Event Caterer

Olivier Cheng

Written by Saul Taylor

We chat with Olivier Cheng, founder of one of the most respected premium caterers in New York, and find out what it’s like working with the biggest brands, pushing the envelope on our plates and telling a new story through food.

How did you first get into hospitality?

My background is in architecture and business. I worked in the service industry for a while before running a friend’s luxury resort in Colorado. When I came back to New York, I worked for a restaurateur because I just love hospitality. I started up his whole business from an entrepreneurial standpoint. He had about seven restaurants and I ended up starting up a catering company on my own after that.

From the very beginning our company was always based on luxury high-end clients, trying to do the best work possible and finding clients that would actually pay for it. For me, the excitement of the business was building things, which came from my architectural and business background. My ethos was always, “Let’s build something”, so I built this business from a design perspective with a quality restaurant style.

Which events have you worked on?

We’ve done the gala season for many years in a row and tons of great fashion events in New York. We do a lot of social booms and months of very high-end weddings — one in Qatar for example with 1,300 people. We also have a smaller production arm that assists us with design and they do their own thing in terms of helping production.

You do consulting work as well?

Yes, we have a consulting business throughout Europe and Asia.

The business is now more of a luxury hospitality brand and with this mix of events and consultancy projects there’s a production line. That’s how the business works today.

How would you describe your culinary style?

Our culinary style is very restaurant driven. The nature of this business is to try to make it personal and bring restaurant quality into the food whilst being as creative as possible. I look at us as making commercials versus movies. Everything is very short lived — a moment in time — and we try to create things for people and think outside of the box with them to create conceptual ideas, whilst staying current.

Where do you source your ingredients?

We use a lot of smaller farms when we can, but obviously it’s a little harder in catering because you can’t pre-order. We often don’t know our menus ahead of time. There’s a lot of small artisanal vendors we use and we try to source meat and fish vendors by ourselves. From civic farms, using good products and sourcing organic produce for clients who are looking for the best raised meat.

How important are the drinks?

The drinks are very important because people are looking for experiences and one way of bringing experiences is through drink. For clients who want a lot of cocktail parties, custom drinks are important — the service and how they set up with the visual — what the bar looks like. Wine is important too. Most people don’t know a lot about wine, but they know what they like. We help guide them.

In terms of this guidance and the menu itself, servicing and creating so many events, how do you stay fresh creatively?

We’re always creating. We actually have a career development team consecrating new ideas, looking at trends and what the future might be. We’re creating a restaurant for people and a lot of it depends on how we bring that experience. We look at what and how people are eating, or the cuisine that might be hot at the moment. Is it grazing, is it small plates? Part of it is how the food actually gets served more than the content of the food itself. That’s how the creative aspects appear. Is it something with smoke involved — a little more like Eleven Madison Park? Are we adding family style items to a table combined with the plated main course, or is it a combination of plated and family? It’s all based on so many different variables, so a lot of it is creative one-offs based on context.

What cuisine is hot at the moment?

Farm-totable is still really big. I think in New York in particular, health oriented cuisine. I see a really big shift in how people accept food. Right now we’re focusing on using smaller farms where possible. And our food has never been heavy. Eritrean has always been big. We also put some Asian inspiration into the food, we do Mediterranean and regionally we focus on local ingredients sourcing. We have our own blend.

You’re working with some of the best brands in the world such as Ralph Lauren and Hermès. What is it like working with them?

It’s amazing. What I love about these clients is they’re always pushing the envelope. They’re always moving, they never repeat themselves but each one has an individual brand story. We are the food interpreter for each brand. They all have an in-house food story and that’s how I approach each one individually. When they host larger events in particular, they’re always creating a new content news story and our job is to facilitate that story for them. We usually get a brief for a big event using either their corporate headquarters. Chanel set up a diner in Central Park for a big fashion launch for 1,000 people and Hermès just did an event that had an irreverent theme that was very Dali-esque. So it’s about how that translates into food.

Then there are the events we get where it doesn’t really work, when you can’t really transform the story into food, so we think how to evoke that emotion into it. That’s what makes those brands so fascinating. It really stimulates you and from that, we grow ideas. What I love is that you’re constantly thinking about new themes and ideas and just creating things that become sort of the ethos of what we do.

Let’s talk about the Met Ball.

The Met Ball is the quintessential fashion event in the United States. There isn’t anything like it. It’s an amazing event and they have done an incredible job of making it an iconic venture. Based on so many moving parts around the event, food quality is obviously very important. There’s a lot of things going on and the most successful caterer has to be flexible in terms of speed. Catering has so many different components to it — food quality is important, as is flexibility on the fly. You’re working in a moment in time and something like the Met Gala is a fast-paced moving event that has a timeline. People don’t always respond the way you want them to, so you need to adapt your service and the food to that. I found that one of the biggest challenges for us was understanding that that is what the event is about. Despite serving great food quality, whatever you have on the menu has to really work in terms of flexibility and timing. I also learned that it’s not a typical gala for people — it’s atypical. It’s so far from the norm where everyone sits down and you get a first course, the presentation then you get up and leave. That doesn’t happen at the Met Gala. They provide such a visual feast for the eyes that nobody really wants to sit down. It’s an incredibly visual event.

They can’t physically sit down because of the costumes.

One hundred per cent. It creates service issues because, how do you get around people? Someone’s got a huge collar, how do you serve them? There are issues that we need to resolve that are kind of crazy, but it’s an amazing event. Working with both teams, it’s again understanding your client and knowing what they want and what they need. That is the essence of it, trying to capture and understand that side of it. For me it’s like, wow, the Met Gala. Pretty incredible.

Finally, what makes a great event?

A great event is when everything comes together. How do I describe that? An event is a team of partners. It’s not one individual person that makes a great event, it’s the partnership. If you’ve got great clients with a great mix of people and the catering and the service is spot on — the design the lighting and the music really works – then it could be on a beach, the Met, anywhere. I’ve been to amazing parties on the beach that were low-key with a tent and a BBQ, and the vibe is just so great it works.

It’s also contextual. I can cater a great event for somebody and find it’s 150 lawyers and it’s the most boring time of my life. I can do the best catering in the world but for me it’s nothing if the energy isn’t right and not clicking. It’s about having fun being together. The most successful events are when everyone is working towards a common goal and come together — when everybody from the lighting to the catering to the design is on the same page and we’re all there for the common good and we’re not putting our egos out there.