Catering gets current: Latest tips from the pros

<p>Take it from those who know their way around a buffet line. Here are some tips for cool, fun, quality events.&nbsp;</p>

By the time a catered event begins, much of the behind-the-scenes work has already been done; menus planned, food prepped, stations set up and decorating done. Then, it’s go time. The task at hand now is to create a great eating, drinking and meeting experience for your guests. The hardworking catering crew at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta puts on 495 events last year, so you could say they’ve got the process down pat.

But what makes them a successful operation is that fact that they’re always curious about how to evolve and create the best possible experience for guests. Keeping up with the times—while reinforcing timeless catering truths—leads to better events. Areas that provide the opportunity to excel include engaging action stations, cool serving vessels, new ingredients, trendy setups, healthy menus and great customer service.

Where the action is

Betsy Rivera, manager for catering and retail distribution at GSU, and Cameron Thompson, sous chef of catering at GSU, push their customers toward action stations. Logistically, it makes more sense, because all catered food is made in a central production kitchen and then transported all over the downtown Atlanta campus.

Luckily, it’s never a hard sell because action stations have a lot going for them: interactivity, customization and the mix-and-mingle factor, so they’re a more popular choice than long, boring sit-down affairs anyway.

Action stations with custom mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes and sliders have all been recent successes at GSU. Thompson, who develops new catering menus, builds in a lot of upscale choices into menus for each station. For example, at the slider station guests can choose between Asian pulled chicken, black bean burgers, grilled or fried chicken, charred beef burgers, salmon BLT and Italian meatballs. The toppings include Carolina barbecue sauce, pickled red onions, a few different cheeses, zesty aiolis and Dijon mustard. Housemade kettle chips make the perfect side.

At Northeastern University (NEU),  in Boston, Executive Chef Tom Barton has found that the most interesting and popular action stations revolve around the seasons.

“We receive so many positive comments after doing things like our fresh corn station, where we have ears of fresh, local grilled corn Mexican street corn style,” Barton says. “The students can choose the spices and rubs they would like, and they really enjoy the ability to customize.”

Other cool action stations that have worked well at NEU include:

  • Hand-dipped caramel apples with local apples and 10 different dips
  • Housemade donuts fried at the station with glaze and topping options
  • Congee bar with toppings, hot oils, proteins and aromatics
  • Popcorn station with seasonings like Sriracha-lime, Parmesan-garlic and ranch
  • Avocado toast station
  • Savory Greek yogurt station with roasted beet yogurt, sweet potato yogurt and sun-dried tomato yogurt

And don’t forget, action stations can play outside, as well.

CJ Deery, executive chef at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, recently pulled together several action stations for an outdoor event. Each tent featured a different item, from barbecue to artisan flatbreads to empanadas and housemade sausage.

As much fun as they are, action stations are not a “set it and forget it” situation. Successful action stations require training to make sure the attendant behind the mac ‘n cheese bar knows cheddar from Gouda. This doesn’t necessarily mean only chefs or cooks can man the stations; but you need to prepare staffers to talk to guests with confidence.

“People want to interact and talk with the chef now,” says Nazim Khan, executive chef at Bryan Medical Center, in Lincoln, Neb. “A lot of times, you’ll see caterers bring out a dishwasher, put a chef’s hat on him and throw him into an action station. That’s bad. As a guest you expect someone with a chef jacket and hat to be able to sell it to you.”

So Khan uses role-playing to prepare action station staff beforehand.

“I train them and quiz them,” Khan says. “I’ll be the guest and say, ‘What’s this crust made of?’ And then, they’ll be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s a coffee rub we did,’ or ‘We did some Parmesan and truffle rub,’ or ‘This is saffron-cream sauce…by the way do you know why saffron is so expensive? Let me tell you.’”

This kind of cheffy banter (whether the attendant is a chef or not) builds credibility.  

Think outside the chafing dish

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Another way to make sure your catering game is on point is to look at how you’re dishing things up and how menu items are presented on the buffet line. Simply changing out clunky, old-fashioned chafers for different serving vessels can update your look, big time.

Deery has found that colorful tagines create a world-traveler vibe, and they’re not limited to just North African flavor profiles.

At a recent catered event at the hospital, he mixed things up using tagines to serve Korean sweet potato noodles, roasted fall veggies and Waldorf salad.

At GSU, Thompson has been big on mini Mason jars lately, and also bamboo boats. Pipettes, little vials that hold a sauce, dressing or caramel for a dessert, have also been notable new additions.

Rivera, who’s a veteran caterer, reminds her staff regularly of a tried-and-true way to get instant drama on a buffet line.

“I’m into the highs and lows,” Rivera says. “That adds so much to the buffet. A flat buffet does nothing. It’s not attractive and doesn’t appeal to the customer. So we carry around a ton of empty boxes.”

Covered with fabric, the boxes show off food in an inexpensive way that would be tough to improve on, although the catering department now has some new iron stands that have been providing some cool levels as well.

And the flowers or carved fruit of catering’s past have been replaced at GSU by leafy greens grown in their new hydroponic shipping container garden.

A healthier way to go

(Continued from page 2)Plant-based, sustainably raised, cleaner, greener food is becoming a must-have in all areas of dining, catering included.

Bridget Donoghue, chef-manager with Flik Independent School Dining at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, recently created a few healthier catering menu items for a reception for new parents. This included a lower carb mini lobster roll made with thin crostinis, mini chicken potpies and a vegetarian option, roasted tomato with mint and goat cheese crostinis.

The simple addition of a single fresh herb made all the difference for the last option, proving it doesn’t take much to elevate an appetizer.

“Our vegetarians were thrilled with the flavor the mint added to the dish,” Donoghue says.

And offering alternative proteins alongside meat options is also a good way to include vegetarian and vegan guests.

“Bring out not only meat, like shredded chicken, but also beans or tofu,” Khan says.

Menus of Change has been shaping college dining lately, and that’s been carrying over to NEU’s events. The recent HealthyQ picnic was a cookout with a focus on plant-based foods, including mushroom-blended burgers and grain salads.

Another Menus of Change-inspired catering menu item at NEU is smoky butternut mac ‘n cheese.

“It’s been extremely well received,” Barton says. “The base sauce is made from local butternut squash that we first smoked, then made into a very light sauce. We serve that with whole-wheat pasta.”

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