Traditional. Indigenous. Authentic. These are just a few of the words caterers use to describe today's special event menus. Whether Moroccan or Mediterranean, Spanish or Asian, today's culinary offerings sizzle with authentic spices, time-honored traditions, and tried-and-true cooking methods.
Whatever the cuisine, authenticity is in. “We want everything so authentic,” says Kevin Brennan, executive chef at the Detroit Athletic Club in Detroit, “[the guests] can actually taste the difference between Thai and Vietnamese and Chinese cooking.”
However, “Being authentic doesn't mean I have to be a Moroccan person to make Moroccan food,” says Francesco DiGrado, director of catering and production for Culver City, Calif.-based Black Tie Event Productions. “It's a matter of research — finding the spices, finding the herbs, researching how they did it traditionally. It's not just [that] we throw in a spice and we call it Moroccan.”
“We're serving more items with fresh foods and fresh herbs,” says Don Sexaur, chef at Mitchell's Catering and Events of Raleigh, N.C. He says today's catered events feature foods that “are homemade, whole and wholesome.”
Morrocan, Mediterranean, Latin and Asian cuisines continue to spice special event menus with international flair.
Because people are traveling to places “like Bali or Indonesia” on vacation, they are “coming back and demanding that type of food,” notes Donald Stamets, area director of catering and conference services for The Ritz-Carlton, Boston. “Asian food is fun and creative. It's not the typical hotel rubber chicken.”
Latin-themed events are getting hot, notes Gary Marr, CMP, LES, of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Menu items might include “empanadas, but made with something different like ostrich meat with crème fraiche on top.”
David Merrell, president of Los Angeles-based An Original Occasion, says sushi continues to be immensely popular: “Everybody loves sushi. I can pretty much guarantee that I can have sushi on every hors d'oeuvre menu, and no one balks.”
In the face of the trend toward exotic cuisines, Merrell also notes an increased demand for a classic European menu. “Because everybody was looking for the exotic … for so long,” there has been a return to “traditional European standards, like French cuisines and Italian cuisines.”
DiGrado, who has also designed clothing, sees an intrinsic link between food and fashion. “A [food] designer today is also a merchandiser,” he says. “When you have hors d'oeuvre being tray passed, they have to sell themselves. And that's what I create … eye candy.”
Along with beautiful presentation, “people want connectivity,” Merrell notes. Family-style service and interactive food stations best serve this desire, he says. Stamets agrees, noting that an interactive station “showcases how fabulous we can be and allows attendees to be conversational.”
At special events, family-style service offers guests the chance not only to interact with each other but to visually feast upon huge platters heaped with food. “I think people like to see the abundance,” Merrell says.
Even where family-style service is not the norm, portion sizes have increased. Stacy Hagen, director of catering for the W Hotel Seattle, says, “Portions are huge.”
The number of selections has also increased: “Instead of picking just one item,” Sexaur says, caterers are offering “dual-entree plates and dual-entree buffets.”
For every healthy action, there is an opposite, indulgent reaction: “I very rarely get a client who says, ‘I want to do a heart-healthy meal,'” Marr says. “It's more like, ‘I'm away from home; I'm going to have that brownie.’”
“People don't want just one dessert, so we're alternating desserts at the tables,” Hagen notes.
In Detroit, crème brulee is still big, Brennan says. “They love that with fresh berries.” Chocolate is still popular, as is the “goo factor” in desserts, he says.
As clients become more sophisticated, so do their tastes: “It used to be that a catering client would walk into your office and say, ‘I want this’ and leave,” says Curtiss LaCross, director of food and beverage for the Doubletree Hotel Albuquerque and Wyndham Hotel Albuquerque in Albuquerque, N.M. “Now you have to spend several hours with a client to go over the details.” He adds: “They want what their best friend didn't do at [her] wedding.”
RESOURCES: An Original Occasion, 323/467-2111; Black Tie Event Productions, 310/337-9900; Detroit Athletic Club, 313/963-9200; Doubletree Hotel Albuquerque, 505/247-3344; Hyatt Regency Chicago, 312/565-1234; Mitchell's Catering and Events, 919/847-0135; The Ritz-Carlton, Boston, 617/536-5700; W Hotel Seattle, 206/264-6150
For archived articles on this subject click on the following links:
- Clean Plates
By Keri O'Brien; May 2000
W HOTEL SEATTLE
Antipasto Platter with Fire-Roasted Peppers
Imported Prosciutto Ham and Seasonal Melon
Saffron Risotto with Pear and Gorgonzola (made to order)
Grilled Marinated Squash
Sliced Tomatoes and Fresh Mozzarella
Italian Cheeses with Figs and Dried Fruit
THE RITZ-CARLTON, BOSTON
MUSHROOM SAUTE STATION
Portobellos, Shiitakes, and Varietals Served with Soft Polenta and Shaved Parmesan
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
Chicken with the skin on
Truffle oil as a flavoring
Steamed fresh vegetables
Asparagus with hollandaise sauce
Butter and cream
Martinis “are still still hugely popular,” Stamets notes, adding that “presentation is key. The glassware has to be different — bright and colorful.”
“We're really famous for our drops [martinis],” Hagen says. “An emerald drop with Midori [melon liqueur] and Absolut vodka; a rose drop with cranberry Finlandia.” Merrell also notes an increase in energy drinks, such as martinis made with Red Bull.
People like to see specialty drinks, especially at themed events, Merrell adds.
STRAWBERRIES IN TUXEDOS
Gently rinse long-stemmed strawberries and pat dry.
In separate pans, melt white chocolate and milk chocolate over a double boiler. Melt to between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Holding the berry by the stem, submerge 2/3 of the berry into the melted white chocolate.
Set aside on waxed paper and cool until chocolate hardens to form a shell.
After chocolate hardens, dip berries at an angle from both sides in milk chocolate to form the jacket. Set on waxed paper to cool.
Keep chocolates in pans warm. Using a decorator's bag, pipe on milk chocolate to form a bow tie at the neck of the strawberry.
Using tweezers, dip silver dragees into white chocolate and place quickly down center of the berry to form buttons.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.