What Does An Action Station Really Mean?

September 2012 · Chef John Reed, CEC, CCA

I have been asked many times to write menus where a client wants an action station. My question is always, what kind of action are you looking for? I get answers from “I want excitement”, “It would be fun to have a chef making something to order” and “I want something different”. Is there anything really different in any of these answers. These are basically calling signs for bringing a interactive experience of guests to the service staff and culinary team. In other words more of a dining experience found in a restaurant verses a scripted planned meal which is typical of a traditional catered meal.

Caterers have had to compete with restaurants on many things but the hardest is the fact that it is very rare that a caterer can make food “to order” as in a restaurant. We have had experiments such as “restaurant” style service where guests get to choose their entree at the table but even in that case it’s really already been planned and mise en placed “finished” to a high level. The action station is one way to give a sense of that made to order experience either with a carving station or the made to order pasta station. I think both of these should be left at the buffet restaurant at the closest casino. They are tired and not the best way to show off a caterers potential. As an industry we have made great strides in trying to bridge the gap between restaurants and caterers. The skill sets required for the execution of a large plated event verses regular service in brick and mortar restaurant are quite different. An off premise cateter must pick up their restaurant everyday pack it in a truck and set-it up some place else. So with that I believe there are several ways to take the skills and process of the restaurant, such as plating, finishing techniques, use of unique serving pieces to create a restaurant experience for your next dinner party of 250.

Action stations have to be treated as an complete interactive function. The guests must feel that they are part of the process either through making a decision from a visual presentation of pre-plated items or a selection of decorative bowls filled with self-serve small tapas to a interactive station where they actual cook their own dish. Choosing something requires action, its not just chef in a white coat making an omelet. By properly arranging a display of food with a variety options such as a choice of items, that are properly labeled and presented with the correct serving piece is the foundation of an action station. The action was getting the guest excited about the variety and thinking. Carving a piece of tenderloin is not very interactive. The chef is basically a human serving piece.

Here is how I suggest you define your action stations. Don’t think of the food first think of the experience that you are trying to achieve how it will be received by the guest. Every type of guest experience has its time and place and the person planning this must consider this. I wouldn’t advise serving a top your own ice cream sundae bar at $500 a head gala.

Action stations should be now classified as such:

  • Self-choice
  • Customization
  • Visual Stimulation
  • Hands-On
  • Educational

We need to approach the station from the point of the guest experience we strive to create. The food and the action are just the tool to reach the end result.

Have fun with this but don ‘t over think it.

John Reed
Chef John Reed, CEC, CCA
John Reed is a professional chef with over 30 years experience. John has extensive knowledge of culinary techniques, ethnic cuisines, food history and more!

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