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Delicious While Distancing: Appetizers for the COVID Age  

Caterers are balancing safety and style for starters today (with a little help from the humble cloche) 

Appetizers and hors d’oeuvre are often “passed” and “shared”—two less-than-ideal options during a pandemic. Fortunately, caterers are finding ways to balance safety, taste and style to keep events special from the very first bite. 

Photo courtesy Ridgewells Catering

Pivot to delivery

 Due to state and local guidelines, Bethesda, Md.-based Ridgewells Catering has transitioned its focus to small soirees and virtual galas, says Katie Fleury, director of sales. 

“Adding food elements to a virtual gala or meeting elevates the event,” Fleury says. “We are transitioning with our clients to help them reimagine their events and make them special, despite the circumstances.” 

She shares this example: "One of our corporate clients planned a virtual partners’ meeting in May and wanted to find a way to make it feel festive. We decided to add a happy hour element to one of the days and delivered beautiful hors d’oeuvre displays and wine to 65 partners. For the ones out of town, we shipped non-perishable desserts two days in advance, so they could enjoy a treat during the happy hour as well!" 

Abby Borden, owner and principal of Table, Set, Go in Los Angeles, shares that caterers have shown creativity and adaptability by offering appetizers and hors d’oeuvre that can be picked up from the caterer and then reheated or prepared at home under the direction of a chef.  

“[Celebrity chef] Curtis Stone, for example, recently participated in a virtual dinner offering his hamachi crudo as a first course, allowing guests to take on the intricate plating themselves,” she says.  

For its virtual fundraising galas, Los Angeles-based Schaffer now offers a “gala box” that is delivered to guests. The box includes a range of foods, including sharable appetizers, depending on the level of donation from the participants, explains Melissa Darpino, director of sales and marketing.  BrucesCatering_TPHD2.jpg
Vegan Hearts of Palm ‘Crabcake’ with a lemon caper remoulade. Photo courtesy Bruce’s Catering.

Safety first

In addition to offering amazing food and orchestrating a beautiful event, event professionals now have taken on responsibilities to keep clients and staff safe. It’s a challenge that Ridgewells Catering has tackled head on with a safety team tasked with setting guidelines for on-site staff. 

“Our team wears masks at all times, we are working in larger kitchen spaces to help staff spread out, and we’re working with our clients on how to safely entertain,” Fleury says.  

Caterers without in-house safety teams can still safely practice their craft by putting commonplace precautions in place.  

“We check temperatures, wear masks and gloves, work behind acrylic screens, and do the necessary physical distancing,” says Pauline Parry, founder and CEO of Los-Angeles based Good Gracious! Events.  

Alexandra Morris, founder of Tastings NYC, says her team is preparing appetizers and other food in their kitchen and individually packing everything to minimize contact with guests at in-person events. “We feel that, right now, this is the safest way to go,” she says.  

Darpino says Schaffer keeps a minimal staffing level at in-person events—two or three max. As an additional layer of safety, Schaffer works to determine what kind of atmosphere staff will be entering prior to the event. “We let the staff know in advance what the event parameters are, so they can make decisions based on their comfort level,” she says.  

Cloches rule

Guests at in-person event find tray-passed appetizers and hors d’oeuvre irresistible, forcing caterers to adjust service to preserve social distancing. 

“Some producers will try to limit the mingling and keep guests to their assigned table,” Borden says. “Some guidelines have mentioned staggered guest arrival times, so to combat both, appetizers and hors d’oeuvre could be sent directly to guests rather than tray-passing.” 

Jerry Edwards, CPCE, president and corporate chef of Chef’s Expressions of Timonium, Md., is also pre-plating hors d’oeuvre during the pandemic. “Guests are handed a small plate with the hors d’oeuvre on it, so no one is touching their food,” he says. 


Photo courtesy Hospitality Collaborative.

Borden mentions how Hospitality Collaborative—a Los Angeles-based group of venues and catering services--has presented offerings under one of the top pandemic catering tools: a cloche dome. “This ‘protects’ the dish from kitchen to table and is a more elegant option than stainless steel plate covers,” Borden says.  

Morris agrees that the cloche is crucial for caterers who are both safety- and presentation-minded. “We follow all the safety guidelines, but we still want to be appealing and curated in the presentation,” she says. “We believe that the self-service buffet will not be a viable option for a while. Passed appetizers are covered with a glass cloche or individually wrapped in paper boxes with a clear top.”  

Darpino explains how Schaffer has gotten creative with passed appetizer service in a socially distanced world. “Traditionally passed items may be served to each group or pod from a long board,” she says. “The server departs the kitchen and only serves that one group from that one board, and remains distant during the hand-off.” 

For buffets and stations, Darpino says that her guests do not serve themselves. Instead, one staff member creates a plate for each guest, and guests stand a proper distance away from the buffet. For plated service, the Shaffer team serves all courses--including appetizer and hors d’oeuvre—topped with, you guessed it, a cloche.  

Popular during a pandemic

With stay-at-home orders, more people are cooking at home. Borden recommends keeping this in mind for upcoming special events. 

“Guests will be looking for those items that are a stretch to do themselves and have been so missed,” she says, “such as freshly shucked oysters, crudo and croquettes, rather than comfort foods like sliders or bruschetta.”  


Photo courtesy Hospitality Collaborative.

Both Edwards and Morris suggest caterers opt for room temperature appetizers and hors d’oeuvre, as individually packed or covered items don’t hold up as well when they’re steaming hot.  

To face a formidable foe like COVID-19, Darpino says Schaffer launched an entirely separate brand, “Shindig,” to help guests entertain during the pandemic. Shindig delivers meals in custom boxes for individuals and small groups. Its “Mingle” box contains sharable appetizers for groups of 10.  

“You can order a few different boxes for the perfect cocktail party or poolside gathering,” Darpino says. “It’s like receiving an amazing meal, but presented as a gift.” 


Chef's Expressions 

Good Gracious! Events 

Ridgewells Catering 


Table, Set, Go! 

Tastings NYC 

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