PAULA LeDUC FINE CATERING, EMERYVILLE, CALIF.
ON THE TABLE: When it comes to buffets, customization is the key to artful presentation. “For every event we do, each buffet is meticulously customized and prototyped to ensure it has the proper balance of functionality and creativity,” says owner Paula LeDuc. “For example, in place of standard banquet tables with linens, we tailor our buffet tables to specific events, such as customized wooden farm tables for country-style events or shelving units for cocktail buffets.” This type of service also cuts down on the washing of linens, notes LeDuc, who is one of the few Green Certified caterers in the San Francisco Bay area. Another way to add impact to the table is by smoking — food, that is. “We have created a tableside process for adding smoke to a menu item by smoking it under a glass dome. It's a great way to engage the chefs with guests,” she explains.
ON THE PLATE: “Because you first eat with your eyes, we believe that the food vessel is as important as the food item itself,” LeDuc says. To that end, she has invested in a sizeable inventory of unique and innovative serving pieces, including bamboo boats and, more recently, French oven-to-table “cocottes,” which she uses for individual pies, cobblers and tarts as well as for savory potato purees, braised short ribs and lobster pot pies. “Customized paper cones and origami pockets are hot new presentation items,” says LeDuc, who uses small paper cones to hold tray passed hors d'oeuvre such as wild mushroom fritters and pommes frites, and artfully folded origami pockets to hold both sweet and savory items such as mini ice cream sandwiches and her personal favorite — mini ahi tuna and crab cones, which are served in copper boxes filled with black sesame seeds. “The chefs build the cones at the station and nestle them into the seeds,” she says. “The surprise factor for guests is more than worth the hours of detailed design and folding.”
ON THE PALATE: Since food must taste as good as it looks, LeDuc doesn't take any chances when it comes to seasoning, opting to create her own spice blends and powders by dehydrating her own organic, farm-fresh vegetables. “One of my favorite new items is a beet powder-dusted, house-smoked salmon, which adds a bright burgundy exterior to the vibrant orange salmon,” she says. “The beet flavor comes through beautifully, as well as adding a gorgeous, eye-popping visual to the dish. Guests are delighted when presented with a dish that takes them by surprise — the ingredients are not as they seem.”
ROSEWOOD MANSION ON TURTLE CREEK, DALLAS
ON THE TABLE: Less is more, according to director of catering Terry Shields, CPCE, CSEP, who prefers clean lines, uncluttered buffet tables, and food stations featuring smaller portions served more often to ensure consistently fresh food at all times. “We've eliminated chafers at buffets and food stations in favor of alternative heating techniques,” he says. “We heat and serve foods in copper skillets over a low flame, with an attendant to stir and replenish so it's always fresh and at the right temperature.” Alternative serving containers are also preferred over traditional plates. “We'll do salads mixed in martini shakers, and serve foods in assorted glassware, such as shooters and Collins or martini glasses,” he adds.
ON THE PLATE: Clean, crisp and fresh are the buzzwords for Shields when it comes how food is plated. “Predominately white china is still the most popular, as it shows off the food the best,” he says. “And no heavy sauces to cover the plates. The food stands on its own.” Pairing earth-toned proteins with bright, delicately drizzled sauces is one way to enhance a plate's color palette, Shields notes, as is how the food is positioned on the plate. “Deconstructing menu items is very popular,” he says. “Visually, the guest sees all of the elements of a well-known dish broken down into its basic form. This also broadens the plate presentation by adding more components to the menu item, allowing for a larger color palette on the plate.” Another trick is to leave the center of the plate open and design the food around the perimeter.
ON THE PALATE: To add simple yet dramatic flair to foods, Shields and his team turn to flavored foams, which can top passed hors d'oeuvre, plated dishes and desserts, and can be hot or cold, sweet or savory, light or dense. “Instead of using a standard sauce or glaze to finish a dish, a foam allows you to add flavor, texture and a visual element without making the dish heavier or more complicated,” he says. “An example would be to replace traditional truffle butter on a plate of gnocchi with a light truffle foam. You keep the truffle element in the composition but make the dish lighter, fresher and more texturally interesting.”
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL, WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CALIF.
ON THE TABLE: Unfrock those tables, says executive chef Mario Alcocer, who prefers contemporary residential furniture in place of the traditional long-skirted buffet table. “Our guests want to feel like they are at a casual restaurant or at a home reflective of the location rather than just another buffet, even if they're attending a corporate event,” he says. At a recent garden-themed event, Alcocer's team created long, rustic farmhouse-inspired wood and copper tables with wine barrels and planter's boxes of herbs as the centerpieces. “We strive to create a buffet atmosphere that will reflect a connection with the food served,” he says.
ON THE PLATE: Small plates rather than enormous platters of food are the norm at Four Seasons. “We focus on individual portions, ensuring that every guest receives the same consistent product,” Alcocer says. “Four Seasons is all about that personal interaction with our guests. It's important for us that our chefs are able to interact with guests and tell them about the local ingredients that may have come from as close as our on-site chef's garden and greenhouse. Again, it's about having that experience that is reflective of the location.”
ON THE PALATE: “Our hotel has a strong commitment to providing healthy dining options for catered events, placing an emphasis on what is locally in season,” Alcocer says. “For our ‘Garden to Table’ events, we've been able to showcase herbs, greens and vegetables grown in our on-site garden. We are currently using hydroponic greens and truffle sauces — food items that people might not expect to find at larger events.”
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL WESTLAKE VILLAGE
PAULA LeDUC FINE CATERING
ROSEWOOD MANSION ON TURTLE CREEK