Brooke Costello is the owner and Head Chef of Red Table Catering, one of Brooklyn’s premier catering companies since 2002. Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Brooke started cooking at fifteen years old. His culinary career began at a red-sauce Italian restaurant in Buffalo before a stint as pit master at Ruby’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas. From there Brooke moved to Chile to teach English and cook for a year before winding up in New York. He partnered up with Melanie de Coppet in 2002 to start Red Table Catering, which settled into Brooklyn in 2005. We had the opportunity to pick the New York native’s brain about what it takes to be in the catering industry, how it differs from restaurants and what is going on at Red Table.
Brooke, what are the core differences between the restaurant and catering industries?
There are a few strong differences. One is that everything we do is event by event. So the plus side there is that all of the food that we purchase is already sold. That helps with food cost, knowing that I already have it all sold.
Another big difference is that catering allows you to a huge, authentic menu with a lot of variation. My GM is Liza Queen, who was an acolyte of Alice Waters and started to strict farm to table restaurants in Brooklyn.We have chefs who are French trained and who are from China, south America and the southern US. We can create different menus from different places where as a restaurant is more like getting a name, having a style and marketing that one specific thing. Its two different animals.
Another element is labor. Our servers get paid a high rate per hour and gratuity is in there. The server in the restaurant has historically had a tip based salary.
What do you have to do in addition to just cooking as a caterer?
There’s a lot of management elements. We’re a catering business but that means we’re also a moving, transport and logistics company.
What is the key to having a successful catering business?
The key to being successful if you ask me is to satisfy your social clients so that they come back to you, and to work very hard being on the radars of party planners and venues. They are your sales people. The venue needs to like you and recommend you to all of their clients.
Another thing is not killing yourself with rent and debt. Don’t overburden yourself when you’re just starting out.
How do you build a successful team in the kitchen and for the catering staff?
I think it’s a few things. I am really proud of the product that we make. We use great ingredients and don’t spare any expense on the quality of the food. When we are trying to make something of the highest quality it becomes a great challenge for the cooks.
You also have to pay well. You want to retain great people and maintain consistency. In order to have consistency you have to pay people a good wage.
Whats the culture like at Red Table?
We have a culture where we genuinely like each other and support each other. We want each other to succeed. We strive to create a culture here of excellence and general amiability.
There is a big local food and farm to table movement right now. Is that realistic for your company?
Absolutely, as much a possible. We get a lot of things from the Finger Lakes farms and the farmers markets in the city. We’re not strictly farm to table but we strive for that as best we can. And Liza Queen gives us a lot of great alternatives that keep us as local as possible.
What trends are you seeing in the catering industry as a whole?
I hope farm to table and local is a trend. We’re hoping to push it as much as possible. In wedding catering specifically people want fresh things. In catering people are looking for things that are a bit less dramatic and complicated and focusing more on great ingredients and a simpler process.
Also customizability is everything in the wedding industry. People who are spending a lot of money on catering really spend a lot of time thinking about the food they When they come to us they have very specific tastes for their guests, whether that is for cultural, personal or other reasons. That is a big focus.
Is Red Table on premise or off premise?
We do almost everything on site. On a typical job we are bringing the raw fish and meat and cooking it there. We may do prep in the kitchen before but generally we cook at the venue.
Is food transportation difficult as a caterer? How do you handle it?
Transportation is not a huge issue for us. Most of our trips are thirty minutes outside of Brooklyn so we take cold food on ice that goes into a refrigerator. That is ninety percent of what we do.
How does Red Table market itself?
I’ve taken out a few print ads and there may be some advertising people who get angry with me but I don’t think I have ever sold a sing job from an ad. It’s basically all word of mouth.
For corporate clients it’s all about direct contact. We give corporations our information and some sample menus and they keep it on file. For weddings it is entirely about the venues and website. The website is the modern storefront. If you don’t have a great website that is optimized for people finding you will be overlooked. For social media we’re on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
What is next for Red Table catering? What does the future look like?
As a company I want to keep growing. I want to figure out how Red Table can keep pushing the seasonal food movement and just keep getting better.
Thanks for the insight Brooke! You can view Red Table’s website at redtablecatering.com