Quality expectations: getting it right, anytime, anyplace, anywhere

Quality lies in the eye of the beholder

A good party comes with quality food. But quality doesn’t necessarily mean Michelin-star level, Wout warns. Quality lies in the eye of the beholder, so living up to the expectations of your guests is what matters most. And those expectations are constantly changing, depending on the situation. “We might find ourselves serving a private party of ten people one day and working an outdoor event attended by ten thousand people the next,” Wout smiles. “To deliver true quality, you have to communicate well and be creative in your approach, your solutions, and your food, time and time again.“

Wout Vereecken

Chef Wout Vereecken is the owner of Citrus Food Concepts. With his company, he cooks on location for small groups of 10 to massive crowds of 14,000. Whether it’s a private dinner party or a techno festival, it’s Wout’s task to meet the needs of the host and serve food that fuels the people and the party.

The same, but different

It goes without saying that catering for ten people is different from feeding a massive crowd. The main difference? “Time!” says Wout. “When it comes to bigger groups, your planning has to be on point and you have to start the project several months in advance. But apart from that, the approach is the same. First, you have to listen closely to the wishes of your customer and try to get a taste of the atmosphere they’re looking for. Then, you put their wishes at the centre of your plan and figure out the rest from there.” Sometimes, that means sharing the spotlight with someone else, Wout admits. “I can bake a pizza just fine, but if I know a pizza specialist, they may be a better option. Sharing opportunities with others allows you to focus on what you do best, and it works both ways.”

The three rules for quality

But what about the prep work? Wout laughs. “Well, I have three ‘rules for quality’. First, the quality of my ingredients is key. I don’t just place my order at a wholesaler; I think it’s necessary to physically walk through the store to pick the exact items you want. I need crispy spring onions and a pineapple with a lovely scent. It’s really important to pay close attention to your ingredients. Secondly, I want to make the people that we buy from part of the chain, so they will feel responsible for what they deliver. Personal contact is very valuable for everyone in the process. Knowing the struggles and goals of everyone involved will help you exceed expectations, because you can push each other to do the best you can. And, last but not least, I want to make people proud. I want to show guests how great our products are. I want to be able to take them back to the roots and talk about where these products come from, and how they were made.”

TIP!

Sharing is multiplying. Whether it’s your biggest competitor or your supplier: share opportunities, information and insights. Don’t be afraid, all you’ll do is foster more understanding, inspiration and business ideas!

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All about control
When he has to build a kitchen on location, Wout is forced to ‘creatively translate’ his kitchen processes. “I’ll visit the location several times if need be to see what I need in order to deliver high quality. Sometimes, we’ll work in locations without running water or power prior to the event, so it’s very different from the controlled environment of a kitchen” says Wout. “I decide what I take with me, warm, cold, premade, and fresh, and I know I will never be in full control.

That’s part of the game!” “Then, when you’ve got your kitchen set up, getting everything right all boils down to communication,” Wout continues. “Especially at big parties, it’s key to build a close connection to the person running the programme, so that I can walk over and tell them how much time I need to serve a dish perfectly. They can then signal when it’s time to start. That way, we can coordinate our processes and align everything perfectly.”

TIP!
Practice makes perfect! Some basics can only be made in one specific way, so make sure you know how to nail them. But experiment with everything else! By discovering, rediscovering and tasting a recipe many many times, you will not only get exactly the taste you want, you’ll also get all the steps into your routine and know the variables. Then, when you finally have to make it on location, it ‘ll be second nature.

Taking people along
All practicalities aside, Wout sees creating the right atmosphere as the most important part of delivering consistent quality. “One part of creating a great food experience,” he says, “is telling people a story. Teach them about the origins of their food, without becoming pedantic about it.” He points out about how this year’s potatoes are smaller and how this has affected all sorts of foodservice companies and commercial processes. “Telling that story also helps you meet the host’s expectations”, he continues. “When they ask me to serve a non-seasonal product or something that I won’t be able to get fresh on a Monday, I’ll tell them. I want to create a strong, positive memory that matches their event and their philosophy. But I also have a responsibility to serve high-quality food. Good food can make a party great, but minor mistakes can have exactly the opposite effect. Every situation, every event is different, and you need to be aware that you’re there to feed people. It’s a very big responsibility! So you need to stay inspired and interested. If you get bored, you need to reignite your fire. Don’t get stuck in a rut but stay aware of the difference you can make in every part of the process!”