Contemorary Classics Inspired by Winter's Greatest Hits
Just as caterers finish serving their last “I do’s,” they start preparing for the onslaught of festive parties that comes with each holiday season. The holidays are a time of warmth and family, so it’s no surprise that year after year, customers always request comfort foods. For catering chefs, today’s challenge is in using farm-to-table ingredients and modern techniques to create a party full of updated classics.
Turkey...with a twist
Catering offers a level of intimacy that clients and event planners find particularly appealing, especially with the holidays right around the corner. As Christian Noto, chef and owner of Jersey Tomatoes and Split Pea Seduction in San Francisco, puts it, “You go to a restaurant and you have a room, but with catering, your event can be at home and will have a family feel.” And what better way to get that family feel than through hearty,
delicious comfort food?
“People want richer meats this time of year,” says Carmelle Pina, Catering Manager for Urban Kitchen Catering in Los Angeles. “They want the kind of stuff that grandma made.” Taking her own advice, that is just what Pina did. While brainstorming holiday menu items with UKC’s Chef Joe Magnanelli and Owner Tracy Borkum, she chose to merge two classics this year, developing a modern turkey pot pie.
Rebecca Jean Alonzi, chef and owner of Seasonal Elegance in San Francisco agrees, “During the holidays, people want really well-executed classics.” Instead of turkey, Chef Alonzi likes to serve her beef with horseradish, which is a year round favorite, but is especially in demand around the holidays. “People are increasingly interested in fresh food,” says Chef Alonzi. “Our customer really trusts us to impress them.”
Executive Chef Jean Pierre Giron of Gourmet
Celebrations in Las Vegas trusts his clients will enjoy his sophisticated take on turkey when they request the customary dish for the holidays. He introduces updated flavors, like cranberry chutney with ginger, lemon and orange sauce to the typically predictable dish, presenting guests with an entrée that is worthy of special
While turkey is traditional for many Americans, there is no questioning that America is a melting pot of people and cuisines. For Chef Sylvan Mishima Brackett, who spent six years at Chez Panisse as Alice Waters’ right hand man, Japanese food brings comfort and childhood memories. Last year, he started Peko Peko, an Oakland catering company that specializes in earthy, simple Japanese food.
At Chez Panisse’s holiday party that Peko Peko catered last year, Sylvan served handmade soba noodles with hot duck and wild mushroom broth. Whether it’s turkey with a twist or Japanese style duck, clever culinary balance of new and old comfort is sure to brighten the holiday season.
The mobile kitchen
While catering chefs put balance into their menus, their kitchens tend to be less so. Most venues don’t
come with the luxuries of a commercial kitchen with
prep tables, walk-in refrigerators the works that most restaurant chefs are lucky enough to have access to. Thus, catering is a constantly changing battlefield and chefs have to adapt.
“You can’t just go in and cook whatever you want like you can in a restaurant,” says Chef Noto, who specializes in simple new-American cuisine. “Maybe you’re working out of a garage or a basement or on the street regardless, everything has to be thought out beforehand because you still have to produce the same level of quality food.”
Chef Giron, who originally trained in France, adds, “You need to create the right menu for the right location.” He says with Gourmet Celebrations they really push to finish everything on-site. “We take pride in the quality of their food and that is the only way to do it.”
His trick is to use sous-vide techniques to prepare the same high-quality dishes you would find in a restaurant. “It’s never a commercial kitchen,” says Chef Giron. He uses sous-vide techniques to produce a first-rate rack of lamb dish. First, the lamb is vacuum-sealed, then later warmed up in a water heater on-site at an event in order to produce the same flavor one would expect from a restaurant. “You need to use technology to have the same quality,” said Chef Giron.
Chef to chef
With each makeshift kitchen comes a new event with a new menu. Catering chefs are constantly planning, which means they need constant inspiration. Interestingly, catering chefs seem to mainly look to restaurant chefs over other caterers, for new flavor combinations and friendly food reconnaissance.
Chef Alonzi says she gets inspiration from menus of chefs that she respects and by dining at their restaurants. “You have to order a lot off the menu to really see what the chef is trying to do,” says Chef Alonzi. With a background working at Quince and Epic Roasthouse, Chef Alonzi sees similarity and crossover between the restaurant and catering world.
Chef Noto agrees that more inspiration comes from restaurants than from following other caterers. “I eat out a lot and I’m thinking all the time,” says Chef Noto. “I think about how I can execute the food I’m eating in a catering environment.”
Chef Noto adds, “The restaurants that are blowing me away lately are Frances, Delfina, Bar Crudo, and Beretta. San Francisco is such an amazing, inspirational food city.”
In addition to following restaurant chefs, Chef Giron says he keeps in touch with chefs who specialize in different cuisines to keep ethnic and fusion inspirations flowing. He also swears by the load of culinary magazines he receives each month. Of those, his favorite is the French publication, Thuries Gastronomie. From the magazines, Chef Giron says, “I don’t really follow recipes, but I like to see what flavors different chefs are mixing or what techniques they are using.” As revealed by his impressive catering menu, it is clear that inspiration from ingredients and other chefs’ cooking methods can be just what a catering chef may need to push their holiday menu in the right direction.
Changing catering’s stigma
It may make sense that catering chefs look to restaurant chefs for culinary insight, but would anyone ever follow a catering chef and look to them for their own kitchen inspiration?
Traditionally, chefs look down their noses at
caterers, as catered food was once seen as low-quality buffet offerings; but, with new chefs not wanting the overhead that comes with a restaurant and the farm-to-table craze, catering is on the rise.
“It’s just a different ballgame and so historically, catering food hasn’t been as good as restaurant food because so much more goes into it,” says Chef Noto. “At Jersey Tomatoes, we’re finding ways to execute restaurant-style food in a catering environment.”
Chef Noto, who has worked at A16 and Liberty Cafe in San Francisco, ran a supper club out of his apartment before opening Jersey Tomatoes. “I think more like a restaurant chef,” says Noto. “I think people tend to think restaurant chefs are better because in the past, a lot of catering chefs were a little intimidated by the challenges of a catering environment. I’m trying to work harder in that environment to serve food that is on par with the great restaurant chefs.”
Pina says Urban Kitchen makes sure all of their servers and chefs are trained to follow fine-dining measures. Most of them work for, or have worked for, one of the Urban Kitchen Group’s Los Angeles restaurants, Cucina Urbana and Kensington Grill. Also, their Catering Chef Joe Magnenelli is also the Executive Chef of Cucina Urbana, so he automatically keeps up with restaurant cooking standards.
In the world of catering, cooking circumstances can be different every day. “One of the things that is so phenomenal about catering is that you have the opportunity to build an event from the ground up, around the food,” says Chef Alonzi. “And a lot of people say catering isn’t real cooking, but the only thing I can do as the owner of my catering company is to make sure we only use high-quality ingredients and provide the best meal possible.” It is clear that today, whether cooking for a restaurant or producing an entire dining experience from scratch, chefs and caterers share the common goal of striving to serve the best meal they can create, whether it be for guests in their dining room or clients in their homes, with the crème-de-la-crème of ingredients and a vision that embraces tradition while incorporating contemporary twists. Cheers to what is sure to be one of the tastiest holiday seasons yet.