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Suzanne Dale chats with Sue Fleischl, the great caterer who knows more than most how to create a memorable occasion.

“I believe in abundance,” Sue Fleischl says. The Great Catering Company maestro, whose Auckland business celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, caters for some of the city’s best, from corporate events to weddings to intimate dinner parties,

“We deal with anything from dinner for 10 through to feeding thousands,” she says.

It wasn’t always that way. The trained chef (who wishes caterers were afforded the same superstar status as restaurant chefs) began her business in 1995 when, as a single mother, she returned to New Zealand after 10 years away. “I rented a house in Sandringham, began my catering business from home and took my daughter with me, picking up and delivering."

Carter Holt Harvey was one of my first clients. They were having a function on Monday and another on Wednesday but I had to go to them on Tuesday and ask to be paid for the Monday because I didn’t have enough money to buy the food for Wednesday. They couldn’t believe it. Corporate businesses helped me get off the ground. These days many new buildings have a contracted café so it’s easier for companies to use that rather than having caterers in and out. We have had to diversify our market.”

In the past five years, weddings have made up the majority of The Great Catering Company’s events — about 25 per cent. Sue has a fulltime team of 18-20, from chefs to event organisers, and between 40-80 freelance wait staff on the books. The warehouse next door to the Newton office houses everything from cutlery to chairs and barbecues, and all the laundry is done on site.

“I’m a control freak. We’ve had circumstances where 14 people would be expected for dinner but 18 would turn up and we would have hired everything. Hiring companies across town don’t want to open for a few extra place settings, so our warehouse was a natural addition to the business.”

There are also eight worm farms that take care of foodscraps. The castings and juice are sent off to Abbeville Estate which Sue opened in 2012, managing it for the nearby Auckland International Airport. It provides a picturesque wedding venue with its own heritage church and large herb and vegetable garden that helps supply the business. “We grow a limited amount but there’s no way, with the numberof functions we do, that we can supply all our own produce. We do three to four weddings a night in summer.”

Sue says it’s the styling and the desire for quality, rather than specific foods, that are driving trends now. “People are particular but relaxed. They don’t want fussy foods and everyone’s interested in where the food comes from.”

But when it does come down to specifics, let’s face it, some things are just too good to take off the menu. Time-honoured favourites include poached chicken sandwiches with homemade mayo and the tiniest cheeseburgers that make sliders seem gargantuan, their baby brioche-type buns all hand-rolled.

And then there are sausage rolls and ham on the bone. “When I started I said NO sausage rolls and NO ham on the bone but I have never been able to get rid of either! So I said okay, we are going to do beautiful sausage rolls so it would be pork and porcini, always luxury items. Great sausages squeezed out of the casings with parmesan, gherkins and capers, hand-picked herbs and our own puff pastry. And ham can be beautiful. We have butchers make them to order and serve them with sauces and mustards and relishes we make ourselves. (Both are now relegated to side menus.)

“We’ve also come up with proissant dough — a cross between pretzel and croissants that’s one of our biggest sellers. We do sweet and savoury versions for morning and afternoon teas, lunch savouries or little cocktail sizes.”

And soon, there will be an American smoking barbecue. Sue attended a conference in Tennessee this year given over to the slow, wood-fired technique and she has ordered her own monster for Christmas events.

Food intolerances also help shape today’s menus. “We have adapted most of our dishes for plated dinners to be gluten-free and nearly all of our sauces are. I would say 90 per cent of our menu now is gluten free but it can be a bit tricky for canapes or morning and afternoon teas because so many are bread-based. Gluten intolerance is the biggest eating disorder of all time. Some people choose to be this way rather than having to be, but that’s all fine.

“With canapes, we’ll use potato bases instead of bread, potato crisps, rice paper — anything that can be substituted. “We get asked for paleo food a lot now too and we always make sure a few items will suit those on paleo diets.

“People are more knowledgeable about food, too, thanks to Food TV, and there’s Pinterest, which I love. They come with mood boards and it means we don’t have to try to work out what they want.

“When you go to a restaurant you are getting what the chef wants but when you hire a caterer you get what you want. We have to get into someone’s mind to understand what sort of person they are. I always ask them, what’s a favourite food at home?

“One couple said they had to have peas on the table at every meal so we had to serve frozen peas with mint and butter at their wedding. Everyone thought it was hysterical. I was mortified.”

Sue’s strategies for cocktail party success

For a cocktail party lasting up to two hours, serve up to six choices of canapes, with nine canapes per person. Increase it to eight or more choices for an event over two hours. Ensure there is one vegetarian option or plan on dishes that can be made vegetarian by removing a bacon topping, for instance.

After two hours it is time to serve something more substantial, especially if you are still offering alcohol. This is where ham on the bone comes into its own. “We also make our own pies,” Sue says. “We serve them in brown paper bags with tomato sauce. A great way to feed a crowd and great after pre-balls to take away on the bus. The girls don’t want to eat in their beautiful dresses but the guys do!”

Send out invitations for cocktail parties so guests know the arrival and leaving time. Be clear, otherwise they might expect that dinner will later be served.

Canapes should be one bite. Beware of drippy sauces and bases that can go soggy.

If you need to use forks, ensure the food won’t break up before it reaches your mouth. And you’ll need somewhere for people to put their glasses down while they are eating.

Intensify flavours. Food that is prepared in advance and reheated will lose some of the flavour.

For longer cocktail functions, consider offering a couple of sweet canapes. Balance the items. Both should not be chocolate. Baby meringues look good. Sue suggests pushing the tops in to make a little hole and filling with lemon or passionfruit curd. Set them in an empty egg tray. They look like little poached eggs. People like fun, so play around with containers.

Think about whether you have time to heat and serve the food or whether you should pay someone to look after it so you will have more time with your guests. Or pay your children or nieces or nephews to do the dishes and help. Sue recommends one waiter per 20 guests for canape functions.

Make at least 50 per cent of food — sauces for instance— the day before your event. Polish your glasses, arrange flowers and lay the table the night before.

For wines, seek advice from professionals, go to specialised wine merchants, give them the menu and ask them to help you choose the wines. They may have end of line bottles or wines they have put aside for a “special” price.

For 100 people, you will need four dozen white and two dozen red wines. Offer two varieties of white and one or two of red. Ensure you also have non-alcoholic drinks. The Great Catering Company makes its own lemonade and grapefruit-ade.

If someone needs to put a skewer or spoon into their mouth, it’s a no-no if the dirty utensils are put back on the platter holding food. There should be someone following the waiter to collect the dirty things.

Event menu ideas to steal for home

It’s good to offer something more substantial at the end of the night. Serve big bowlfuls of creamy mashed potato with a selection of toppings. Put out little bowls for guests to fill themselves. Offer toppings (even one or two) such as braised lamb, grated cheese and onion, crispy bacon, smoked fish ragout. Made ahead, the potato can be reheated in a microwave (it will catch if you reheat it in a pot on the stove). Or try tiny dishes of macaroni and cheese.

Make it more casual than a sit down dinner: offer polenta and braised meats on a grazing table so guests can help themselves.

Serve a big bowlful of rice and offer three curries: one Thai, one Indian and one Vietnamese.

Broth bowls are popular now. Put out toppings for guests to help themselves — pork, crispy shallots, fresh lime wedges, fresh herbs.

Chop and layer salads into jars with forks to serve. Consider guests who are paleo, vegetarian or gluten-free.

Try roast duck from a Chinese market, shredded with julienned vegetables, sweet chilli sauce and sour cream in baby cos lettuce. An easy dinner party starter.

Rip fresh ciabatta or sourdough, toss in olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Toast in the oven so the outside is crisp and the inside still soft and serve with the best anchovies(open the tin but roll the top back) and whipped butter to which you have stirred through chopped thyme leaves. Sue served this to friends on the day Bite visited.

A note on etiquette

Sue says Kiwis are notorious for arriving late and sometimes they don’t even arrive at all.

“It astounds me the number of people who RSVP to say they’re coming but don’t turn up. It’s disrespectful and hurtful for your hosts. And smokers, no squishing cigarette butts under foot or putting them into pot plants!”

Onion tarte tatin

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This easy-to-make canape has been one of the bestselling items on the Great Catering Company menu this year. You can steam the onions three days in advance and the tarts could be baked the day before and reheated for serving. Try it with sliced, lightly steamed fennel instead of onion.

Serves 6

(2 per person)

12 pickling onions
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp salt
6 thyme sprigs
120g butter
1 puff pastry sheet
60g goat’s cheese

  1. Heat oven to 170C. Steam pickling onions for 5 minutes.
  2. In small muffin trays add a pinch of sugar, salt, thyme and a knob of butter. Place a peeled onion in each muffin hole and cut puff pastry to fit on top.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes, turn out of moulds, crumble goat’s cheese on top and serve.
To favourite, print or share this recipe, go to the recipe page.

Chicken teriyaki, cucumber radish salad

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A very easy tasty dish that can easily be whisked together. This is one of our chef Grant’s favourite recipes. The teriyaki sauce can be made up to three days before and stored in the fridge, the dressing one day in advance.

Serves 6

6 chicken thighs

Teriyaki sauce

1 cup soy sauce
1 cup mirin
1 cup sake
2 Tbsp caster sugar

  1. Heat oven to 170C. Mix all teriyaki sauce ingredients in a bowl until sugar dissolves.
  2. Marinate chicken thighs in teriyaki sauce for 10 minutes. Sear the chicken in a hot pan, add its marinade to the pan and bake for about 10 minutes or until the temperature of the chicken is 76C on a meat thermometer.

Cucumber, radish peanut salad

1 cucumber, seeded and sliced
2 radishes, thinly sliced
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked
100g mung beans
50g peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped

  1. Place cucumber, radish, coriander leaves, mung beans and toasted peanuts in a bowl.
  2. Add lime and chilli dressing (see below) to taste just before serving.

Lime and chilli dressing

Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup fish sauce (I use Golden Boy)
¼ cup light soy sauce
½ cup demerara sugar
Zest of 3 limes
Zest of 2 lemons
1 red chilli, finely diced

Mix lemon juice, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a bowl until sugar dissolves. Add the zest and chilli, holding back some of the zest — you may not need allof it. To serv, place salad on plates, slice chicken and arrange in a fan.