How do I cook good food for a VERY large crowd?

I volunteer with a local organization that hosts 4 retreat weekends every year for about 150 people; everyone stays on-site at the retreat center for a long weekend. The spirit of the weekend is "radical hospitality" (to borrow a phrase from the Hedgebrook Cookbook), but the meals are catered by an outside group and are pretty much boring cafeteria food. Worse, the caterers are resistant to accommodating special dietary needs (vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free, etc.)

I have gotten it into my head that I want to take over catering the meals for these retreat weekends. If the organization agrees (and I think they might), I will pull together a team of about 4 people interested in food to cook 9 meals (3 breakfast, 3 lunch, 3 dinner) for 150 people. We will have access to a professional kitchen at the retreat center. Does anyone have any advice on cooking food for that large a crowd?

Here are my goals:

  • Cheap - approx. $3/person/meal
  • Flexible - I don't want to just offer vegetarians a MorningStar patty: meals should be easily modified without major substitutions. Ditto gluten-free.
  • Easy to make in bulk - Fried foods and other things that need to be served quickly won't work well with a small cook crew, but there are warming trays and not everything needs to be made in advance.
  • Wholesome - or homemade or not-cafeteria-food, whatever you want to call it. The bar is pretty low here, and we're not talking about gourmet. Simple food would be appropriate for the setting. But simple in the Alice Waters kind of simple, not the frozen-food kind of simple.

Some ideas I've thought of include a big pot of vegetable soup served with crusty no-work bread and a breakfast taco bar. Any advice on multiplying recipes to serve 150 or making sure that it's all ready at the same time when the participants walk into the dining hall?


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