By Kenya McCullum
ACF Chef Bradley Labarre, CEC, AAC, of the Epicurean Club of Boston, has been planning holiday buffets for years — whether for his current full-time job as the executive chef at WestBridge, a mental health and substance abuse treatment center in Manchester, New Hampshire, or in the private catering work he’s done for over a decade. Over the years, he has developed many holiday buffet menus — and faced many challenges along the way — so we spoke to Chef Labarre about some of the most important lessons he’s learned.
Do encourage RSVPs. Although Chef Labarre’s clients may be clear about their own dietary restrictions, what about the guests? To ensure that he’s aware of everyone’s needs while planning a holiday buffet, he encourages clients to get RSVPs with that information.
“Send out RSVPs to your guests weeks in advance because people plan their holiday vacations early,” Chef Labarre says. “Usually around summer in my house, we start thinking, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to go to mom’s this Christmas? Are we going to go to grandma’s for Thanksgiving?’ So plan ahead, and get some insight from family members, so you know if anyone in the family has an allergy to accommodate that person.”
Don’t rush through menu development. Even though you’re no stranger to writing menus, Chef Labarre suggests treating every holiday buffet menu as a unique one in order to give it the attention it deserves—even if you ultimately don’t end up spending a long time on it.
“Every situation’s different, so I want to make sure I’m not just throwing something on the plate on my menu,” he says. “I want to make sure that I’m making a good decision and thinking about it. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days, sometimes a couple of hours, and sometimes a couple of weeks. It just depends on the time. If there’s a time crunch then it obviously takes less time, so I’ll try to draw from things I’ve done in the past — what’s really popular in Christmastime that I’ve always done that goes well. I’ll put that on the menu as a starting point.”
Do make menu items achievable. Sometimes clients will hear about a dish and think it’s perfect for their holiday buffet, but Chef Labarre tries to keep their expectations as realistic as possible, while still giving them the type of experience they want.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh my goodness, I saw Martha Stewart make a steamship round on TV, and I thought I have to have one,’” he says. “But the steamship round weighs about 30 pounds, and you can’t get one unless you order it online. It would cost you a thousand bucks. So for things like that, think about if they’re attainable.”
Don’t try to cook everything in one day. When you’re pressed for time during the holiday season, at first blush it may seem best to cook a whole buffet in one day. However, Chef Labarre advises against this, and says cooking some of the menu in advance will ultimately save you a lot of potential aggravation.
“Something I’ve learned as a chef over the years is if you can prepare things two or three days in advance, you will save yourself some stress,” he says. “You’re going to have rolls, so you can bake the rolls two or three days before, cook them a little bit underdone, and then pop them in the oven fresh right before service. If you’re going to have desserts, do your desserts a week or two in advance and throw them in the freezer, then pull the desserts out on the morning of Thanksgiving. Things like that are just little time-savers. If you try to do everything on the same day, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”
To get a look at Chef Labarre demonstrate some of his jolly holiday buffet ideas, watch the “ACF ChefsForum: Festive Feasts” webinar on ACF’s YouTube channel.