Talk Of The Town

TOAST talks to By Word of Mouth about artful catering

Dinner for five hundred guests, deconstructed beef wellingtons and food as art: Toast discovers that it’s all in a day’s work for By Word of Mouth’s Justin Tinne.

Aspiring actors working as jobbing waiters may be par for the course in Los Angeles, but not so much in late 1970s Britain. For Justin Tinne though, waitering at private events was the start of a career spanning more than three decades  - and he wouldn’t swap it for the stage if you paid him.

Now Managing Director at upscale events and catering firm By Word of Mouth, Justin initially wanted to enrol at drama school after an exotic childhood spent abroad in Mozambique and Papua New Guinea, via schooling in Cheshire. But he realised early on that acting wasn’t for him, and spotting a gap in the market, decided to set up a waitering firm to cater for private events instead.

“It sounds odd, but in those days, there simply were no young wait staff in that sphere,” he says. “Service came courtesy of a very professional but rather starchy blue rinse brigade. At a corporate or private event, they’d turn up, serve up, and go home. It was always silver service too – no-one would dream of plating up.”

A fortuitous meeting with Jane Lloyd Owen, a Londoner who’d set up her own catering firm from her kitchen, set the wheels in motion. Her approach was a wholly different, roll-up-your-sleeves affair. The pair joined forces and as a tiny team of three (cook, driver and coordinator), they tackled events across London and beyond, from private dinner parties to weddings.

“In those days it was all rather ad-hoc,” says Justin. “We got work through connections and there were no chef’s whites – more a case of leopard skin leggings and suede boots accompanied by a glass of wine over the stove. But food was always the star of the show and that’s what got us talked about.”

It’s true that no company’s ethos is better defined by its brand name than this one. In an age of bells and whistles, By Word of Mouth’s reputation has grown organically, out of recommendation and client loyalty. The company was sold fifteen years ago, with Justin taking the helm, but that family approach remains at its core.

By Word Of Mouth Photo Credit By Word Of Mouth

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(Image Credits: By Word of Mouth)

The tech and foodie landscape has altered dramatically since its inception, but the business has grown with it, expanding to a regular team of forty with access to at least 300 professionals when occasion demands. And there’s little this firm hasn’t taken on, from lavish four-day weddings in Italy and celeb money-no-object birthday parties, to elegant previews at the Royal Academy, Harry Potter film premieres and this year’s Vogue 100 party at Hyde Park.

“The stakes are higher than ever as everyone strives to host something fresh and creative,” reflects Justin. “We love being across new trends, whether that’s the street food revolution or molecular dining experiences, but for us it will always come down to attention to detail. Are there enough staff and chefs on site? Have we got a strong back-of-house crew? At the end of the day, it’s all about delivery, from service to experience, and we are only ever as good as our last job.”

By Word Of Mouth Copyright Photograph Credit Holly Clark Photography

(Image Credit: By Word Of Mouth Holly Clark Photography)

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(Image credit: By Word Of Mouth, Toby Stoneham)

Ask Justin what the most memorable events are that he’s overseen, and the sheer number of them temporarily stumps him. Today, he’s delivering an event for 500-plus guests at the V&A, and on any given evening, the team may be co-ordinating up to seven separate parties. Oh, and there’s the small matter of organising the upcoming fiftieth birthday party of a political luminary but he won’t be drawn on who.

“The minutiae is incredibly exacting,” he concedes. “The client who’s planning a memorable wedding on an Italian mountainside won’t have considered how Granny is going to get up the hill. That’s our job.”

The growth of travel, social media and international dining has each had an impact on the events industry and ‘shared experience’ has become the post-millennial buzzword. But Justin is refreshingly candid about the changes he’s seen.

“Twenty five years ago, most catering firms bought in their puddings and made canapés in advance,” he says. “Now food is cooked in situ, often as part of the experience, and dedicated pastry chefs are a must.”

Though all-out, lavish events completely unfaze him, Justin welcomes the return of the retro – albeit with a contemporary twist. “It’s fun revisiting the classics, perhaps deconstructing a prawn cocktail or a traditional beef wellington,” he says. “It’s interesting that clients are returning to those flavours. The difference is in the provenance, sustainability and informal presentation. People are less interested in sit-down dinners and love to eat on the hoof.”

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By Word Of Mouth 3

By Word Of Mouth 2

(Image Credits: By Word of Mouth)

Anticipating the next hot trend can be a daunting task, but durability has more to do with a personal touch than forecasting fashion, believes Justin. “Remember, it’s the details that count,” he counsels, “whether that’s monogramming a linen napkin with your guest’s name on it, or providing them with a personalised goody bag.”

It turns out there’s not such a leap between hosting a spectacular event and being on the stage. They both require an element of theatre and chutzpah  - fortunately, Justin has both in spades. LA’s loss looks like London’s gain. 

Want to host a dinner or drinks party with pizzazz? Here are Justin Tinne’s top tips: 

  • Make a splash from the outset with a beautiful paper invitation. The secret of a great party lies in anticipation. For a guest, there’s nothing like handling a personal invite. Being able to prop it on the mantelpiece or a shelf is all part of the experience
  • Don’t forget the art of conversation. Seat guests inventively, pairing people who’ll have something in common or who will pique each other’s interests. A good host will do more than introduce – they will briefly say why they have seated one guest next to another to get the conversation started
  • Add that personal touch, even if it’s as simple as having each guest’s name at the top of every individual menu, whether in print or in beautiful calligraphy
  • Remember, it’s not about impressing; it’s about creating a congenial atmosphere. Mix old and young, take care of every guest and let the food and wine flow.

Posted in Spotlight

by Emma J Page
on on 24 October 2016

  catering, entertaining, food theatre

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