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Our annual review of catering trends reveals that guests no longer want fancy, formal, fussed-over food. Caterers tell Special Events Magazine how they are creating fare that is fresh, vivid and clean.

Kai Loebach of Los Angeles-based Kai's European Catering says food prepared simply is popular. "What I want people to taste is the freshness and individual taste of the food itself," he says. "You can marinate Chilean sea bass, but you don't have to overpower it." People are weary of fussy fare, such as lobster with vanilla sauce. "They want something that is easily identified and isn't mixed with anything," Loebach adds. "What good does it do if everyone is asking, 'What is this?'"

Loebach says he uses only the finest products available. "When I do caviar, I only use triple-zero beluga-the best money can buy," he says. "If the client doesn't have the budget for it, I don't serve it. The guests don't know the client was trying to cut corners, but they will ask, 'Who was the caterer who served that lumpy caviar?'"

PAR FOR THE COURSE While the three-course seated dinner will always be a catering staple, some caterers are cooking up new options.

Jolene Ihle, vice president of sales for St. Paul, Minn.-based Apples Catering, says tasting menus-which feature smaller portions of a larger variety of foods-are popular. "They've been big with restaurants and are now moving into the catering side," she says.

One of her popular hors d'oeuvre is a shrimp shooter-two tail-on shrimp in a tall shot glass filled with tequila-charged pico de gallo and a marinated green bean.

For dinner parties, Loebach usually prepares a three-course meal consisting of a seated appetizer, an entree and dessert. Even so, he finds that people are not eating as much. "People are more health conscious," he says. "The customers I deal with want organically grown vegetables and meats."

PLATTER CHATTER Food portions might be getting smaller, but serving plates are heading in the opposite direction.

Norman LeBlanc, director of catering for The Ritz-Carlton, Montreal, prefers oversize plates for his events. "Using something larger than a standard 10-inch plate gives me room to create a presentation around the food," he says.

Mary Dearborn, vice president of sales for New York-based Restaurant Associates, agrees that food is visually more appealing on a larger plate. "We use a lot of the white chop-style plate," she says.

Restaurant Associates often partners with rental companies to keep its array of serving equipment fresh. "We are bored to tears with silver platters and ballroom chairs," Dearborn says.

ETHNIC IS ELECTRIC Ethnic flair-particularly pan-Asian-is still a crowd pleaser and for good reason, according to Andrew Spurgin, director of catering for Waters Fine Catering, San Diego. "It's light and healthy with fabulous flavors and artful presentation," he says.

Paula LeDuc, owner of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering in Emeryville, Calif., recently created an Asian station in response to clients' requests. The station offers green tea soba noodles, smoked shrimp and a spicy Thai basil sauce.

One of her most requested hors d'oeuvre is an ahi tuna cone. "It's a mini wonton cone filled with ahi tuna, wasabi, tobiko caviar [flying fish roe] and scallion cream. We serve it in a bowl filled with sesame seeds," she says.

Restaurant Associates specializes in museums and performing arts theaters as venues. As a result, "many of our clients are interested in designing a menu that relates to exhibits," Dearborn says. "For Nam June Paik, a Korean-born artist who was exhibiting at the Guggenheim, we took a Continental dish and gave it Korean flair." She served Jonah crab timbales with baby spinach kimchi, the ubiquitous Korean condiment of fermented vegetables.

Ethnic flair is also showing up in decor. Waters Fine Catering catered a wedding coordinated with the help of a feng shui expert. Feng shui is the practice of arranging space to put people in accord with nature. "The table configuration for the reception had to be in a triangle with all of the guest tables arranged around the triangle," says Mary Therese Waters, sales and design executive. "When we set the tables, we weren't allowed to set anything in groups of four because the words 'four' and 'death' are pronounced the same way in Japanese."

LIQUID ASSETS Martinis are still the popular cocktail of choice, but many caterers are finding a market for alcohol-free concoctions. "We are serving a lot of aqua fresca," says Waters Fine Catering president Mary Kay Waters, sister-in-law to Mary Therese. "We take cantaloupe, mango or watermelon juice and blend it with sugar and water. It's wonderful and fresh, and the color is so intense."

Waters Fine Catering also makes a mean lemonade by mixing the juice of Meyer lemons with effervescent water and garnishing it with a lemongrass swizzle stick.

Fun drinks are even more festive served in interesting glasses. "People are doing glassware upgrades," Mary Kay says. "They're spending more money on the actual glass, whether it's an oversize martini glass or a finer crystal."

SIGNATURE SERVICE Quality service is important at any catered event. But it can also be an icebreaker. Apples Catering uses eight different chef performance stations to help spark conversations between the chefs and the guests.

At the pasta bar, guests choose which vegetables to mix in and then pick a sauce. They also select the amounts of garlic, basil, oregano and tarragon they want to add.

Ihle says 50 percent of her company's clients use the performance stations. "People want to eat and go. With the food stations, guests think, 'I can swing in and out,' as opposed to a seated dinner."

LeDuc also uses interactive stations. "For us, the interaction between the chef and the guests is more interesting than a flat party where guests just pick up the food," she says.

Restaurant Associates has a simple way to encourage guests to interact: Skip the servers. "We create cocktail table vignettes of foods," Dearborn says. Square silver bowls feature nicoise olives and herb grissini, while French porcelain plates present a variety of cheeses or salmon mousse served with toast points.

"They make interesting centerpieces, and it's practical if the waiter isn't reaching everyone with hors d'oeuvre," she adds.HAPPY ENDINGSWhen it comes to en ding a good meal, caterers agree that guests still want dessert.

LeBlanc says that Montrealers fancy choc-olate but crave variety. "People want to mix and match different desserts at the table," he says.

He offers guests a choice of two desserts. "One might be a pear hollowed out and filled with creme brulee, and the second a chocolate souffle served with a berry compote."

At a table of eight, LeBlanc will provide four different desserts and let the guests mix and match.

Ihle also gives her guests a choice. "We set up a miniature bakery with a display front case," she says. "People can tell the bakery attendant what they want. The case even has broken cookie samples on top."

With so many choices and fine-dining establishments, diners are becoming more sophisticated about cuisine. "They're willing to try new approaches to service and choosing foods that perhaps aren't the 'safe' choice," Spurgin says, "but thinking it might be something they remember, talk about and enjoy."

Resources: Apples Catering, 651/642-1049; Kai's European Catering, 310/204-4450; Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, 510/547-7825; Restaurant Associates, 212/789-8147; The Ritz-Carlton, Montreal, 514/840-1911; Waters Fine Catering, 619/276-8803

WHAT'S ON THE MENU Orange-, lemon- and truffle-infused oils

Organic vegetables and meats

Pan-Asian-influenced cuisine

Oversize serving plates and bowls

Tasting menus

Interactive and chef performance stations

WHAT'S OFF Complicated recipes

Heavy cheese and cream sauces

Huge dessert tables

Big portions

Many caterers use beautiful plates to enhance presentation.

Mary Kay Waters, president of Waters Fine Catering in San Diego, uses a variety of small plates. "Instead of the traditional salad, entree and dessert, I'll create four or five plates, each one a meal in itself," she says.

For each course, Waters selects a different plate. Here's a sample small-plate menu:

MUTED charcoal Japanese porcelain plate presenting a peekytoe crab timbale

FROSTED white plate serving sablefish with black Chinese rice

GREEN French glass plate featuring a shiitake mushroom stack with ratatouille

CLASSIC Victorian porcelain plate offering squab with artichoke hearts, English peas and crisp kumquat brioche

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