by Jonathan Vatner | November 01, 2014
One Entrée Fits All
Some of the most exciting dishes at today's banquets are meat-free, dairy-free and gluten-free -- but they're so delicious, most attendees don't even notice. Great Performances, a caterer based in New York City, has designed meals like this to give guests with dietary restrictions the same transporting experience that everyone else gets.

The vegan meals are so good, some event planners are choosing them as entrées for all.  "Instead of having a beef main course and a silent vegetarian alternative, a silent vegan alternative and a silent gluten-free alternative," says Matthew Riznyk, executive chef of Great Performances, "now we're serving one meal to everyone, and there's a silent beef alternative."

For Russell Simmons's Rush HeARTS Education Luncheon in early 2014, Riznyk created a vegan orecchiette with roasted butternut squash, shiitake, melted leeks and fried sage. The pasta was gluten-free and the creamy sauce was made with tofu. At one point, actress Cynthia Nixon announced into the microphone, "This pasta is the best ever!"
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Caterers and chefs around the country are banishing boring banquet meals and concocting inspiring new ways to wow a crowd. "We're constantly reinventing, but it's not change for the sake of change," says Alison Awerbuch, chef and partner of Abigail Kirsch, a caterer based in New York City. "We want guests to get excited about the food." To pass along some of that inspiration, M&C asked reputed chefs and caterers to share their most enticing new offerings for meetings and events. Plus, they revealed their tried-and-true favorites -- some of which are updated twists on old classics, others truly offbeat ideas -- that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.


Best new dish
Great Performances' taste sensation:
pan-seared sea scallops with apple puree,
quick-pickled apple and mustard blossoms
 Pan-seared sea scallops with apple puree, pickled apple and mustard blossoms
A caterer known for gourmet twists on what's seasonal and local, Great Performances created an elegant flavor bouquet from New England sea scallops. Apples from Upstate New York are treated three ways: pureed, pickled and reduced to a tangy cider gastrique. Bitter greens, such as mustard blossoms or nasturtiums, balance the sweetness.

The hot appetizer is a welcome surprise for attendees, who expect a pre-set cold starter, notes executive chef Matthew Riznyk. "Instead of accepting that a salad has to be already on the table," he says, "we work with the timing of the program to serve this dish."

Classic favorite
Beet chips with goat cheese panna cotta

Clients of Great Performances have long adored the caterer's crispy beet chips. They satisfy a salty craving but are more colorful and (somewhat) more healthful than humdrum potato chips. For pizzazz, Riznyk tops individual chips with tiny panna cotta made of goat cheese and yogurt. Crispy yellow beet shreds add a visual spark, and a sorrel leaf contributes an acidic counterpoint. "We took something classic and made something new," he says. "The response has been tremendous."

The chips, Riznyk adds, bring that all-important crunch to the affair while keeping the hors d'oeuvre gluten-free. (For more about Great Performances' gluten-free, vegan dishes, see "One Entrée Fits All," at left.)

BARTON G. - Miami and Los Angeles

Best new dish
Barton G.'s "It's Easy Being Green" tops
ravioli with an abundance of green vegetables.
 "It's Easy Being Green" ravioli
Barton G. Weiss, the namesake of the restaurant, catering and events company, constantly challenges his staff to innovate. He recently found handmade silver plates shaped like leaves and asked the chefs to design a dish to go with them. The successful result: ravioli with ricotta, fava beans and preserved lemon, covered with Brussels sprouts, fava beans, pea shoots, kale and other kinds of edible greenery. The dish is finished with a Parmesan broth.

For a fall meal, the greens might be switched out for golds and browns. "We thought, what can we do to preserve the integrity of the serving piece itself?" recalls Jeff O'Neill, director of culinary development for the Miami-based company. "It was so pretty, we didn't want to overdo it."

Classic favorite
Brillo prawns

Barton G. is known for this hors d'oeuvre -- marinated prawns (or chicken or short ribs) wrapped in shredded phyllo and deep fried to look just like Brillo pads. They're served in retro Brillo pad boxes, completing the effect. "It sparks a chuckle, it's well done and it's cute," O'Neill says. "People say, 'We should have done this at our event.'"