Hosting small group meals at home is something we’ve all gotten pretty good at over the past couple of years. If you are feeding larger groups, however, the task gets more challenging—fast. Lucky for you, we recently had the pleasure of speaking with a culinary master and expert on cooking for big groups.
Cris Vazquez, the Executive Chef of the Texas Rangers, orchestrates a symphony of meals day after day, for up to 40,000 people in a few hours at Globe Life Field. He oversees service of everything from concession stand favorites like hamburgers to fine-dining dishes like prime rib and somehow makes each dish memorable. Sound like magic? Well, there might be some magic involved—but when you speak to Chef Cris about it all, he simply says it’s all about coaching, timing and trust. We wanted to learn more about how Chef Cris learned these essential tips for cooking for large groups, so we dug in.
“Cook something you’re comfortable with. Don’t make something complicated that you haven’t tried before. You need to have experience with the food you’re serving.”
“I grew up in a big family, I have 5 sisters and 5 brothers,” Chef Cris explained. “My mom used to cook for all of us and we would sit at the same table, can you imagine? Eleven kids together! I learned a lot watching my mom in those moments and I’ll always have fond memories of them. This is part of what inspired me to want to cook—bringing the family together.”
Just like many of us, Chef Cris’ first experience with cooking was from watching his parents and grandparents at home. There’s a lot of comfort in eating the food that was served to us as a child, and there are lessons for serving large groups to be learned from it. “Growing up in a small town in Mexico, we ate a lot of pozole. This traditional soup is hearty, healthy and can be cooked with many different types of ingredients. It was comfort food, and my mom was comfortable cooking it.”
So, It’s no surprise that is where Chef Cris begins his expert advice around cooking for large groups, “Cook something you’re comfortable with. Don’t make something complicated that you haven’t tried before. You need to have experience with the food you’re serving.”
Chef Cris also recommends that you not to be afraid to ask our guests to bring a dish to the party. This can help to alleviate the stress of cooking for large groups, and most people are more than happy to contribute. In fact, guests often feel better being involved in the meal. By asking them to bring something, you’re inspiring conversation and providing an opportunity for them to share their ideas, experiences, and flavors. “I’ve learned a lot from asking friends and family to bring dishes. I enjoy sharing techniques and flavors and they like to share their own experiences through their food.”
So how do you alleviate stress when you’re hosting and enjoy the event more? Chef Cris was adamant that planning and forecasting are key.
“Always prepare 2% more than what you anticipate you’ll need. Most people don’t eat more than 18 oz of food (3 dishes), so plan with that construct and don’t make every dish heavy.” Chef Cris says there is a tendency to try to make every course special, which often means heavy. People don’t eat as much when heavy courses are served and likely won’t make their way to the dessert table so plan accordingly. He also suggests sticking to a theme. If you are planning an Italian main course like chicken parmesan, serve a Caesar salad and a Tiramisu. When you start mixing themes or ethnic flavors, people get lost and aren’t able to effortlessly enjoy themselves
Keeping food warm without getting dried out is a common challenge that can be solved by placing a shallow tray of water underneath your platter of hot food in the oven set to 180 degrees. This can keep your food fresh and warm for up to 2 hours. Same principle applies for cold food: place cold dishes on a plate on top of a tray of ice which keeps things cool.
We also asked what Chef Cris likes to cook when he has 30-50 people over to this house. “I like to serve simple comfort food. To me, this is ceviche to start, a baked salmon or grilled steaks perhaps with baked potatoes and a light salad. These things are easy for me but also a crowd pleaser.”
“There’s a lot that goes into a great meal, but when you see the smiling faces at the table or in the stands, you know it’s all been worth it. That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”
Chef Cris also mentions it’s important to cook with fresh, local ingredients. Your guests will notice the difference when they are eating it, and you can tell while you’re cooking it. Product quality and consistency is key. When you find a brand you trust, it’s good to keep it on deck—you don’t want a curve ball thrown at you while you’re cooking that changes the dynamic of your meal at the last minute. That’s why Chef Cris chooses Goodstock beef for both his industrial and at-home kitchen. He knows he can rely on the quality and consistency of the meat, plus at the ballpark he has a customer service team behind him whenever he needs to adjust on the fly.
And when one of those smiling faces happens to be Mr. Nolan Ryan, that’s a feeling you’ll never forget. Chef Cris met Nolan and the Ryan family during Nolan’s tenure as President for the Texas Rangers. Over the years, he prepared personal meals for the legend himself on many occasions and was invited into the Ryan family home to cook for the whole family. Chef Cris shared that Nolan enjoys comfort food and simple dishes with classic flavors. “Mr. Ryan is very humble and attentive. He and Ruth Ryan are great hosts and always make everyone in the room feel comfortable. I learned a lot during my time cooking for Nolan Ryan—the most important of which was how to be a leader and inspire my team so everyone from the dishwashers to the sous chefs understands they are important and valued.”
Perhaps this goes back to Nolan’s appreciation for teamwork, but whether you need to mobilize a team of MLB players, an Industrial kitchen, or a few deputized house guests, coaching, timing, and trust go a long way toward ensuring everyone has a good time.