Everyone’s a critic, the saying goes. Make that: Everyone’s a food critic. With competitive cooking shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef, countless foodblogs and celebrity chefs taking on rockstar status, we’ve all gotten more sophisticated about the food we’re served when we dine out. // That extends to the fare at corporate events, too. “You can’t do the traditional three course banquet that you would have done 10 years ago,” says Ed Moreno, food and beverage director for Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza. “People want something new and different. They expect more when it comes to food creativity—you have to wow them every time.” How do you deliver that wow? We talked to some of California’s top culinary trendsetters to find out.
1. TREND: Tableside Service
French-table service is back. At the Whisper Lounge in Los Angeles, fish is sometimes smoked right at the table in cigar boxes; at Anton & Michael in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the crêpes suzette is ignited in front of guests (who never fail to gasp); at West Hollywood’s hip Church Key, a rolling cart holds a country ham from Kentucky, and a hand-cranked Berkel slicer delivers paper-thin puffs of charcuterie.
→ MAKE IT WORK FOR MEETINGS
At an event for 400 guests for Echo Park’s Barlow Respiratory Hospital held in downtown LA’s Union Station, Patina Catering had tableside soup service as part of the first course. “The dinner took place during the winter, so we wanted to offer guests something that was warm, inviting and very service-oriented,” says Melissa Darpino, senior director of sales for Patina, the official caterer for landmarks such as Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. “We had rolling carts with our hot, delicious soup, and two chefs who served the soup from the cart to the demitasse cups that guests were using for their appetizers.”
A sauce or garnish can also be served tableside. “Many times we add a tableside element to a dish,” Darpino says. “Rather than coming to the table completely composed, the dish will be finished by the server. The most popular way to do French-style service would be multiple sauces offered alongside a beef presentation. It makes service a little more interactive and customized.”
At RivaBella, a grand Italian restaurant on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, the sprawling 2,800-square-foot alfresco dining room, with its soaring retractable roof, is a favorite event venue for the nearby entertainment companies. New tableside offerings have been introduced, including a risotto al funghi porcini finito al tavolo (mushroom risotto). The organic Acquerello rice is slow-cooked from 6 a.m. to noon each day, then poured into an enormous wheel of aged parmigiano reggiano that’s presented tableside. The risotto is mixed with mushrooms (black truffles can be added to the dish at an extra cost) and then the heavenly aromatic dish is plated and placed before guests. The meal can be capped with tableside liquid-nitrogen ice cream. Milk, cream, vanilla and sugar are combined in a fire-engine red KitchenAid and, as the mixer is hand-cranked, liquid nitrogen is poured into the bowl, causing the ingredients to freeze instantly into frothy ice cream. Do-it-your-way toppings include Nutella, salted caramel and macerated strawberries.
2. TREND: Family-Style Dinners
Suzanne Goin, the acclaimed LA chef and restaurateur, ushered in the tapas-style small plates trend when she opened A.O.C. more than a decade ago. Now those threeor four-bite plates seem a bit precious to her. At her new incarnation of A.O.C., she has added platters to the menu, such as a rack of lamb served with fava purée, spring onions and pea tendrils, and grilled pork tenderloin with root vegetables and rapini pesto. “It was fun creating two- or three note dishes that didn’t have to be developed into a full course,” Goin says. “But after awhile, I wanted to go in a new direction. We put these platters in the center of the table, and four or five or six people dig in.”
→ MAKE IT WORK FOR MEETINGS
Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum teams with regional wineries to offer monthly dinners catered by Supper Club Fine Catering, which also operates the museum’s café. Seating is at communal tables, and patrons often are surrounded by people they’ve just met. Supper Club owners Matt and Yvette Woolston made the decision early on to serve the $75-a-plate dinners family-style, with platters passed from person to person around the table. “I find that it’s more social this way because it creates interaction right off the bat,” Yvette says. “It gives people a level of comfort, and conversation seems to start spontaneously.”
Family-style dinners work especially well for banquets hosted by national or global companies, says Omni Hotel’s Moreno. “Often, companies are bringing in associates and clients from all over the country and the world who have never met before,” he says. “At a typical banquet, you only talk to the person directly to your right and to your left. But platters allow for conversation across the table, and it’s a great icebreaker. It also takes the awkwardness out of a more junior associate engaging with, say, the CEO.”
Moreno thinks of family-style service “almost as a seated buffet.” It allows the kitchen to showcase its talents, serving more courses from more cuisines than could be offered in a traditional seated dinner. That’s also a plus when you need to accommodate a wide variety of food preferences and dietary restrictions.
3. Nick & Stef’s Meating Agenda
One of the few California restaurants to have a display meat-aging room on-site, Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse (run by the Patina Restaurant Group) in downtown LA offers classes in meat education via a Meating Agenda in its 28-seat private dining room for small groups. Nick & Stef’s charming executive chef Megan Logan leads the small seminars to explain the different cuts of Angus beef. “More and more people want to be educated on what they’re eating and what goes into their food,” she says. The corn-fed beef is raised in Nebraska and partially butchered on-site; the display room gives diners a look into the prep process of the restaurant’s signature steak program. Each meating is paired with a cocktail tutorial where participants also learn the history behind classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, made with American rye, and taste select spirits. —Kathy A. McDonald
4. Food Finds You at Hotel Del Coronado
At the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, Executive Chef John Shelton is bringing both his zeal as a trained cook and his skills as an amateur craftsman to bear as he reinvents the resort’s catering services. “When a group comes in, we roll out a concept,” he says. Take, for example, what Shelton calls the “chase program”—instead of guests having to hunt down servers wielding hors d’oeuvres trays or stand in a slow-moving buffet line, the food comes to them. Shelton, with the help of the resort’s facilities services, carves paddles out of wood, aluminum or porcelain—some the size of a pizza peel, others as large as a canoe oar. Then the oars are used to convey plated bites and portable tastes, such as sliders, fried chicken, tacos and paper cones filled with tuna poke or crab Louis. The server slides the paddles in front of constellations of guests, wherever they’re seated or standing.
“It’s a great way to do passed hors d’oeuvres and get them to where people may be gathered,” Shelton says. “Guests can grab the dishes with just a couple of fingers. They’re not handcuffed to one particular spot or stuck juggling a plate, a cocktail and a purse.” What’s more, the paddles, or, as Shelton calls them, “transportation devices,” can easily fit into whatever configuration the gathering takes. “We like to offer lots of different seating arrangements at receptions,” Shelton says, from “low lounge seating for people who want to settle in for a conversation, small tables with high stools so others can come by and chat without having to crouch down,” to long communal tables, and smaller round and square tables.
In another twist on the chase program, entrées and appetizers are served in large copper pots. “Silverware and side dishes are stationed in various congregation points,” Shelton says. “Then we drop these family-style pots that are self-serve. Some pots may hold enough for three or four people, others for nine or 10. The pots may contain a roasted Chilean sea bass, sweet-and-sour duck, a warm beet salad, steak asada. What we want to do is intertwine food into the event and take advantage of our environment, so if six people are sitting on couches around a fire pit, they don’t have to stop socializing in order to eat.” Twenty or more pots may come out during a reception, with some people enjoying appetizers while others have moved on to entrées. “It’s a very á la carte feel,” Shelton says, “just like a restaurant.”
5. Interactive Dining
When Leah Di Bernardo, chef and founder of E.A.T. Marketplace in Temecula, hosted a group from Temecula Valley Unified School District, she wanted to offer something more than “really good locally sourced food,” she says.
Her twist: giving guests the chance to play sommelier, server or runner. After guests sat down, Di Bernardo explained that those who had a colored placard at their place setting had been assigned one of these jobs. If they weren’t comfortable participating, they could swap seats with someone else. Nobody changed seats. “Instead,” she says, “we had to give jobs to the people who hadn’t originally been assigned one.”
The sommeliers were coached with cards that explained the wine pairings; the runners were brought into the kitchen to plate food or toss salads; the servers brought the beautifully composed platters to the table and described the ingredients to guests. “Everybody got involved,” Di Bernardo says. “It was a great way to start a conversation and explain our mission of supporting local farmers, ranchers and food artisans.”
6. Caterers Be Nimble, Caterers Be Quick
If caterers want to duplicate the spontaneity of restaurant dining in their banquet service, they
need to become more nimble. Here are two essential ways to do that.
→ ON-THE-SPOT MENU CHOICES
Asking guests to choose their entrées weeks ahead of a banquet is a less-than-elegant way to ensure that a catering kitchen runs efficiently. Now, the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza has come up with a twist to allow groups to order á la carte. “Instead of pre ordering, guests are given a menu with a few entrée choices,” says Moreno, “typically a chicken, fish, beef and vegetarian dish. Since the entrées aren’t prepared in advance, we need to slow down the service, and we do that by introducing an intermezzo course, such as a blood-orange gelato.”
→ MICRO-SEASONAL MENUS
“The biggest trend for Patina Catering has been the understanding that menus are not just seasonal, they’re super-seasonal,” says Patina’s Darpino. Sure, it’s not practical for chefs to decide what they’re serving at a banquet dinner for hundreds of guests after a morning trip to the farmers market. But the menus also don’t need to be set months in advance. “We enjoy working with clients who are happy to learn the final presentation of a dish just a few weeks before the event,” Darpino says. “That way they know the presentation will be absolutely at its peak.”
While the protein is chosen well ahead of time—poultry, game and fish have seasons, too, but these are predictable—the accompaniments and garnishes take advantage of what foragers and chefs are seeing at farms and markets. In the spring, that might mean morels, spring onions and ramps, while late summer brings squash blossoms, berries and stone fruit; root vegetables are generally available in colder months. “You might decide you’ll be serving halibut,” Darpino says, “but then leave it up to the chef to choose whether that’s accompanied by, say, an English pea risotto, snap peas and mint or a zucchini and tomato gratin.”