At a recent fundraiser, Adam Strauss served seafood shooters and cocktails out of a kayak decked out with snorkel gear and a mini waterfall. For a circus-themed event, Anthonie Lardiere printed menus on crackers shaped like a big top tent. And Chris Hensler creates edible plates out of fruits and vegetables. These noncommercial chefs may cater three to four events in a 24-hour period for anywhere from 20 to 3,000 people, but it’s this kind of creativity and attention to detail that helps them fight ever-increasing competition from restaurants and commercial catering companies.
“We try to blow customers away so they won’t use an outside caterer,” says Strauss, director of food and nutrition at New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. “The bolder we get, the more we get recognized.”
Catered events are marketing opportunities to garner business both inside and outside the hospital. “Our catering business has grown 100% this past year, mostly through word of mouth,” says Hensler, executive chef for Sodexo at UT Southwestern’s Clements University Hospital in Dallas. For external events, Hensler can charge street prices, turning catering into a profit center.
In addition to inventive presentations, how are chefs getting the attention of buffet-bored guests? Handheld items and action stations, often in tandem, top the list.
1. Shooters and shakers
“A personalized item in a smaller format gets a much better reaction than a large platter on a buffet table,” says Strauss. He takes classic preps like shrimp cocktail and Key lime pie and serves them in shot glasses with a baby spoon or tiny fork. These recipes are easy to downsize and to eat.
Strauss is also responding to customer demand for healthier food at catered events. This year, he introduced salad shakers—small glass jars layered with torn leafy greens, cut-up vegetables and varied ingredients such as edamame, shredded cheese and roasted peppers.
2. Edible containers
Hensler favors a zero-waste solution for handhelds—his one- and two-bite items are completely edible. “I’ll cut up a zucchini or cucumber to form a cup that holds a seafood mixture or chicken salad,” he says. Wonton crisps and Parmesan cheese cups are other housemade vehicles for holding small portions of Asian barbecue or risotto, for example. Grilled chicken kebabs skewered on fresh rosemary branches also are a hit with customers—they’re not entirely edible, but they infuse flavor.
3. Local action
The traditional passed appetizers are disappearing at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center, says Lardiere, director of catering for Centerplate at those locations. “Action stations are taking over,” he says.
Lardiere likes to incorporate Indiana products into the menu, and pork is big. At large receptions, one specialty is candied pork belly served on a crisp wonton and garnished with microgreens, all prepped at a station. A slider station usually offers three choices, such as Indiana pork tenderloin, pot roast with caramelized onions and Buffalo chicken with creamy blue cheese sauce.
Breakfast functions are also adapting to handhelds, especially at the convention center, says Lardiere. “People are asking for something other than the usual bacon and eggs,” he adds. A deviled egg station features halved hard-cooked eggs and add-ins like bacon crumbles, poblano chilies and tomato fondue on offer. To make events more fluid and varied, “We’re increasingly pushing handhelds throughout the day,” says Lardiere.