More Bang for your Banquet

Christopher Styler / April 2007

Chefs and caterers are finding ingenious ways of utilizing kitchen hardware to produce à la minute restaurant-quality food for multitudes.

The days when it sufficed to steer reasonably well-prepared food to a group of tables in a short period of time and call it a banquet are coming to an end. Today's hotel event departments and independent caterers are nimble, endlessly creative, and daring. They offer myriad choices, pamper shamelessly, and tie up scores of loose ends into one very handsome tailored package. Yes, the stakes are higher because an industry-wide tide of excellence is lifting all boats, even those tied to old moorings. But savvy hosts get on with things because they know there are big rewards to be reaped. Here, we've collected some sage advice from a handful of grinning reapers.

Customize! Customize!! Customize!!! Check in at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia on any given weekend and you'll most likely find vice president/general manager David Benton and assistant general manager Keith Wagner in the lobby. The pair have made it a practice—a very civilized practice—of greeting guests personally on arrival, offering them glasses of sparkling wine and proffering chocolate dipped strawberries. In addition, Benton and Wagner dispense dining suggestions, tips on can't-miss art exhibits, and inside information about Philadelphia.

Over the years that same personal level of concern and attention has manifested itself in the foodservice end of the hotel's business, whether at the hotel's vaunted Lacroix restaurant or in one of its banquet or private dining rooms. "We're about tailoring each event to the guests' tastes and delivering a unique experience," Wagner states. "It's actually in our mission statement to deliver à la carte restaurant-quality food and service at our banquets."

Under the aegis of executive chef Matthew Levin, Sunday brunch has grown into quite an event, where guests visit the kitchen to converse with the cooks while sampling the likes of crab rillettes with yellow pepper cream and tempura asparagus shooters in a shot glass partially filled with cauliflower foam. Those booking banquets will also find a pleasant surprise or two. For a meeting of radiologists held at the hotel, Benton came up with the idea of lab coat–clad servers offering bite-sized goodies from light boxes topped with a variety of X-ray images. Hosts of the event weren't in on the plot, which was partly responsible, according to Benton, for an almost instant rebooking of the event for the following year.

The move toward à la carte style meals for parties kicked into high gear about five years ago, when John Marinelli, a line cook from Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel, came aboard and began taking charge of the banquets under the tutelage of then executive chef Jean-Marie Lacroix. "I'm a restaurant guy," Marinelli says, "and I just started thinking, ‘How can I make this more like a restaurant"?' The answer was apparent: Treat every banquet setup as if it were a cooking line being readied for dinner service. "I tend to load up the mise en place side," Marinelli explains, "so that we're ready to go." Ingredients are the other key, another lesson from his restaurant years. "We get food in as close to the event as possible and serve it as fresh as we can. Everything we do is made right here, from butchering our own meat and fish to cornbread and sauces and on to dessert."

This like-a-restaurant approach allows Marinelli to turn out dishes that veer off the beaten banquet path. Among his repertoire of passed hors d'oeuvres are agnolotti, made with a duck fat–enriched pasta dough, filled with braised Sichuan peppercorn-tinged oxtails, and zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat's milk, cream, and blue cheeses, tied with a sliver of chive, seared lightly, and napped with a Port/shallot glaze. His entrée list includes suzuki (Japanese sea bass) with sea urchin butter and lightly charred enoki and shiitake mushrooms in a vinaigrette, and filet mignon, cooked sous-vide, then steeped in a butter fondant before a final roasting in a convection oven at high temperature.

Like a canny New Yorker who makes the most of a cramped studio apartment, Marinelli squeezes all he can from his cozy banquet kitchen and the max of four bodies who can occupy it at one time. Blodgett convection ovens handle seafood, meats, desserts, and everything in between. A Groen tilting braiser sears all proteins, browns crab cakes, simmers wintertime entrées, makes soups, and even serves as a bain-marie during service. A Market Forge steamer cooks vegetables and some pastas.

Desserts, too, reflect a move toward the here and now. Fred Ortega, the Rittenhouse's executive pastry chef, has been in the business over 20 years, starting on the savory side before making the leap to sweets. "I remember when a banquet meant plate it all up, stick it in a hot box, and wait till they're ready," Ortega recalls. Now Ortega sets up a line to plate his desserts à la minute for up to 350 guests. Ortega is able to do this mostly because the ratio of servers to guests has increased over time. And it isn't just Ortega's plating that is done closer to service. "By moving more of our prep closer to the time of the event, we're able to offer guests little touches that can't be done days ahead—tuiles, dried fruit chips, warm sauces, to name a few."

Ortega believes the growing number of trained culinary professionals accounts for the increased quality of banquet food and service. "Students right out of school may not have a lot of experience, but they're in tune with what goes into high-quality food." A more skilled and motivated workforce, Ortega believes, is also behind the renewed interest in updating labor-intensive classics like baked Alaska.

Not only are such classics getting a makeover at the Rittenhouse, as they are around the globe, but they share turf with the latest technology. The most popular dessert features of the hotel's brunch and of many banquets—chocolate fountains and a liquid nitrogen deep freeze station—couldn't be further apart stylistically. For dipping into the chocolate fountains—one running milk chocolate, the other dark—the pastry crew prepares marshmallows, financiers, and madeleines, as well as fresh dried fruit and "semi-confited" fruit, which, according to Ortega, is fruit simmered in simple syrup, then semi-dried in a low oven. Since the fountains have become a regular fixture, Ortega notes, he's preparing fewer other desserts, which results in a dip in food and labor costs. For the liquid nitrogen station, Ortega loads iSi cream whippers with coffees, teas, crème anglaise, and, most recently, a sweetened coconut/curry mixture, then immerses the resultant foam directly into the liquid nitrogen or, as in the case of the coconut/curry foam, placed in a mold and given a dollop of Cointreau jelly at its center. When frozen, the dessert has a brittle outer shell that encases a semi-frozen creamy layer and the jelly center. In another use of liquid nitrogen, Ortega infuses heavy cream with whole coffee beans and thickens it lightly with gelatin before whipping it. For service, cubes of warm flourless chocolate cake are dipped in the coffee cream and then fleetingly subjected to liquid nitrogen, yielding a frozen coffee ice cream exterior and a still-warm chocolate center.

The end result, of course, is positive word of mouth. "There may be one bride and one groom who booked the party," observes Benton, "but there are 198 other people in the room."

All's fair in Mayfair At London's venerable Claridge's hotel, all banquets take shape under the watchful eyes of executive chef Martyn Nail and head pastry chef Nicholas Patterson. Claridge's eight banquet and private rooms can accommodate, in a pinch, a total of 600 guests. Seated banquets and "canapé receptions" (cocktail parties to us Yanks) each account for approximately half of the mix, according to Nail. "We don't handle a huge amount of corporate business," Nail says. "Ours are more social events, focused on the top end of the market," examples being the International Herald Tribune Oil & Money Dinner for 250 guests or the Veuve Clicquot Annual Business Woman of the Year Award Re­cep­tion for 300. While this catering sector "increases the spend7rdquo;, as Nail puts it, it also raises expectations for specialized and finely tuned cuisine.

"A lot of our menus become very be­spoke," Nail adds, noting that clients are free to browse the 50 or so most recent menus as well as come up with their own ideas. "Our guests expect that from us."

Regarding the banquets-as-fine-dining phenomenon, Nail assigns a key role to more thoughtful handling of ingredients. One of Nail's current dishes demonstrates his point. For his cold lobster salad with green almond puree, pea shoots, and lobster/amaretto dressing, the lobster is prepared a mere hour before serving, as is the almond puree. Neither sees the inside of a refrigerator, and all the components are assembled immediately before being plated. "Of course, this calls for a temperature-controlled environment and a well-trained staff, which may not have been available years ago."

Likewise, rather than shun a soufflé for its skittish behavior, Patterson has embraced it and made it one of his featured—if more temperamental—desserts. Nail's impressive roster of risottos and Patterson's chocolate fondant cakes are other dishes that fall into this time-sensitive category. Both have noticed that the flurry of attention caused by a wave of waiters bearing lofty soufflés or creamy risottos chases dance floor booty-shakers back to their seats in a hurry.

Patterson sees the end of premade items that are chilled or kept warm for ages, then served buffet-style. "People are looking for different textures and a sense of freshness on the plate," he believes. "Fruit jellies, some made with agar-agar, and foams are two examples."

Nail and Patterson praise a few key pieces of equipment that enable them to shift banquet service into high gear. Rationale combi-ovens provide greater precision than traditional ovens, and, as Nail points out, "they're very efficient. If you need something fast, these ovens can do it." Claridge's kitchen brigade prepares some banquet items sous-vide, pressing the combi-ovens into use for final preparation. The pair also cite Ther­­­­­­mo­mix blenders, which simultaneously blend and heat, as helpful in the preparation and holding of sabayon or hollandaise. A battery of Alto-Shaam warming cabinets serve not as an eternal resting place as they might have in years gone by but as a speedy means to transport hot food to satellite kitchens for final plating and service.

"Whoever plans the parties has to work with the kitchen at every step," Nail states in crisp italics. "Whoever orders the ingredients has to work closely with the kitchen staff as well. The food for tomorrow's banquets comes in today, not three days ago. That's key. Once the meal is on, the kitchen and service staff are in constant communication." To veterans of fine dining restaurants, this constant dance be­tween front of the house and kitchen may seem a given, but to the chef-generals orchestrating parties for several hundred, such as Nail and Patterson, it represents a vital skill.

East Side, West Side As opposed to stately Claridge's, the offices and kitchens of Creative Edge Parties are tucked into a beautiful building in New York City's Greenwich Village. Offering no on-site event facilities, the company brings the party to as few as 20 or as many as 1,500 guests at locations that often include such notable venues as the Museum of Modern Art or the New York Public Library. The challenges in delivering restaurant-quality food to far-flung locales extend well beyond Manhattan traffic. New York City's already strict codes concerning the kind of equipment permitted at indoor catered events are further tightened by highly insured institutions like the pair mentioned above. A ban against open flames plus prohibitions against working in stairwells, coat closets, and hallways may paralyze some caterers, but they only inspire Bob Spiegel, who founded Creative Edge Parties in 1984. "If something is good—I mean really, really good," Spiegel notes, "no one will even notice what temperature it is."

This quirky credo defines Spiegel's approach. Rather than struggle to serve piping hot food, he has developed a repertoire of dishes and techniques in which flavor takes precedence over temperature. One of his crowd-pleasers is beef tenderloin seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then vacuum sealed. The tenderloins are brought slowly up to 135°F, then they and their poaching liquid are packed into insulated containers where, Spiegel claims, they stay at a constant temperature for quite a long time. "All that's left to do on-site is slice and plate them," he explains. "Beef fillets cooked this way are amazing, the same bright pink from the edge to the center."

Poaching fish or meat in various fats doesn't lend itself well to the locations to which Spiegel dispatches his teams. To compensate, fish fillets (halibut, in particular, according to Spiegel) are marinated in seasoned olive oil, then transferred, with the coating of oil that clings to them, to a sheet pan. Wrapped securely in plastic wrap, the trays are then loaded into a heated cabinet at the event site, where they "poach" in their coating of olive oil and the fish's own moisture.

Creative Edge's hors d'oeuvres resemble high-end amuses bouches more than typical cocktail party noshes. "I think it's cheating to always use bread as a base with some kind of topping," Spiegel insists. Hence his red pepper truffles, perfect little orbs of reduced sweet red pepper juice, tomato water, and agar-agar gelled in spherical molds. Once set, the "truffles" are rolled in multicolored confetti of finely minced dehydrated vegetables.

Some items, such as the above-mentioned beef, are shipped to the event site warm. But some, like spicy tuna rolls—long cylinders of phyllo pastry encasing seasoned spinach and raw tuna—are frozen before being packed. Cooking them to order in clarified butter on a portable griddle results in raw tuna sheathed in crisp dough. The rolls are then thinly sliced and served. Absolutely stunning two-biters start with open hatbox-shaped containers of raw apple just large enough to hold a marble-sized scoop of foie gras. Sprinkling them with citric acid and keeping them chilled prevent the apple containers from turning brown for up to several hours. The scoops of foie gras are frozen before packing. One team member fills the apple cups with foie gras, allowing it to reach room temperature before receiving a final drizzle of caramel syrup and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt.

My plate or yours?

To further customize their banquet experience, guests are looking beyond the food to the plates themselves. Accordingly, David Benton, vice president/general manager of the Rittenhouse Hotel in Phila­delphia, will purchase large quantities of unique plates to make guests "may-I-book-another-event-now"? happy. These plates then become part of banquet department inventory for future events—a valuable asset in this presentation-crazed era. Executive chef Martyn Nail of Claridge's hotel in London suggests working with party planners to rent plates, a more cost-effective way to capitalize on the custom plate trend.

What the well-dressed banquet is wearing this season: The Rittenhouse staff will match the font and color of ink on the guests' menus with that of a bridal couple's wedding invitations. The pastry department will even match the filling in their chocolates to the filling in the happy duo's wedding cake before decorating each piece with his and her initials. Or, using acetate transfer in tinted chocolate, pastry cooks will top chocolates with an organization's logo, as they did for the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business or the AAA Five-Diamond Award's board of directors' party. "We think of our pastry department as a wing of our marketing department," Benton declares.

Good trends come on small plates: Echoing the boom in small plate dining that continues to sweep the restaurant world, banquets are offering small plates as more substantial cocktail hour fare or as the focus of a full meal. Nail underscores the importance of furnishing each guest at this sort of affair with a printed menu (which Claridge's does for all its banquets) so "they know what they're in for."

Something old, something new: As much as guests desire up-to-the-minute cuisine from around the globe, they'll happily reconnect with bygone favorites if presented in a fresh and impeccable manner. Witness Nail's current pairing of venison and braised red cabbage with pumpkin gnocchi or Rittenhouse pastry chef Fred Ortega's freshly made churros and marshmallows, perfect for dipping in the chocolate fountain. "To mix the old with the new, and to do each well, that is the true essence of customized service," Nail says.

Try a little clock shock: According to Nail, clients are booking events at unusual times to boost the wow quotient. Afternoon tea, not exactly unheard of in London, is enjoying a revival as a party theme. "Breakfasts are making something of a comeback, too," Nail observes.