THE HEAT THAT event professionals feel isn't coming just from the kitchen.
"Competition for the event business has increased dramatically," says industry consultant Ray Coen, based in Pacific Palisades, Calif. "Before, hotels and other banquet-dedicated facilities were the only event sites. But now restaurants, nightclubs, museums and even aquariums are aggressively pursuing events. The result is a wider selection of menu ideas, as well as a wider range of pricing."
The quality of the food and its presentation remain top priorities for caterers and their clients, from Beverly Hills to Boston, Palm Beach to Seattle.
"The average banquet consumer has become quite educated," says Bryan Dillon, area chef for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which is completing a $100 million renovation of the Sheraton Boston Hotel and Towers this summer. "People paying first-tier prices don't want food that looks like it came out of a computer or a conveyor belt," says Dillon.
"Food presentation at the best events these days mirrors the top a la carte restaurant presentations," adds Charles Kirschner, director of catering for the Sheraton Boston. This summer, the hotel will introduce its new Sheraton Select Service, which features set appetizers and salads for dinner parties, but individual orders from guests from among three different entrees. "We want to personalize the party-goer's meal," he says.
GRAZING THE GLOBE "Probably the biggest trend we're seeing with corporate events is what I call 'international grazing'-serving a bite of two or three little things, rather than a big plate of chicken or beef," says Bill Garrett, director of catering and special events for SMG Catering, food purveyors for the Long Beach (Calif.) Aquarium of the Pacific and the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. "For a recent party for Compaq Computer, we set up a tapas bar, a huge table offering a variety of little appetizers."
"After food quality, presentation is everything," notes Charlie Crawford, owner of White Apron Catering Co., West Palm Beach, Fla. When the local Cartier store hired White Apron to cater its opening bash, Crawford and his team "did tiny hors d'oeuvre made to look like jewels. We placed rock salt on large silver trays, created a nest using fresh herbs, and served the food atop these nests. We followed the same theme for dessert, but used rock candy instead of rock salt."
Kirschner reports that mini seafood sampler platters, displayed on banquet tables, make appealing first courses: "For sit-down banquets, presenting seafood as the centerpiece for the table is very eye-catching for guests entering the dining room."
ETHNIC CHOICES EXPAND Although operators are exploring cuisines ranging from French Vietnamese and Scandinavian to Filipino and Mediterranean, dishes with a Pan Pacific flavor continue to rank among the most requested. Christopher Decker, off-premise catering and events manager for Special Impressions at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., reports: "Asian cuisine served station-style gives the client a visual sense of food that is fresh and healthful. And the wonderful aromas from wok cooking really can jump-start a party."
Paris Catering, based in Washington, D.C., recently revamped its entire menu "to accommodate clients who want to see a larger ethnic selection of foods to choose from," says Heather Jones, director of business development for the firm. Among the new offerings are Caribbean sea scallops rolled in macadamia nuts and coconut and served with a tropical fruit coulis; Filipino lumpia filled with beef and pork in a soy ginger sauce; and lemon-glazed salmon with a black pepper slaw and caramelized onion sauce. Notes Jones: "Clients want food flavors that are vibrant and bold."
"The next direction in hot party foods is blowing from the south-as in South America," predicts Jane White, director of sales and marketing for Framboise catering, headquartered in Staten Island, N.Y. "Brazilian, Argentinean and Venezuelan are the hot cuisines of the moment. It's the look and taste of the rain forest. We're also seeing more ethnic breads on party menus, such as pita, focaccia, tortillas and Indian puff-fry breads."
CLASSICS COME BACK-WITH A TWIST "People want beautiful, simple presentations that let the food speak for itself," says Susan Florsheim, partner in Chicago-based Ferree Florsheim Catering. Even the most unassuming foods can be presented with flair, she says. Florsheim put the spotlight on potatoes for one recent event with a mashed potato bar. Fluffy mashed potatoes were spooned from big silver chafing dishes into martini glasses. Guests were invited to top their potatoes with everything from salsa and guacamole to creme fraiche and nicoise olives. Says Florsheim: "Everyone was walking around the room with these little mashed potato sundaes, and it looked wonderful."
Classic dishes with a new spin fit nicely into this relaxed-traditional mode. "The coolest things we've been offering have been miniature versions of such classic dishes as veal Oscar, coquille St. Jacques, pate and Yorkshire pudding," says Chuck Barletta, director of dining services for Eurest Dining Services at Microsoft in Seattle. "These mini-classics have definite treat appeal for the cocktail party scene.
"The integrity of the food is important again," he adds, "and we're doing more serving from stark white plates to showcase the food. When we do want to use color, we contrast cold and hot. For instance, we'll use a very cool sky blue or periwinkle plate to serve a hot entree."
Caterers are also researching the history books. "You can research what the favorite meals were 100 years ago," Decker says. "We did a plated dinner party at the Henry Flagler Museum [in Palm Beach]. We featured quail eggs and caviar, something the clientele at The Breakers hotel originally enjoyed back in 1902."
Although importing a celebrity chef such as Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse might be impossible for even the most lavish corporate event, guests still flock around serving stations featuring chefs at work.
Menu consultant Phyllis Ann Marshall of FoodPower in Costa Mesa, Calif., says today's catering client "is setting a higher standard of elegance and expectations. Part of that trend is featuring foods cooked to order, and having a chef on-site at the party addresses that. We've moved from the chafing dish to pasta, stir-fry and sushi stations, to having chefs on hand to do the cooking."
And because cooking is an important part of event entertainment, portable cooking equipment has become more important than ever. "I rely heavily on my convection oven," says chef/caterer Dee Dee Dailey of Dee Dee Dailey Catering in Brooklyn, N.Y. "You get the benefit of heating and cooking things quickly. With food safety more of a concern than ever before, having a portable convection oven at your party gives you more control over food temperatures."
BEYOND COCKTAILS When it comes to alcohol beverages, planners agree that quality is king. "Clients are more willing to pay for vintage small batch liquors and varietal wines from boutique wineries," Dillon says. "Vodka and martini stations are very popular, with bourbon and cigars after dinner. We've even featured a cigar-roller at some parties."
As with food, beverage tastes are running toward robust flavors. To complement Caribbean menus, Dee Dee Dailey Catering offers a popular specialty drink called "sorrel" - a flavorful concoction made from hibiscus flowers, fresh ginger and spices. Notes Dailey: "Guests these days want food and beverages with a bit of kick to them."
SWEET SIGN-OFFS Desserts are once again back on the list of "musts."
"For our lemon curd creme brulee, we've taken a dessert classic and put a different twist on it, serving it with raspberries and lemon in an edible cookie basket. It not only tastes great, it looks wonderful," White says. She adds that "desserts served at temperature extremes are popular, something either ice cold or very hot."
"Finger trays of miniature desserts are really hot," Barletta says. "We create wonderful designs on the serving tray using the food, such as circling strawberries with mandarin oranges in a beautiful pattern."
Consultant Marshall concludes: "Clients today are more sophisticated than ever before, but that makes them braver, too. They're willing to be more adventuresome. As a result, caterers are able to offer more eclectic choices."
HONEY-TOMATO FOCACCIA Yields 24 servings
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
12 ounces (1 cup) honey
4 ounces (1 cup) chopped onion
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 pounds frozen bread dough, thawed
1) Combine tomato sauce, honey, onion, tomato paste, vinegar, mustard and garlic in a deep saucepan.
2) Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens and reduces by about 1 cup (about 15 minutes). Stir in cayenne; reserve.
3) Shape dough to fit into an oiled sheet pan; evenly press into the pan. Dimple dough every 2 inches or so with fingertips.
4) Brush top with honey-tomato sauce.
5) Bake at 500oF until lightly browned (10 to 15 minutes). Cool slightly; cut into 24 squares (each approximately 3 by 3 1/2 inches). Garnish with parsley.
Local fresh herbs, flowers and fruits as garnishes
of the first course
Salmon and beef tenderloin strudels
Portobello mushroom lasagna
(quail, venison and ostrich)
white truffle powder
Flash-fried tempura seafood and vegetables
Coffee drinks with liquor
Round tables and large
couches-"the living room look"
Dramatic presentations on brightly colored plates
"Caribbean Cruise" themes
Star Trek themes
POLENTA TRIANGLES WITH MUSHROOMS AND GORGONZOLA
Yields 24 servings
1 cup finely chopped parsley
6 quarts hot cooked soft polenta
6 pounds fresh portobello
mushrooms, cut crosswise into
Olive oil as needed
12 cloves (2 ounces) garlic,
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cups crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1) Stir parsley into polenta. Spread 1/2-inch-thick on oiled sheet pan. Cool thoroughly. Cut into 72 triangles; set aside.
2) For each order, arrange 3 polenta triangles in an ovenproof serving dish. Top with 3 to 4 mushroom slices; sprinkle with 1/4 cup gorgonzola. Bake at 500oF until cheese is melted and polenta is hot (about 5 minutes). Serve at once.