TWO MAJOR TRENDS define today's catering clients: they demand food that rivals the best of international cuisine, and they yearn for the soothing flavors of home. Successful caterers are those who satisfy both cravings.
“Comfort foods are back,” says caterer Ilene Lander. The owner and president of New York-based Table of Contents notes a post-Sept. 11 demand for “nurturing, wholesome, down-to-earth foods that evoke fond memories, traditions, a good meal shared with friends and family.”
“Since we were one of the cities that was really hit [by 9/11],” adds Eric Michael, co-founder of Washington-based Occasions Caterers, “there has been an enormous renewal of interest in classic, patriotic, homey American food.” He cites potato gratin, chowder, jambalaya and gumbo as common requests.
Even in Vancouver, British Columbia, clients “are really steering away from rich, decadent foods and going more for foods that make them feel warm and fuzzy,” says Debra Lykkemark, president of Vancouver-based Culinary Capers Catering. She puts a modern twist on traditional dishes, serving up such morsels as 2-inch Yorkshire puddings topped with beef tenderloin and horseradish cream.
More important now than ever, says Gary Voorhees, owner of Phoenix-based Arizona Taste Catering, are the basics: “Everything has to be cooked fresh. The key thing is still: hot food is hot, cold food is cold.”
“Our marketplace has become more sophisticated because of travel,” says Pauline Parry, owner of Los Angeles-based Good Gracious! Events. As a result, “We can't just do Southwestern food — we have to regionalize where that food is coming from.” Parry consults the Internet not just for international recipes, but also buffet design ideas. “We have to make sure we're not doing something Mexican-looking for food from Spain,” she says.
Lander considers her clients an invaluable resource. “I encourage people to bring family recipes to me,” she says. “Sometimes we even put a sign on the station — ‘Aunt Tillie's rugalach,’ or whatever it may be — to further personalize it.”
For Michael, the city of Washington offers a wealth of international food know-how. To supplement his multi-ethnic kitchen staff of 50, he will contract international embassy chefs when the need arises. “It may be a little more important here in Washington, because we are serving the diplomatic community,” he admits. “They expect it to be not my idea of Indian, but authentically Indian.”
Creating a sense of abundance without an appearance of excess is a skill modern caterers are cultivating. Parry says “little buffets” that offer a limited range of distinctive flavors are a popular choice in Los Angeles. She recalls a recent event where she offered sesame and lime-cumin tortillas with a variety of spicy dips, chipotle chicken skewers, and an assortment of cookies and tartlets. “It's cost effective, but it doesn't look poor,” she says.
Bruce Barbaree, co-owner of Miami-based Elan Catering, says tapas receptions are hot. “We're butlering great little plates of lobster risotto and things like that. It's very easy to eat … and it creates a lot of conversation among the guests.”
Also topping Barbaree's menus are cocktail-and-appetizer combos he calls “little sips.” “We might do a Bloody Mary gazpacho that's a mix between a cocktail and soup,” he explains. “We'd serve it either in a little sake cup or a shot glass.”
Making a comeback on the service side are family-style meals, many caterers say. Ann Lyons, president and owner of San Francisco-based Melons Catering and Events, points out that family style is fine, as long as the food lends itself to self-service. “If you do chicken, you might do it in a nice sauce so it doesn't dry out on the table,” she says. “Pastas would work well, but not a lasagna. You'd have to do something like a penne that could be scooped.”
Parry likes to freshen up old-fashioned family-style service with contemporary accents. She serves foods in pewter bowls set up on galvanized metal or wooden risers in the middle of square tables. “The food is the centerpiece,” she says. “People are really responsive to that.”
With a tight economy and an increasing demand for restaurant-caliber catered food, caterers are under pressure to rein in costs while keeping quality impeccable.
For Lyons, vigilance in all areas of operations is key. “Staff has to be staggered in,” she says. Negotiating price with food purveyors and rental companies is a must, she adds. “You have to work with them to get the best price — you can't just go to the one you always go to.” Most important, she insists, is keeping a keen eye on quantity. “You've got to check everything that comes in for quality,” she says. “You've got to count, weigh and have the right amount — and not run out, ever.”
Barbaree cites portion control as a crucial concern, particularly when using expensive ingredients. When a client requests pricey stone crab, for instance, Barbaree will pass tapas made with small amounts of crab, rather than letting guests help themselves to crab on a buffet. “The client thinks they're getting endless amounts of stone crab,” he says, “but we don't have to purchase nearly such a large quantity, and we can keep our costs down.”
RESOURCES: Arizona Taste Catering, 602/952-8543; Culinary Capers Catering, 604/875-0123; Elan Catering and Event Design, 305/854-1116; Good Gracious! Events, 323/954-2277; Melons Catering and Events, 415/331-0888; Occasions Caterers, 202/546-7400; Table of Contents, 212/620-0622
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