Four Food-Festival Chefs Share Their Secrets to Cooking for a Large Group

Geoffrey Zakarian, Robert Irvine, Spike Mendelsohn and more offer advice for the harried home chef

October 14, 2021 8:20 am
A view of the crowd during the Food Network's rooftop birthday party hosted by Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and Ina Gart at Pier 92 on October 13, 2018 in New York City. Several celebrity chefs provide tips for cooking for large groups of people.
A typical hungry crowd during the New York City Wine and Food Festival.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for NYCWFF

This year’s New York City Wine and Food Festival features dozens of foodie events around the city and hundreds of chefs, who will together be preparing meals for about 45,000 hungry people in the least ideal conditions.

And those 45,000 paying customers would like their food — prepped by teams led by their favorite Food Network chefs — to be delicious, served quickly and, let’s be honest, Instagrammable.

It’s a tall order, and the chefs themselves have to work in very crowded and unfamilair conditions. Those makeshift prep areas are certainly not up to par with a restaurant’s galley, and their comfort levels will certainly be off. (Add in a pandemic and additional work/attendance safety requirements, and the job gets that much harder.)

So, how do you please thousands of people with delicious food served in an expeditious manner? We asked four all-star chefs participating at the NYCWFF — Geoffrey Zakarian, Robert Irvine, Spike Mendelsohn and Matt Abdoo — their food festival prep secrets, and got a few hacks for home chefs who may be facing a larger-than-expected guest list this fall or winter. 

NYCWFF chefs Matt Abdoo, Spike Mendelsohn, Geoffrey Zakarian and Robert Irvine
NYCWFF chefs Matt Abdoo, Spike Mendelsohn, Geoffrey Zakarian and Robert Irvine
Courtesy of the NYCWFF

The good news? A lot of prep before an event and some positive thinking can go a long way. “I’ve been at this long enough where I don’t even see these kinds of situations as obstacles any more,” says Irvine, host of Dinner: Impossible and this year’s popular NYCWFF Steak and Whiskey event. “As long as you have all the equipment to get the job done and keep everything hot, you’re golden.” 

To start, bring only what you need

“For an event like this, everything is recipe driven. All of the ingredients and equipment that you need have to be brought on-site, which means we are extremely thorough in planning,” says Zakarian, an Iron Chef, Chairman of City Harvest’s Food Council and popular TV host who is overseeing the Farmer’s Market Brunch on Saturday. “We send detailed equipment lists beforehand, even with pictures included. Not less than we need or more than we need, but it has to be right.” As well, Zakarian notes that prep work or primary cooking for his events is never done at the actual NYCWFF location .

For some chefs, it’s also about getting help where they can, including from other food fest participants. “The only thing more important than a good neighbor is a meticulous packing list,” says Abdoo, the Pig Beach Executive Chef & Partner who’s a part of three NYCWFF events (Burger Bash, Dinner with Chris Lilly, Matt Abdoo, Shane McBride and Backyard BBQ). “If you forget your tongs, you’re either tong-less or hoping that one of your neighbors has an extra set, and is kind enough to let you borrow them.” 

Keep your menu simple (and your ingredients organized)

If you’re feeding a lot of hungry and anxious mouths, now is not the time to get experimental. “We’ve learned over time it’s best to keep in simple and delicious. There’s so much food at these events that sometimes the simplest of dishes get the most traction,” says Mendelsohn, a Food Network personality and co-founder of PLNT Burger. He’s also one of many celebrity chefs participating in Thursday’s Burger Bash, usually the Fest’s most popular and chaotic event.

Two burgers from NYCWFF's Burger Bash, possibly the most popular event
Burger Bash, possibly the most popular of all the NYCWFF events
Courtesy of NYCWFF

And whatever you do, use … Microsoft Excel? “You think I’m joking, but cooking for a lot of people involves a lot of math, so me and my team do most of our planning on spreadsheets,” says Irvine. “It starts with the question of how many guests we’re likely to have and everything is calculated from that. From the big things like meat and potatoes all the way down to condiments, salt and pepper.”

It’s all about advance preparation (even for home chefs)

All four chefs suggest home cooks prepping for a large party should get as much done at least 24 hours earlier. “The word is mis en place — that’s the French word get your things in order,” says Mendelsohn. “I always like prepping the day before as much as I can. This way I can just do some of the finishing touches the day of the event and enjoy the company.”

“Don’t cook anything you don’t know well,” adds Zarkarian, who also provides this fantastic hosting cheat/hack: “Order dessert or hors d’oeuvres from a great local place. It’s a total fallacy that you must make everything from scratch for a dinner party.”

Still, you’re not facing the same logistics as the NYCWFF crews. For them, just an advance 24 hours isn’t enough. “We start planning out all of our food orders, staffing and logistics four weeks out,” Abdoo admits. “And meal prep starts about seven days before the event date.”

And finally, wherever you are, get some help

“I have three executive chefs who work for me, and one of them will arrive the day before, get to work with a couple of sous chefs, and start doing all the basic prep,” says Irvine. “And I take my own advice — I want to enjoy the night, too! I don’t care how big the party is. We’ve cooked multi-course meals for events with as many as 5,000 people. Even on a night like that, you won’t see anyone scrambling around my kitchen trying to make last-minute preparations. All the hard work is done in the prep phase.”

The Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Capital One (NYCWFF) runs Oct. 14-17. NYCWFF events raise funds for food non-profits including God’s Love We Deliver and Food Bank For New York City. For tickets go here.


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