Party like the pros

The raw bar at Duvall Caters Monday November 17, 2015. Grace Beahm/Staff

Professional caterers are accustomed to tough crowds. But there’s likely no audience more exacting than a roomful of fellow caterers, who’ve long ago burned out on chocolate fountains and parmesan tuiles.

“Holding the attention of the top caterers in the country requires going out on a limb,” says Duvall Events CEO Steve Wenger, who last month hosted the annual meeting of the Leading Caterers of America, a prestigious national network of 50 catering companies.

Over the course of the three-day event, attendees talked shop in closed-door sessions; sampled representative Charleston dishes sized for a crowd, such as Lowcountry eggrolls and benne seed black-eye pea hummus; and feasted on a finale supper featuring liquid nitrogen celery sorbet; yogurt mint cream dispensed from whipped cream canisters and crab salad presented in smoke domes.

While that meal afforded Duvall five courses worth of show-off opportunities, most of the participating caterers had just one chance to impress their peers. On the first night of the conference, a few members were invited to distill their best ideas into a small plate or other festive bite: What they concocted in response provides a glimpse of what’s coming next in spectacle food. And while caterers would surely prefer you call them when planning a party, home cooks may want to draw holiday entertaining inspiration from the showcased dishes. Here, a few catering concepts ripe for borrowing:

“I get Grateful Dead moments,” says John Walsh of Classic Catering in Baltimore. The first time that Walsh served soup in a tabletop French press, he threw lobster claws into the pot. Guests who witnessed the shells being smashed like coffee grounds “thought it was cool,” Walsh says. He adapted the method for the Charleston event, building his broth from shrimp, celery, onion, spring onions and Tellicherry peppercorns, as well as the micro versions of carrots, chives and basil.

Earlier this year, celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Emeril Lagasse earned a “crazy genius” tag from Bon Appetit for introducing small-batch French press bouillabaisse at Vegas Uncork’d: Walsh suspects more of his colleagues will soon add coffee plungers to their extensive inventories of service items. “I hope they do,” he says. “We’ve got to share the wealth.”

Mike Sousa of Russell Morin Catering, with locations in Massachusetts and Newport, R.I., stuck to a red palette when preparing his salad of roasted beets and red grapefruit, dressed with beet-and-grapefruit vinaigrette. While red has always been a popular Yuletide hue (or so it seemed until Starbucks this year released its seasonal cups), it’s especially trendy in the form of blood oranges, a 2015 caterer favorite. Since caterers can’t count on their clients’ guests being adventurous eaters, they like to mix up their meals by tweaking colors instead of flavors. In addition to blood oranges, caterers at the tasting party served black garlic dip and green tomato cocktail sauce.

Harissa, the hot chili pepper paste from North Africa, has secured a spot in most restaurant pantries, but its versatility still isn’t fully appreciated by many home cooks. That’s a point in the condiment’s favor for hosts looking to wow their guests with something new. “You see how sriracha has taken over,” says Sousa. “Harissa is more the nicer end.” AJ Donner of Best Impressions Catering in Charlotte rubbed harissa on lamb for the caterers’ party, even though the caterer stationed directly next to him was also serving a Moroccan-style dish. “It’s so important to get your point across,” Donner says of the paste’s explicit kick. “People will come back for more.”

The curse of catering is discarded plates and balled-up napkins, which need to be constantly swept off piano tops and upholstered chairs. One solution that’s emerged in recent years is the edible spoon, which comes in various flavors, including black peppercorn and parmesan. Many professional caterers consider the spoon-shaped cracker preferable to tiny cones for serving mayonnaise-based salads and tuna tartare. “Cones,” one caterer muttered at the party, underscoring his feelings with an adjective that can’t be printed here. A colleague standing nearby agreed with his assessment, but added, “You know what’s wrong with the spoons? The (afore-mentioned adjective) handles.” According to disenchanted caterers, it’s wise to season the otherwise bland ends of the edible utensils.

Even though caterers from across the country were on serving duty, Duvall also contributed to the small plate party, constructing a raw bar that drew raves from fellow caterers. “A raw bar isn’t too challenging,” Duvall sous chef David Bishop admitted. Putting together a raw bar is mostly a matter of smart shopping and sauce-making, which even less-than-confident cooks can typically handle. So long as there’s plenty of ice, Bishop says, the raw bar should outlast guests. But he warns that the right display pieces are essential: “We have clear things that drain out.”

Every caterer questioned emphasized the importance of fresh ingredients, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for tuna fish cans at an upscale soiree. Vagn Nielsen of Atlanta’s Proof of the Pudding plated his tuna nicoise salad in unlabeled versions of the recognizable cans. “It works perfectly,” he said, demonstrating how he assembles the tuna, quail egg, green olives and fingerling potatoes. Coopting familiar containers for presentation purposes is a concept that popped up again at the closing dinner, when servers poured soup from Aqua Panna bottles. “People really like it,” Nielsen said.