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How to make single-serve catering as exciting as large food displays

charcuterie board
Photo: Shutterstock

Question:

As part of COVID [response], our team is eliminating the giant cheese and charcuterie boards that have become a go-to item at our events in favor of single serve. How do we do this in a way that is still effective and guests don’t feel we’re cheaping out?

– Foodservice Director, Portland, Ore.

Answer:

Big cheese, charcuterie, fruit and vegetable displays have become a mainstay of catered events. For operators, they do a lot of things well. Because they can be set in advance, they reduce demand on passed hors d’oeuvres and hot items, especially if the event starts with a rush; they let people fill up relatively cost effectively even if the rest of the menu is light; and they connote hospitality with their abundance.

Unfortunately, there is a cost to these displays as well:

  • Sanitation. Especially in COVID times, but even before, cheese boards can be gross. They typically don’t have a sneeze guard, crowd people together and use shared utensils. No thanks.
  • Waste. Because the entire display has been served to guests, leftovers cannot be repurposed and should be discarded, no different from a basket of bread or other items that have been served to a table. That results in a potentially large amount of food waste.
  • Cost. Cheese, charcuterie and accompaniments like jams, fresh and dried fruit, are high-cost items. It’s a shame to have both the environmental impacts of wasted food and the cost of wasted food generated from these displays.

For all these reasons—sanitation, food waste and expense—the preferred practice for cheese and charcuterie displays is to provide small tasting portions so that anything unserved can be repurposed for another event. But how do you make an individual portion tasty and balanced without the variety and heft of a big display?

Here, it becomes more about quality and balance than quantity. Kelley Levin from Laura Chenel, Marin French Cheese Co., and St. Benoit Creamery says, “You know we love a cheeseboard large or small, but when it comes to waste reduction, there are a couple factors that can help ensure your guests' excitement and satisfaction with your offerings. The first thing I recommend and know many caterers and foodservice professionals take into account is quantities. Supplying an accurate amount per person for both cheese and meats will help minimize food waste. Typically, this looks something like 2 oz. of cheese per person, but will depend on the occasion, course, and overall event setup.

When creating individual cheese plates or mini-boards, make sure there is still a nice variety of options. This means at least two cheeses of different textures, even better if they're different milks. Make sure the accompaniments also offer variety: something fresh (seasonal produce), something sweet (jams, honey, dried fruit), something savory (nuts, mustard, pickles), and a vessel (crackers, bread, cucumber slices). The key is to have all of these elements and textural contrast as well.”

Her colleague, Michelle Adams, also from Laura Chenel and Marin French Cheese Co., says, “The abundant artful display of different foods, colors and textures is what makes a cheeseboard so appealing. If you are concerned about your food art going to waste, consider a smaller ‘canvas’ to fill edge to edge instead of a giant platter. You can achieve the same bountiful appearance of a grand cheese display on any sized platform appropriate for your audience size.

“One creative cheeseboard version I've seen are ‘jarcuteries,’ which are individual hand-held jars overflowing with cheeseboard items. Your cheeseboard experience doesn't always have to look big to have big flavor. If you pick the right things, the cheese ‘board’ can be small, single-serve and mobile too.”

Overall, offer good variety, artfully arranged, and let guests know they can always ask for more. Most won’t, and I suspect you’ll see immediate savings in your purchases of cheese, charcuterie and related products. More on best practices for reducing waste in catering and banquet operations here.

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