Skip navigation
Beyond Crab Puffs & Canapes

Beyond Crab Puffs & Canapes

The catering trends you need to know now.

Robin Stybe, MAT, CCI, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University, College of Culinary Arts, runs a catering business with her husband when she's not in the classroom. Two Toques Catering's events range from full-service dinner parties to food drop-offs to a hot buffet for 400 last year.

Stybe primarily teaches Nutrition and Sensory Analysis, and her husband, Karl Stybe, the university's Special Events Chef this year, teaches Classical French Cuisine. Experiences from catering find their way into her classes, Stybe says, and she has had a lot of experiences — more than 20 years worth. During that time she has seen much change and is in a good position to predict what's next. Today, she says, customers have gone from not thinking very much beyond prime rib and green beans to requesting the most current offerings they've seen on the Food Network.

Stybe took the time to speak with FM about the catering changes she's observed over the years, and the trends you need to know for 2009 and beyond.

FM: What are some changes you've seen in catering during your career?

RS: Food choices and menus are very different now than they were in the beginning. Back in the day, people considered stuffed mushrooms and crab puffs to be the cocktail food, followed by prime rib or chicken marsala. Those foods haven't gone away entirely, but our patrons are much more food savvy today thanks to the Food Network. Our requests are more eclectic and often theme-specific, such as Caribbean or Asian. We also serve more seafood and vegetarian dishes than we used to.

Can you name some positively “old school” catering menu items that just look tired and simply don't work anymore?

Many canned foods and prepared foods that were once commonly used in catering, while they still have a place in some functions, are not acceptable in most instances. People want their food fresh tasting and made from scratch.

On the other hand, are there some “old school” classics that will never go out of style?

What’s Hot What’s Not

small bites, both sweet and savory

regional ethnic menus

desserts-only parties

funky serving pieces

interactive service guests assibling food

sustainable food local and in season

soup as the main appetizer

artificial anything

ordinary fruit and vegetable trays

finger sandwiches a big carbon footprint produce that’s out of season/ non-local

anything trans-fat

Meat and potatoes, carving stations, iceburg lettuce and fattening desserts!

What is everyone asking for now?

Seafood. It's pretty rare to not have a seafood request for any function we do.

Are there any trends out there that have been surprising to you?

Requests for authentic ethnic cuisines rather than our Americanized versions of these cuisines. It's a little scary to produce an authentic menu with highly unusual ingredients and flavor profiles when you're not sure your customers really know what they are asking for.

Such as?

We once had a request for a traditional Renaissance menu made exactly as it would have been during that time period. To be honest, our research turned up some pretty appalling things! We wound up modifying the menu to reflect modern tastes — no one seemed to notice. You can always say ‘inspired by.'

What types of foods, flavors and functions do you see gaining in popularity this year?

Regional versions of ethnic cuisines. This concept takes a good thing and personalizes it. Also, with drop-off functions, people want sturdy items that are easy to reheat. Organics and local produce can also enter the mix.

So, you think there will be more demand for local, organic food in the future?

Absolutely. Our society seems to be having another green revolution. With that movement comes concerns about the food we eat. We tend to wax and wane when it comes to the level of commitment necessary to fuel a movement such as this, but the interest is there.

Is caviar still popular?

It will always be popular in certain circles. In my opinion, the lure of caviar is more for the exclusivity than anything else. Although I can appreciate the taste and texture of good caviar, I don't think it's worth the price, considering how many great foods we have at our fingertips. I feel the same way about truffles and foie gras. Their popularity is directly related to their expense.

Is the concept of “comfort foods with a twist” still hot?

Of course! If you have to sum it up in one word, think potatoes. Mashed, baked and fried — people love them any way you cook them. We make garlic mashed, mashed red skin, cheddar mashed, and even potato bars set up like an ice cream sundae bar with assorted toppings to stir into mashed potatoes, all served in a martini glass. My personal favorite was a lobster mashed potato dish that I had at a tapas bar in Charleston, SC.

Any other comfort foods that have wowed?

Nothing will fire up a crowd like seeing the makings for the standard green bean casserole, complete with crunchy onions on top. When we make it, we use fresh green beans, and make our own mushroom sauce and fried onions. The foods of our youth will always be with us.

What kind of appetizers do you predict being big?

Anything served with or in an unusual container. A shaped plate, tiny cup, bowl, spoon, shot glass, egg shell. This trend has been around for a little while, but will remain hot.

What kinds of desserts will be big?

Flights of desserts or multiple selections of bite-sized sweets. This offers the opportunity to indulge in something sinful without all the guilt.

Finally, how has the economic downturn affected catering?

I see more budget meals and functions on the horizon. More people are already opting for drop-off foods to save money while still serving high quality items. I do not see this trend ending until our financial crisis abates a bit.

What's Hot What's Not
small bites, both sweet and savory
regional ethnic menus
desserts-only parties
funky serving pieces
interactive service guests assembling food
sustainable food local and in season
soup as the main appetizer
artificial anything
ordinary fruit and vegetable trays
finger sandwiches
a big carbon footprint produce that's out of season/non-local
anything trans-fat

The It List of Catering

What is your most popular item?

Appetizer: Franks in a Blanket (mini-hot dogs in pastry): NYU Langone Medical Center, New York, NY

Entree: Carve-to-Order Rotisserie Turkey: Resurrection Medical Center, Chicago, IL

Dessert: Crème Brulee in a Demitasse Cup: Crimson Catering, a division of Harvard University Dining Services, Cambridge, MA

Table Set-Up: Mediterranean Table (fruits, cheeses, olives, dates, tabouli, pita chips and antipasto): University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

Best All-Around/Most Requested: Seafood: Two Toques Catering, Charlotte, NC

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.