. Getting Fresh With Food | Meetings & Conventions

Getting Fresh With Food

New dishes and updated classics for meetings and events

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!"

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

 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

 "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.'"

Hearty, Not Heavy
Comfort foods are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but not everyone can eat full helpings of rich food. That's one reason Abigail Kirsch's comfort-food hors d'oeuvres work so well. The New York City-area caterer recently invited M&C to sample a delicious array of Southern-style bites. (See video at mcmag.com/videos.) On the menu:

Deviled eggs with cilantro, lime, chilies, tamarind and crispy shallots

Mac-and-cheese cupcakes with smoked tomato chutney and frizzled kale

Batons of truffled grilled cheese with caramelized onions and tomato jam

Crispy chicken with Southern toppings and barbecue maple pecan waffles

Warm apple cobbler skillets with vanilla ice cream


Best new dish
Trio of ice cream sandwiches

Many of Abigail Kirsch's menu items are clever interpretations of recognizable classics. These colorful, flavorful treats are no exception. Chefs put gelato between thin slices of pound cake, slather on something sweet and dip them in something crunchy. The popular trio includes raspberry cake with black currant gelato and truffle ganache; carrot cake filled with butter pecan gelato and dipped in salted caramel; and pistachio cake with coconut sorbet and pineapple marmalade. Each sandwich is wrapped in matching foil for maximum eye appeal. "They know it's an ice cream sandwich," chef Alison Awerbuch says, "but they also know it's something they've never tasted before. They want to try all three."

Classic favorite

Abigail Kirsch's "pigs in a fancy blanket'
give this classic crowd-pleaser a gourmet flair.
Abigail Kirsch's "pigs in a fancy blanket' give this classic crowd-pleaser a gourmet flair.

 Pigs in a fancy blanket
This beautifully presented -- and insanely popular -- classic came about as the result of customer demand. Lots of clients wanted pigs in a blanket, but Awerbuch didn't want to serve it unless it could be done creatively. A few years ago, this version was hatched.

Chefs wrap little hot dogs in pastry, tucking a bit of sauerkraut inside. They cut them into 3/4-inch slices, skewer two together, top with brown mustard and caraway seeds, then bake them. They're served with house-cured pickles and dipping sauces in mason jars.

"It has a retro feel to it with a contemporary twist," Awerbuch says. "If you close your eyes and eat them, it tastes like old-fashioned pigs in a blanket, but it's visually unique." (For more of Abigail Kirsch's creative takes on comfort food, see sidebar at left.)


Best new dish
Kale zeppole with chili honey

Fancy Girl Table does offer meat dishes, but the caterer is known for exciting vegetarian banquets. "Vegetarian can taste good," owner Jeanette Maier proclaims. "It's not just vegetables and tofu." She devised these savory veggie donuts as a way to win over inveterate meat-and-potatoes types to the appeal of kale. She also makes them with pumpkin or cauliflower.

Classic favorite
Parmesan cup with roasted root vegetables and smoked tomato pesto

Parmesan cups are relatively common in the catering world; they're delicious and easy to eat. Fancy Girl Table pushes the flavor a step further. Maier sources root vegetables from Blooming Hill Farm in Upstate New York and smokes tomatoes to give them a baconlike flavor. The result: a bold, hearty bite that assures nobody misses the meat.

SAZERAC RESTAURANT - Hotel Monaco Seattle

Best new dish
Northwest fresh lettuce wraps

Over the past year, in response to customer demand, chef Jason McClure developed a set of health-conscious banquet menus focused on lean protein, heirloom greens, nuts and whole grains. They quickly became top sellers. The most popular is a "make your own lettuce wrap" station. Guests fill big butter lettuce leaves with grilled meats, vegetables, sprouts, seeds, nuts and a variety of sauces: sesame oil, chili oil, housemade hoisin and salsa verde.

"We're hearing that people are more engaged in the meeting, rather than with those heavy lunches where you almost want to go to sleep afterward," McClure says.

Classic favorite

Sazerac's sweet and spicy salmon is roasted
to perfection on a cedar plank.
Sazerac's sweet and spicy salmon is roasted to perfection on a cedar plank.

 Sweet-spicy cedar-roasted salmon
For this perennial favorite, McClure sources in-season salmon from a local fishmonger, coats it with a glaze made of honey, citrus juice and chili, and smokes it on a cedar plank at scorching temperatures in a brick oven. The outside caramelizes, darkening to a rich shade of mahogany, while the inside remains a perfect medium rare. The result: smoky, sweet and spicy, but not so strong that it overwhelms the natural salmon flavor.

This deliciously crispy fish was one of the first dishes McClure developed when he launched the restaurant in the late '90s. He wanted something that reflected the Pacific Northwest, both in ingredients and cooking style. "I'm proud of it not only because we developed it here," McClure says, "but because it's a truly indigenous dish."


Best new dish

Crispy pig-tail patty with serrano aioli is a new
favorite at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.
Crispy pig-tail patty with serrano aioli is a new favorite at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

 Crispy pig-tail patties with serrano aioli
Yes, this is really a pig's tail, not a pastry in the vein of a bear claw or an elephant ear. Executive chef Jason Prendergast is a firm believer in nose-to-tail cooking, which includes "the seldom used, but extremely flavorful, pig tails."

Chefs brine the tails in wine for 24 hours, then braise them until tender. The meat is mixed with chives and grain mustard and formed into patties, breaded in cilantro panko and fried, then served on a toasted bun with serrano chile aioli.

Classic favorite

Seafood chili is a perennial favorite at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

 Santa Monica seafood chili
This timeless dish, a favorite at the hotel restaurant for years, became so popular that it found its way onto banquet menus. Don't expect ground beef and beans, though. This "chili" is made from sautéed bay scallops and prawns in white wine, heavy cream, butter and tarragon. Dungeness crab and a pan-roasted sea scallop top it off with signature flair.

Prendergast points out that the dish steers planners away from the standard salmon or sea bass toward less expensive, more sustainable -- and arguably more delicious -- alternatives.