Catering makes or breaks an event. Find the best caterers in London and the latest food trends, from 'Dude Food' to Donuts, pop-ups to popcorn.
A spectacular event with shit catering is just an event with shit catering. And in the age of social interaction (namely twitter, closely followed by Facebook and, if you're really gonna cop it, Tripadvisor), there are no second chances. Yes, catering is key and you'd better digest it!
Another thing that's widely and, actually, surprisingly overlooked is the fact that your guests will be hungry. And yet event organisers are at best, surprised, and at worst, disgusted, by the inevitable rush for the canapé trays, which are often intercepted by strategically positioned guests before they've even had a chance to leave the kitchen. Think about it though, these are your guests and they've made an effort to be there. What's more, they've had a tough day in the office and have come straight from work so they're hungry and thirsty and ready to be entertained. That's life. My primary advice would be to always work out how much food you think you need for your reception. And then double it.
Gone are the days of convincing yourself that 'its not dinner, it's a reception'. Well, guess what? It is dinner if you want your guests to stay from 6pm to 9pm. Fact.
In recent years there's been a return to an emphasis on the quality of food and, for that reason, restaurants and hotels are enjoying something of a comeback in corporate booking terms. This is partly due to the current trend towards smaller, quality-led departmental events and partly due to the fact that people are becoming more discerning and demanding. And rightly so. For this reason there's been a flurry of high profile hotels and restaurants widening their remit and offering world class outside catering - The Mandarin Oriental being a glittering example...
Presentation is a consideration too. There's one particular event I still talk about two years later and it's not that I remember what the food tasted like (although I'm sure it was great - otherwise it would have been an event with sh*t catering, remember?). But the presentation was a sensation. Purple Grape never disappoint and at this particular event they knocked it out of the park. Reflecting the weird and wonderful environment of 'Ripley's Believe it or not!' they created an edible cosmetics bar (I seem to remember an inflatable expanding boobs exhibit in the vicinity although I may be dreaming that) but the really clever part was in the detail. So much of it was edible and you could even squeeze sauce on to your canapés from toothpaste tubes which was interactive, memorable and highly engaging, not to mention awesome!
There's one fundamental flaw with event catering which I'm not sure will ever be resolved though, and that's how do you eat bowl food whilst holding a glass of Champagne?
The added complication is that bowl food is still all the rage because (as per my 'hungry guests' point) people want a 'meal' as opposed to a 'bite' and bowl food is the perfect solution. Being that canapés, and by that I mainly mean bowl food, are mostly my supper at least three nights a week (and that I inadvertently drink more Champagne than water between Monday and Thursday - an occupational hazard which means I'll probably be dead by 40 and it serves me right) you'd think I'd have a technique. But I don't.
If it involves a fork, a bowl and a glass it's inevitably awkward and therefore annoying with a good chance of spillage. There is a current solution but it looks ridiculous! It's a little plastic clip thing that fits on your bowl or plate that you slot your Champagne flute into. It may be practical but you'll look like a bit of a d*ck. I've only ever seen this in America but I don't think it's caught on. I hope not anyway. I guess we'll just have to struggle, scoff and fumble our way through polite conversations for the foreseeable future...
As one industry friend (who has to remain anonymous for commercial reasons) once said:
"Do I want to inject a pipette of horseradish foam and 'deconstructed pea jus' with one hand into a designer mini Yorkshire pudding in the other hand whilst balancing a glass of wine on my elbow? No, I f**king don't!"
What he's trying to say is, sometimes you can be too clever...
And how annoying is it when you are offered a canapé and they walk off leaving you with the stick? I went to an event at Claridges recently and they had an actual stick collector following the waitresses. Excessive perhaps but a memorable, and bloody useful, touch nevertheless. I just feel rude dumping the stick on a poseur table or, worse, in a flower pot. And I feel even ruder dumping it on a half full canapé tray. Yet that's the most common viable current solution. Gross. I've even grabbed a half eaten canapé on more than one occasion, not realising that it's a tray of leftovers rather than creatively presented (deconstructed!) food. I've seen 'deconstructed' Eton mess on more than one occasion recently but surely it's only Eton Mess if it's....er...messy (and therefore distinctly 'constructed')?
Or how about when the canapé you innocently pick up is just too big to pop in the mouth? Yep, that! Do you pop the lot in or go for two, potentially messy bites? Well, that one's simple. If in doubt, shove it in your mouth. That's my motto anyway (don’t take that comment out of context though)!
And what about when the waiter can't tell you what that canapé is? Or even who the caterer is! Although I think the days of caterers thinking of their agency staff as a less important afterthought are over. The top caterers have always recognised the importance of front of house and one particularly pioneering innovator reputedly even ran into trouble of the discriminatory variety for insisting that only ‘beautiful people’ served his food. Well, I completely agree with him. You could almost say his sentiment is ‘Admirable’ ;-) His canapés are a thing of beauty, why can't they be represented by Abercrombie style ambassadors (because that's exactly what your staff are, Ambassadors)? Actually it happened to Abercrombie too didn't it? With their 'discriminatorily' small dress sizes...damn you social media! You're so friggin’ useful until a PR disaster goes viral!
Allergies are tricky too, particularly at larger events - and I don't mean neurotic, self-inflicted fad diet devotees who only drink pigeon milk and nibble lettuce hearts. I remember a brilliant moment in America where someone had a bowl of lettuce unceremoniously plonked in front of her with an audible 'huff' when she rejected the meat course! No, I mean severe allergies. But who's problem is it (apart from the person who's gonna die)? As an event organiser is it up to you to ask the question? Or is it up to the guest or delegate? Usually, for sit down dinners one would ask if there were dietary requirements but for a canapé reception it rarely happens. I was once at a fashion event with a model who didn't eat meat of any sort and when she'd popped a huge chocolate Truffle in her mouth, she realised it was, in fact, a giant dollop of fois gras! Cue panic run to the loo (and God knows what happened in there!)
But where is it all going? What are the current trends? What proportion of my budget should I allocate to catering? Should I do bowl food or substantial canapés? Or food stations, or a sit down meal? How important is presentation? What are the benefits of being creative? What's more important - the food or those who serve it?
Well, this month we will answer all of these questions via surveys, tips and editorial features gleaned from all the experts. For starters (excuse the pun!) here are my top 10 catering ideas for 2014 - an eclectic mix of all the potent ingredients - originality, quality, quantity, presentation, stimulation of the senses (including the eyes which have a surprisingly significant effect on taste) and style. Bon appetit!
In no particular order…
1. Liquid Nitrogen
Liquid nitrogen is a great way to entertain your guests. Rhubarb offer freshly made ice-cream in a variety of flavours as well as frozen shots of green tea & lime or Campari mousse creating a burst of flavour which seemingly boils and bubbles via copious cascading rolls of ‘smoke’. Liquid nitrogen brings the food and beverage alive fusing entertainment, catering and setting the scene perfectly - ‘eat-ertainment’ (you heard it here first – I should Trademark that phrase!). Liquid nitrogen was used to spectacular effect at the recent launch of the new BMW i3 electric car on Park Lane and was more of a talking point (and, of course, tweeting-point) than the car itself. Potent stuff…
2. Formal Informality
Purple Grape are seeing a continued trend for 'formal informality', especially with weddings. Home comforts and British classics are a must, with frequent requests for fun food yet incorporating a level of quality and style.
When a recent client asked them to recreate their favourite food of a Ploughman’s picnic, they took the initiative and offerd their guests an individual picnic box rather than a shared style starter for their 3-course wedding breakfast. This concept is now available to clients for 2014.
Key ingredients include beetroot stained smoked salmon tartar, home-made scotch eggs, coarse-grain pate & of course a lovely piece of vintage cheddar cheese finished with a mini jam jar of pickles & a sprinkle of edible flowers…
Experimentation is key this year, especially if it involves fillings and toppings, which bring delicious. as opposed to gratuitous, new varieties to the table. Cronuts (defined by Wikipedia as ‘a croissant-doughnut pastry’) make a perfect addition to your dessert stall and can be filled with anything from apple purée with a salted caramel topping to passion fruit cream with added sparkle and popping candy.
4. Jet-set dining with On Air
On Air Dining have been quietly revolutionising food onboard private jets for HNWI's, Royalty and Celebrities. With the amazing creative talents of their World Class chefs (Abramovic has pretty high standards), and using only the best ingredients, they’ve been bringing the world of gastronomy to private aircraft using a system that has never been seen before.
Their revolutionary way of plating food has been so popular they’ve now decided to ditch the discretion, make some noise and bring this into the corporate domain. Basically, they create the food, freeze-dry and vacuum pack it and then provide the cabin crew with flash cards containing a simple 5 step plan to preparing an amazing gourmet meal – in seconds. I’ve tasted it and it’s sensational. Imagine: Private Jet Catering in your Boardroom - Tastes as good, looks as good and is just as exclusive, if not more so! On Air can create an intimate epicurean feast at 40,000 feet, so imagine what they can do with their feet on the ground! You can now dine like you're in a Gulfstream – in the office!
5. Secret Garden Suppers & Mad Hatter’s Brunch Party Pop-ups
When it comes to deliciousness with a distinctly innovative twist, there’s a new name in town – Christabel’s! Hand made, conceptualized and delivered, even down to her deliciously decadent sauces, by the uber-talented Christabel herself (can’t believe I hadn’t heard of her until now). Christabel will add a flash of magic to your event, every time.
Her pop-up brunches and secret garden parties are causing a real stir for those in the know and the surprises keep on coming! Brands like Nike are early adopters of her enormously memorable style, which includes edible board-games (Dominos, Scrabble etc!) and suitably mad and moreish creations! So, for an experience your guests will never forget, Christabel’s is the secret new ingredient. Even her name sounds like it sparkles…!
7. Gourmet popcorn
The simple and ever-popular popcorn stall has taken on new heights as caterers experiment with unique flavours. Some of Rhubarb’s favourites include beetroot & cardamon, freshly grated truffle and parmesan with dried prosciutto. Suddenly salt or sweet sounds a bit disappointing.
I remember an American friend of mine from school visiting the cinema for the first time in the UK and when asked ‘Salt or sweet?’ he defiantly replied ‘Butter!’. We thought he’d gone mad but it seems that twenty-five years later we’ve finally diversified (except in the cinema of course!).
8. The Airstream Revival
As far as food stations go this is an uber food station. A gleaming retro American style mobile catering unit filled with surprises - from pick n' mix to candyfloss. With a distinct ‘Tardis’ feel, the airstream is much more than just a highly practical mobile catering unit. It's a focal feature and a massive talking point at any event from Ideas Box.
If I was to have this at my event, I'd fill it with chemistry equipment - bell jars and distillers, complete with copious amounts of liquid nitrogen for a real Breaking Bad style experience...Let's cook!
9. Branded tricycles
Having been pioneered a few years ago (I remember the launch of the HS1 Eurostar at St.Pancras where Moving Venue Catering produced a vast array of British and French food carts in a street-market style to sensational effect), food stations are all the rage these days because they offer freedom, choice and a fun-fueled focal point at any event, perfectly combining theming with quality catering. Everyone’s doing it now but for the most original, authentic and boundary-pushing experience, you’ll need to call Ideas Box.
Years ago, Harvey Ward was the guy who took the chocolate fountain and made it sexy – with integrated and illuminated trays, beautiful displays and immaculate presentation he made it so much more than just a mildly unhygienic chocolate waterfall! His ever-expanding tricycle range now takes that original concept to a whole new level and incorporates almost anything you can think of from Churros to cheese-boards, crepes to candy floss. With clients including Royalty, the Prime Minister and even Ant & Dec, Ideas Box is the market leader and the epitome of stylish food stalls in 2014.
10. Dude food
This trend originated in the United States, with the ostensibly urban movement of vans selling quality street food.
Rhubarb has developed a dude food menu including rock shrimp, ‘hush puppies’, BBQ short rib roll with chipotle béarnaise and the king crab, pomelo and vanilla oil on liquorice sticks. It’s like traditional street food – but on a whole new level!
I experienced this at legendary founder of Rhubarb, Lucy Gemmell’s, leaving party last year and was blown away by the quality – perfect for parties, lavish or otherwise…
And as a bonus...
11. Authentic American Cookies – hand made in New York
There are cookies and then there are COOKIES! Years ago, as President of ISES UK, I met a young up-and-coming event industry superstar. She was so enthusiastic and determined, yet she was one of the loveliest people I’d ever met in the industry. That’s rare because there are loads of talented, determined people out there but not many are so genuine.
Fast forward five years and Christine Brower of C.Brower & Co. Creative Events is riding high on the New York scene. But it’s almost a side project (or, more accurately, a by-product) of her day-to-day activity that sets the scene for this transportable aspect of her repertoire – sensational cookies!
Not only do these cookies taste properly amazing, but they are possibly the most ‘facebook-able’ visually stimulating catering creations of all time! Perfect for corporate gifts and made to order on any scale (I’ve requested some Dr.Seuss ones for my birthday in May!), Christine’s cookies (not a euphemism!) are the best in the biz! So, if you want something fun, affordable and fantastic at your events or celebrations order them from Chrstine Brower in New York – you’ll get the authentic American cookie experience and postage is a small price to pay for the real deal!
The aforementioned ideas are all easily applied and integrated into a wide variety of events and are all guaranteed to be a central talking point (as well as a gastronomic experience) – in summary, it’s all been pre-prepared and perfected for you. Of course, one could go completely crazy and attempt to create something memorable and visually spectacular, even inspirational, but beware - above all else there’s one fundamental thing it has to be. Delicious. Very few caterers get the balance absolutely right (without making things impossible to eat – remember the horseradish foam in the pipette!?).
It’s a hugely technical exercise but one Celebrity Chef who’s certainly mastered the art of event catering with a spectacular twist is Rhubarb’s Heston Blumenthal. It’s a story for another time (perhaps when the magnificent 20 Fenchurch Street Sky Garden launches in October) but his ‘edible restaurant’ where you can eat everything (and I mean everything – down to the wallpaper!) constitutes extreme catering of the magnificent kind. And it’s no accident - that’s why he’s so revered globally. Look out for our VIP Corporate Heston dinner party coming soon…
Remember, a spectacular event with shit catering is just an event with shit catering. Delicious and spectacularly presented food, on the other hand, can transform any event however mediocre your venue may be. Perhaps you should think of changing your order then? (Excuse the pun!) Try starting the planning process for your next event by calling the caterer first….it might just give you your appetite back!
Will Broome CEO