, 2010
We just launched an off-site catering business aimed for social and corporate clients in and around the Detroit Area. we are currently 2 operators, one specializing in booking and coordinating events, while the other in coordinating food preparation and service. Now we are both young and ambitious, taking calculated risks and we try to plan out things ahead of time, as we have learned successful caterers do, we each have less than 6 years of experience in food industry but we like rapid evolution. 

we enjoy cooking meals, and we have gotten positive feedback on our style, but we are both limited in our culinary expertise. In order to develop a great menu, I have come up with the idea of placing an add in two local culinary schools, asking for a catering chef to develop a menu and it's ingredients for us (one time consultation), of course for a fee!  is this the Right way to do this?? if we obtain economy's of scale, we would like to employ culinary students and grow our relationship with the schools. could anyone elaborate on this a bit, what are the cons and the trade-offs. is it realistic?  

what should the expected cost of designing a menu be?
Joined Aug 11, 2000
Make sure your consultant has experience in offsite menus do not always translate.  If you have not worked in offsite catering, work for a caterer that does for a while.....there are serious differences between onsite and offsite, both in equipment needs as well as logistics.

I've worked with three different culinary schools in our city, one I automatically will not accept "free labor" from.....students like every other employee don't generally have experience so things take longer, they also need to be taught.....not all have good work ethics, in many cases it's horrific.

Menus are a portion of the battle.....knowing how to decorate, setup, staff, serve in various venues has a definate learning curve.
Joined Oct 10, 2005

Culinary schools produce culinary graduates, NOT Chefs. Some students have previous experience, others don't.

The menu has to be developed for:

-The equipment available( both home base and on-site, and this includes heavy eqpt, serving eqpt, transport and holding eqpt)
-Within limitations of what  your purveyors can supply

-Within limitations of current staff and what they are capable of.

The ideal caterers--and the ones who are succesful, are the ones who have one partner in the kitchen cooking/managing, and one partner getting customers.  If one is only "co-ordinating" food, they are at the mercy of the one doing the actual cooking...

Am I making any sense?
Joined Jan 21, 2010
 Thank you Shroomgirl, I will be specific in listing off-site catering requirement for both the consultant and the menu design. I have off-site catering experience for 3 seasons (summer), experiencing both sales, cooking, delivering and most of the hurdles associated with off-site.

Thank You Foodpump, I will be opperating out of a local church with a certified, new kitchen, with most of commercial equipment I need and I do have access to most transport equipment.

as I understand from both of you: take extreme caution with hiring culinary students with no experience, now I have previously, while working as a cook at an italian restaurant,  thought abt culinary school to learn and grow my cooking skills, aren't there any passionate and experienced students at these things???

My main problem is- we already Know a few good menu items that we have served and were enjoyed by my clients, but I am certain, we are limited what we know, so to provide a better product, I wanted to seek help from someone that has specific catering experience to complement and design a menu for off-site catering. 

the ideal caterers--and the ones who are succesful, are the ones who have one partner in the kitchen cooking/managing, and one partner getting customers.  If one is only "co-ordinating" food, they are at the mercy of the one doing the actual cooking...
that is exactly how we are structured, I meant coordinating "and cooking".
Joined Oct 10, 2005
You've really got culinary schools on the brain.....

If I read between the lines you are looking for creativity and guidance.  True creativity can only come from mastering all the elements needed in that particular profession, and guidance comes from experience.  Very few culinary grads can offer this.

Odds are the culinary grad is either looking to work under a strong Chef and absorb knowledge from him/her, OR has confindence in their cooking skills and looking to flex their management skills.  But you already have a Chef...

With a catering biz 100% of your stuff is transported.  Good working knowledge of cooking techniques and holding methods for hot food, and presentation skills for cold food are needed  As Shroomgirl has alluded to, Culinary schools focus on a'la carte skills, and not catering.

I strongly suggest you develop your menu development......
Joined Jan 21, 2010
 Sounds good foodpump, I'll take your advice and run with it. I will go after developing the menu inhouse instead. will have to work creatively by testing different techniques over time. 
Joined Jan 6, 2009
If you are looking for ideas for dishes that work, how about looking at websites of reputed catering companies? They often have menus available online and you can get a good idea of popular dishes that work in that environment.


Joined Oct 12, 2009
I would look elsewhere of a culinary schools for catering menu advise. With limited experience yourself I would recommend someone like Mike Roman (founder of Catersource)or Brandon O'Dell Consulting. You need experienced people and not local chefs that you will be competing with. You need someone to tell you that for every $10K overhead per month , that's your lease,utilities,taxes and insurance etc. excluding salaries and food cost you will need app.$100K in sales. Unless you have a lot of corporate clients I would wait for the economy to improve. Having worked in and and having contacts in the Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield, Detroit area I would say wait for awhile. Having said that Good Luck! I didn't mean to burst you bubble./img/vbsmilies/smilies/smile.gif  
Joined Feb 8, 2009
Ok, I have the paint, the canvas, and the scene I want to paint, the only thing is, I don't know how to paint. If I was going to become a artist, I would learn everything I could about art. A good caterer, is a very diverse person, that in most cases, can cater everything from a Bar mitzvah to a Luau. Stay in your comfort zone, do what you know, learn and grow at your own pace. ...........ChefBill
Joined Jan 21, 2010
 Thank you guys for your advice. This venture of mine, was launched this Feb, it was planned to capitalize on my interest and experience of catering to people, cooking graduation parties, wedding rehearsals, religious events... in the past 3 years have been very exciting to me, but I am still self aware that much work is needed to become an organized, efficient, profitable off site catering firm. 

So Caterchef, I am opperating out of a certified church kitchen with relatively new equipment, all I need at this point. so overhead is relatively low. I see where you headed with wait for this particular market... (economy and personal expenditure is still in negative around here and it's gona take time to improve) but being cost conscious and starting now with minimal start-up I think I can build up a brand and clients in this market over time- what are your thoughts? did you recently move out of the Detroit area?
Joined Jun 8, 2010
I recently moved to GA from The metro Detroit area.  I know of 1 culinary school there with a great reputation and there staff, when I moved away, had 6 CMC's and a chef who tried 3 times and failed.  Thats another story.  The Detroit market is tough but north of the city in the more wealthy towns of west bloomfield bloomfield hills and toward royal oak and birmingham there are plenty of potential clients.  I have quite a few friends still in the game there so if ya need any help in that department let me know.
Joined May 5, 2009
If you walk around about meal(s) time and find the hard to find a seat restaurants ask for a menu. After a few dozen you will find items in common, most likely local favorites. You can serve anything you want but if no body will eat it... I'm in the mid west transplanted from New England, every restaurant must have Chicken fried steak its a rule, no chicken fried steak no big busy restaurant. Work with your local small business development center they have plenty of resources as do the college extension offices. I do not believe everyone can cook everything, some caters think they can..just check the trash cans after the event you will see. There is something to be said about polls cook perogies's and Russia and beets. Stay with what you know and look for that clientele, its there, you just have to steal it from your competitors. I was a college grad once from the big JW you wouldnt have wanted me doing your menu and I got A's

I wish you great luck
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