It’s your party, we can’t cry if we want to

Fresco’s Jenn DiSanto shares a day in the life of catering

By Paula Johnson

What does it take to make it in the catering business, and how is that world different than that of a restaurant chef? Jenn DiSanto, owner of Kettering’s Fresco Catering, sums it up with a story from a huge party she was catering at a client’s home.

“I was delighted to see the hostess had a giant commercial oven, which meant that all our planning centered around using that,” DiSanto says. “We arrived, got everything set up and turned on the oven, only to discover when we opened it up to pop in the first trays of food that it didn’t work.”

“Oh,” said the hostess. “I didn’t know. I’ve never used it!”

So what did DiSanto do? “Things of this magnitude happen more than you’d think. We improvised. Fortunately, a neighbor was coming to the event, so we used her oven instead.”

 

Plan B

Then there was the event she did for 400 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. “We double checked the electrical capacity and had everything set up. However, the sound people didn’t bring an extra panel and blew out everything when they plugged in. This kind of thing happens all the time in my world. I just go to Plan B,” she says. Plan B, in this case, meant figuring out a sequential rolling flow plan with plugging and unplugging to conserve what little power they were left with.

This speaks to the crux of what caterers do: they work with ever-changing variables, must improvise and need to be absolutely vigilant in their mastery of detail and planning.

“We plan for not just the expected, but for anything that could possibly go wrong,” she says. “And that is what I love about catering. I like that there are so many moving parts, and so much to think about in advance. Every event is like an episode of the TV show Chopped.”

 

Everyone’s a caterer

It’s sometimes assumed that caters are lower on the food chain than chefs. I ask DiSanto about this. She’s quick to point out that that attitude doesn’t exist to any large extent in the professional world, but is prevalent with the general public.

“There’s the perception that anyone can be a caterer, she explains. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard, ‘oh, my aunt is a caterer,’ or ‘my friend has a catering business.’”

It’s a claim I’ve heard often as well. It’s one of those businesses that involves something that most people are familiar with—preparing and serving food—so it makes catering seem like anyone could do it. You’d never hear anyone make that claim about, say, being a dentist, simply because you have experience brushing your teeth.

So what makes a caterer a professional?

“A reputable professional caterer works out of a commercial kitchen, and is held to an incredibly high level of scrutiny for food safety,” DiSanto explains. “We get more visits from the health department than restaurants do. And that makes sense. We are feeding in mass quantities. There are time and temperature issues so there is a much greater risk of foodborne illness.”

Something to think about the next time your caterer friend is doing a party with potato salad.

I ask DiSanto why she chose catering.

“I never wanted to be restaurant chef. It’s not my personality,” DiSanto says. “I started out working in restaurants at 14 as a server and I enjoyed the interaction with people. Then I transitioned to a line cook and discovered I loved coking. Chefs work in isolation, while catering is a personal interaction job. I love the time I spend meeting clients and getting to talk with them about their vision and how I can make that happen. It satisfies both parts of my personality.

“My addiction is the adrenaline rush of taking a difficult situation and making sure I think through everything that could go wrong, and making it not go wrong,” she continues. “That’s very different from, say, the rush a restaurant cook gets when he’s faced with a ton of orders all at once.”

And how did DiSanto prepare for a career in catering? “I went to the Culinary Institute of America in Connecticut, and worked for a market there helping to develop their carry-out business,” she says. “While I was there, our market became the number one carry-out market in the state. We moved to Brussels, and I taught cooking classes at the American club and volunteered at several restaurants to learn since I was limited in how much I was allowed to work. When I arrived here I began doing cooking demos at Dorothy Lane Market, and my business just began growing from there.”

She’s been in her current storefront space in the Fountain Square shopping plaza for a little more than five years.

DiSanto has plans for Fresco to expand, too.

“Look for carry-out dinners a few nights a week beginning this fall,” she says.

 

Two bite rule

As we spoke I sampled some of DiSanto’s dishes, and I asked her about the food she creates.

“Hors d’oeuvres are most successful when they adhere to the two bite rule—where everything can be consumed in just two bites,” she explains.

I think of all the parties I’ve attended with food there’s no way to consume comfortably without it ending up on my outfit instead of in my mouth.

“And in each bite, I try to engage every one of the sweet, bitter, salty and umami sensations of the palate,” she continues. “It’s all about contrasting flavors and textures.”

Indeed, the food she prepared for me typified her description. The spinach cigars, for example, were not your average spanikopita. DiSanto’s featured feta, currants and mint in crispy flaky little rolls, perfect to eat in two bites. Savory wild mushroom empanadas packed with local morels and a delicious and whimsical feta mousse with beet brunoise served on crunchy edible spoons were a few more examples of DiSanto’s creativity.

So the next time you throw a dinner party and something goes wrong, remember that’s just part of daily life for professional caterers like DiSanto. It’s not likely you’ll be dealing with exploding chocolate fountains or torrential rain and tornadoes like she’s experienced, at your next soiree, but just in case, always remember to have a Plan B or call in a professional to start with!

For more information about Fresco Catering or to book for your next event, please call 937.296.0600, email chef@frescofood.net or visit frescofood.net.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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