My parents were really diligent also about having church workers or cross-cultural workers over for meals. When I was fourteen and helping prepare and serve a dessert, our pastor commented to me that I had the gift of hospitality. He could see that it came easily to me, and told me that.
It’s neat that he pointed out your gifting. Sometimes when you do something naturally, you don't realize that others don't. Did you receive any formal training in cooking?
When I was a teenager, I worked in some food industry jobs, although I did not work as a cook. My husband and I attended Bible school in New York, and when we heard that the Bible school was opening an extension in Ontario, Canada (where we are from) and only had one cook, we decided to move to the area so that I could help in the Bible school kitchen. I still don’t have any formal training in culinary arts, but other than learning from my mom, at the Bible school I trained under two other experienced cooks. Eventually I became the head cook in the Bible school kitchen. A few years ago I had to give up my full time role in the kitchen due to health problems, though I still help there sometimes. My younger brother, who went to culinary school, took over the kitchen manager role at the Bible school—God worked that out perfectly!
What are some of your best tips for feeding large groups?
The first thing that comes to mind is to make sure you have the right tools, like a sharp chef’s knife. You get a lot more done with the proper equipment. In our case, having an industrial dishwasher made a huge difference in our ability to feed large groups.
Secondly, choose recipes that expand well and don't have to be individually portioned. Chili, sloppy joes, spaghetti and meatballs are are few examples of meals that can be stretched and served from one pot.
Keep the meals simple. Trying to make something finicky for a crowd is tough. Or, if you want to make one part of the meal more complicated, make the complicated part something you can prepare ahead of time, because at the last minute you can’t do detailed work. For example, if you want to serve a dessert like homemade pies, prepare the pies early and allow them to sit until suppertime, when they can be served up quickly.
What were some of your favourite meals to serve to large groups?
Butter chicken is a meal that goes a long way and pleases a lot of people. Keep the chilli, peppers or hot sauce to the side so that people can make the sauce as hot as they like.
“Build-your-own-" meals: I enjoy preparing make-your-own-pasta, -potato or -fajita bars. Put the pasta, potato or tortilla at the beginning and let people choose their own toppings or sauces. (When I make fajitas, I sauté the peppers with the chicken, to make the chicken last longer.)
For desserts, squares work well (such as brownies, apple bars, or Skor bars) because they don’t have to be individually portioned, and portions can be cut bigger or smaller as needed. Squares can be eaten on a napkin, with no need for a plate.
Do you have any advice about the actual serving process, when you're putting out food for large groups?
Portioning out the food for the guests can be helpful, so that you know you’ll have enough. If people are choosing their own portion sizes, sometimes one person will take a lot more and then someone else won’t get enough. Portioning the first serving can help to make sure everyone receives something. Then people can get second servings if there are leftovers.
For meals with strong ingredients that some might not enjoy, it can be good to leave a few of the ingredients that people may be pickier about off to the side. For example, recently we served a Greek salad but separated the raw onions and feta as optional toppings, so that the guests could choose whether or not they wanted to include them.
Do you have any thoughts on accommodating food allergies or preferences?
We ask people to let us know if they have allergies before they come to our property. Sometimes we ask them to bring their own products along to swap out for things they’re allergic to. So, if they bring along their own gluten-free bread or dairy-free milk, we make their food using their special ingredients. Children can be quite sensitive to a change in their food, so it makes sense for them to bring along a brand of bread or milk that they’re used to drinking or eating. You could do something similar when hosting guests in your home if you want—ask them to bring their own bread or milk if needed.
We see it as part of our responsibility to cater to legitimate needs, but we don’t ask about particular preferences that are not medical needs. In planning the menu, I try to think about what people of a certain age group might like. Picky eaters can choose what to put on their plates (that’s why “build-your-own…” meals are great). Having a tray of vegetables is always good for extraordinarily particular eaters, so that if they don’t like the entrée at all, they still have something healthy to eat.
Since this blog is mostly about cross-cultural hospitality, I wanted to ask: did you ever suit meals to students from other cultures or other backgrounds?
We often had students from Korea, and they’re used to having rice and kimchi at almost every meal. We had a rice cooker and provided rice daily just for them, so they could add a scoop to their meal if they wanted. We’d often keep a jar of kimchi nearby for them, too.
Can you recommend any resources for people planning meals for big groups?
I have often gotten inspiration from a TV show called Carnival Eats. The foods they feature have to be prepared quickly and served out a food truck window in individual portions. Watching what they prepare gives me new ideas for serving portioned foods in a way that is easier and quicker. If you enjoy cooking and feed big groups, check it out sometime!