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Driftwood appetizer tray

The Right Start: Appetizers Get Events Rolling

Top caterers share trends in appetizer recipes and special presentation techniques for special events

Ferris wheel from Occasions CaterersPURPOSEFUL PRESENTATION “Many of our passing trays are purpose-built for specific hors d’oeuvre,” says Eric Michael, co-owner of Washington-based Occasions Caterers. For example, smoked scallops with minted pea puree on potato crisps are served in scallop shells perched over a tray of driftwood. The same notion holds true for stationary buffets. “Our custom Ferris wheel (at left) is both an attraction and a one-of-a-kind moving hors d’oeuvre buffet,” he says. At nine feet tall, the working wheel offers hors d’oeuvre, tiny salads, small plates appetizers and even cocktails.

At Indianapolis-based Thomas Caterers of Distinction, executive chef Rach Keovorabouth pairs food and music for tray-passed hors d’oeuvre presentations. “Traditional Japanese music was played through tiny speakers hidden in a tray of our Japanese vegetable pancakes topped with a beef asparagus roll and ginger-Worcestershire dipping sauce,” she explains.

For David Casteel, principal, Mitchell’s Catering, Raleigh, N.C, alternative serving trays--such as pink Himalayan salt blocks, even game boards--help elevate the theme.

“Customers are veering away the traditional large displays and platters—crudités, in particular, are getting a makeover,” adds Michele Polci, CPCE, CMP, director of citywide catering sales/Las Vegas, Caesars Entertainment National Meeting and Events. Rather than a tray of veggies with assorted dips, Polci suggests placing mini vegetable bundles in small vessels with the accompaniment—baba ganoush, hummus or tzatziki—at the base. Wendy Pashman, president of Chicago’s Entertaining Company, cleverly combines food and drink with cheeseburger sliders served atop mini mugs of root beer.


VIVA LA VEGETABLES! Once seen merely as a boon to the budget, vegetable-based appetizers are a sought-after option, a tasty mainstay on both tray and buffet.

“Food is trending towards a more plant-based, wellness-focused philosophy,” says Deb Lykkemark, CEO and founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Culinary Capers. “We are always looking for ways to make delicious, innovative food that is vegetable-centric and gluten-free.” To that end, the caterer has veered away from the traditional toasted bread base, using alternative ingredients such as puffed wild rice, celery root bark, puffed quinoa, pickled potato, celeriac and tapioca--to name a few--with great success. Favorites include beet root tartare on crispy celery root with horseradish cream, and a gluten-free savory pumpkin tart with fresh cheese and a caramelized onion reduction.

For Richard Mooney, president of Los Angeles-based Kensington Caterers, vegetable-based bites are among his highest sellers, notably a burrata, pickled vegetable and smoked granola shooter, brioche avocado cumin toast with heirloom tomato concasse and smoked sea salt [in photo above], and crispy polenta croquetas with Spanish manchego and roasted piquillo pepper dipping sauce.

“We do a ton of budget-friendly vegetarian hors d’oeuvre,” adds Keovorabouth. Most popular are the mozzarella en carozzas with caper mayonnaise, savory spinach and artichoke cream puffs, and bruschetta tomato tuiles filled with Parmesan mousse garnished with balsamic glaze and basil crystals.

FEASTS FROM THE EAST “Some recent trends with staying power are boldly flavored bites with ethnic ties,” says Michael, specifically the Middle East, with traditional spices sumac and za’atar enhancing dishes such as falafel waffles with fattouche salad and spicy tahini yogurt and sea bass rolled in fresh grape leaves with tahini sauce. Desirable charred, smoky flavors are added through the use of ash syrups and oils, charred vegetables, ash-veined cheeses, and bruléed finishes. 

The full story appears in the Fall issue of Special Events. Not a subscriber? We can fix that; just click here.

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