In difficult times, comfort is key. And in the realm of events, that comfort comes in large part from the caterer's kitchen. In our May cover story, leading off-premise caterers talk about a continuing call for warm service and fresh flavors, as diners seek sustenance for body and soul.
Caterers concur: Today's event guests go for food that feels hearty and familiar, though new twists on old favorites abound.
“Comfort food has been the biggest trend of the last year and a half,” says Sandra Ross Jones, creative director for Arlington, Va.-based Design Cuisine. Citing the East Coast's “hard, cold winter” as a primary factor, she says “stew bars” have become a hot commodity among her capital-region clients. A typical station might feature such selections as vegetarian stew, lamb stew and bouillabaisse, all presented in large copper tureens. Sides could include mashed potatoes or spaetzle — “and great bread,” she says. “Everybody loves great bread right now.”
Los Angeles-based caterer Gai Klass recently served her own version of Irish lamb stew, with seared lamb slices fanned on top. “People loved it,” she says. “They could have that great country taste and the heartiness, but the meat wasn't all cooked to death.” She lists other top comfort foods as French fries, Philadelphia cheese steak sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese, “but maybe with shaved truffles.”
Meanwhile, good old fashioned fish and chips is one of the most requested hors d'oeuvre at New York-based Abigail Kirsch, says partner and chief culinary officer Alison Awerbuch. Her company updates the British staple, filling miniature paper cones with crispy cornmeal-spiced crayfish and fries, served with malt vinegar aioli for dipping.
The warming trend in events has meant a rise in demand for diminutive menu items — ideal for guest movement and mingling, caterers contend.
Atlanta-based Affairs to Remember gives event guests a moveable treat with its “sushitini bar,” says senior catering consultant Rich Wilner. The bar features oversize martini glasses housing sticky rice cakes topped with soy-marinated tuna, served with wasabi cream, pickled ginger and “a bevy of condiments and sauces from mellow to fierce.”
An increase in requests for vegetarian and heart-healthy options is inspiring Asian-influenced mobile menu items at Indianapolis-based Hoaglin Fine Catering. Company president Rob Hoaglin reports that popular choices are wild rice scallion cakes, Vietnamese chicken salad in won ton cups, and baby cucumber cups with soba noodles in a sesame-ginger vinaigrette.
“People like to get up and get moving during dessert time,” says Jones, who accommodates clients with a full menu of miniature desserts. Favorites include cheesecake and chocolate-truffle lollipops, as well as crème brûlée and tiramisu in demitasse cups, and strawberry trifle served in a cordial glass.
LIKE THE LOOK
Adding to the comfort-zone atmosphere prevalent at today's events is a movement toward playful presentation.
Hoaglin's catering crew focuses on lighting, creating vignettes for specific theme stations with illuminated fabric panels. Also on the menu at his operation: “A lot of vertical buffets, especially where space is an issue. We might do large Lucite panels in triangles, circles and squares, and suspend them from the ceiling. They can also be lit from underneath.”
Awerbuch says Abigail Kirsch concentrates on “doing things that truly showcase the [guest of honor's] passions, lifestyle, history, etc.” A recent beach wedding for a pair of yachting enthusiasts prompted the company to lay out miniature raw bars — hammered buckets heaped with shellfish, tiny bottles of Tabasco and cocktail-sauce-filled scallop shells — each meant to be shared by four guests for a more social setting.
Jones says the trend in her market is toward “beautiful plated presentations on unusual plates.” She adds, “Round plates are on their way out totally.” So what's in? “Square, rectangular, wavy-edge and pentagonal plates [in] whites and blacks, [and] different colored glass.”
A FINE BALANCE
For caterers themselves, comfort often comes from a strong bottom line. In a market marked by economic uncertainty, many are taking serious measures to keep costs in check while delivering quality.
“Thinking and buying regionally and seasonally helps you to keep quality high,” Jones says. “We try to teach clients to stay with seasonal menus, and we try to use a lot from West Virginia farms, a lot of mid-Atlantic produce, Chesapeake Bay products.”
Klass keeps costs reined in by overseeing every operational detail, from grocery shopping to packing out each event her company serves. “Where I might put 10 percent extra on a party to make sure I don't run out, if I were working for somebody else and I knew that my head might be chopped off if I ran out of something, I may pad the party by 20 percent,” she explains. “That's a huge waste to a catering company.”
For Hoaglin, helping clients with cost control helps his own operation succeed. In January 2002, his company launched a new division called American Pie Catering to provide “more budget-focused, streamlined packages” as an alternative to Hoaglin Fine Catering's custom product. He says the spinoff has helped bring in many new clients. At the same time, it has allowed him to create picnics, barbecues and other low-key fêtes for current high-end clients who may have turned to a different caterer for their more casual events. The two divisions fulfill a single catering approach, he says: “Great home-cooked-type foods, just at different price points.”
Abigail Kirsch, 914/631-3030; Affairs to Remember, 404/872-7859; Design Cuisine, 703/979-9400; Gai Klass, 310/559-6777; Hoaglin Fine Catering/American Pie Catering, 317/924-3389
Caterers' top drink picks for today's event bars:
Passion Fruit Martini
Rum and Coke
HOT OR NOT
Food fads or the new menu movement? You be the judge.
“Cheese is really happening. I love to pair it with a really good specialty honey — like a Provence or sunflower honey — and well-toasted walnuts and, when they're in season, figs and persimmons.”
— Gai Klass
“Condiments are in. Today, people buy 10 different kinds of olive oil and 12 different kinds of vinegar, mustards, that kind of thing. I'll put glamour salts and glamour peppers on the menu, right in the food description.”
— Sandra Ross Jones, Design Cuisine
“Sea bass, veal and foie gras are yesterday. Anything over-finished or considered ‘inhumane,’ even by carnivore standards, is not to be actively sold by the considerate, informed caterer.”
— Patrick Cuccaro, Affairs to Remember
“Stacks and tall food — we don't see that. We see things going in a completely different direction.”
— Rob Hoaglin, Hoaglin Fine Catering/American Pie Catering