Catering Chef and Moveable Feast


Outdoor catering is a cherished memory for most Taiwanese, as the lively feast is an integral part of various celebrities, such as weddings, funerals, and birthdays of gods, held in the streets or temples. Indeed, this traditional food culture truly represents the taste of Taiwan.

“Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast” is a 2013 Taiwanese hit movie that highlights the importance of the desk culture which emphasizes on the craftsmanship of the catering chef. Even each chef has a signature dish, the same dish has a different taste when cooked by different chefs. However, nowadays, the outdoor catering culture is gradually losing many of its time-consuming traditional dishes. People’s changing eating habits, coupled with the prevalence of Western dining, have contributed to this decline.

Outdoor catering is popular in central and southern Taiwan. Photo/Jing-Yi Wu

What it Takes to Become a Catering Chef

Chen, Yong-feng, an outdoor catering chef from Kaohsiung, has been in this profession for over 40 years. He previously worked as a restaurant chef for 20 years which has given him a great deal of experience in catering. Chen developed his love for cooking when he was young and had to cook for himself as his family was often busy. Over time, he was approached by his relatives to do table cooking by chance, and started his 40 years of outdoor catering.

Chen, Yong-feng shared that chefs usually handle two to three orders a day, with 20 tables in each order. However, for special festivals such as the birthday of the Lord of the Land or major festivals in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, they will have to serve up to 300 to 400 tables a day.

On such busy days, unexpected situations are common.The most unforgettable experience Chen, Yong-feng had encountered in his career was the flood caused by Typhoon Morakot in 2009. “The stove all floated up so they had to be moved indoors to the basement, but the gutter underneath was also flooded,”  Chen recalled. He added that since outdoor catering’s venue is often affected by natural disasters without warning, it is a test for the catering chefs to respond quickly. In addition to dealing with off-site problems, catering chefs also need to constantly check on the serving time.

Moreover, catering chefs are meticulous especially in designing menus. Chen, Yong-feng cited some examples. In accordance with the traditional customs in Taiwan, chickens are usually the first dish served in house warming banquets as chicken means starting a family in Taiwanese. For funerals, chefs need to avoid food such as bitter melon and sour bamboo shoots, because the bereaved family already feel pitiful and sad. Chen also emphasized that as a catering chef, satisfying customers’ needs is his top priority.

Chen cooking Taiwanese pork stew with bamboo shoots. Photo/Jing-Yi Wu

Preparing for Outdoor Catering

The outdoor catering menu usually consists of dishes such as seafood platters, shark fin soup, steamed fish, steamed mud crab with glutinous rice, black silky chicken soup, braised pork ball in brown sauce, Taiwanese pork stew with bamboo shoots, pork tripe stew chicken and so on. Chen,Yong-feng’s signature dishes are Dong-Po pork, shark fin soup, steamed fish, braised pork ball in brown sauce, and rice cake, which he specially recommends to foreigners.

Following Chen, Yong-feng’s team from eight o’clock in the morning, one can experience the complete outdoor catering process. After transporting the ingredients and cooking utensils into the workplace, all of his staff started to prepare the delicacies. Some staff made soup, while others were in charge of chopping. Chen pointed out that in preparing the meal, there is a standard operating procedure when processing ingredients, such as weighing and distributing ingredients to ensure that the taste of each preparation is consistent.

More than a dozen of Chen’s staff members worked all day long from morning until three in the afternoon, before taking a short break. At five o’clock, some ingredients such as fish, seafood, and vegetables had to be cooked immediately. Since these ingredients couldn’t be processed twice, they were usually set aside and cooked directly to maintain the freshness and taste. Finally, after the guests were seated, the staff plated them according to the instructions of the catering chef, while the waiters served the dishes.

Catering chef and staff are making final preparations. Photo/Jing-Yi Wu

Innovation Without Losing Traditional Taste

In recent years, Chen, Yong-feng has been constantly adjusting and updating his outdoor catering dishes. He took notice of customers’ preferences and slowly made changes to his menu. For example, due to the rising environmental awareness, shark tail skin or fish maw is used instead of shark fins, and traditional cut sashimi is transformed into freshly sliced tuna show to add spice to the feast. New delicacies such as steamed mud crab with glutinous rice, vermicelli with pig’s knuckle, and steamed mud crab with vermicelli are some of the new dishes served in outdoor catering feasts. Among other things, Chen knew that his guests are familiar with the traditional delicacies, so he didn’t want them to guess the next dish easily, hoping to give them some surprises by presenting his guests with new dishes.

Chen, Yong-feng turns traditional sashimi plate into freshly cut tuna show. Photo/Chin-Mei Hsiao

Comparing the difference between the past and present outdoor catering feast culture, Chen, Yong-feng mentioned that in the past, outdoor catering feasts were large in scale and casual in atmosphere, and most of the ingredients were purely handmade. Nowadays, chefs have paid more attention to plate presentation and sanitation, and some ingredients will be processed by machines to save time.

Food processing was mostly done by hand in the past. Photo/Chin-Mei Hsiao

In Chen, Yong-feng’s opinion, innovation in outdoor catering feast culture doesn’t necessarily require changing the dishes or tastes. As a matter of fact, outdoor catering feast has been seriously hit in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. For survival’s sake, catering chefs thought of making outdoor catering feast delicacies into cooking packages, or distributing the delicacies as individual servings which are but some of their alternative measures. As for the transformation of the outdoor catering feast culture in the past few years, Chen admitted that this industry has gradually declined, but catering chefs are also making changes slowly over times, not only to keep up with the times, but also to please the palates of their guests. It is the hope of the catering chefs to preserve the traditional taste, while presenting new flavors to attract more customers. With the delication of these chefs, the art of outdoor catering will be passed down from generation to generation and become one of Taiwan’s showstoppers.

Presentation plays an important role in outdoor catering. Photo/Jing-Yi Wu
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