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Once upon a time, caterers were booked for weddings and funerals, while frozen party pies carried the menu on most occasions in between. Now “ordinary” Australians are calling in the experts for every occasion, from children’s birthdays to divorce parties and even Sunday catch-ups with friends.
Chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly offering offsite catering services, with consumers keen to have their favourite dining-out experience brought into their homes. At the same time, dedicated catering businesses have upped the ante, taking their cues from the world’s best chefs and delivering impressive food with mobile know-how. We talk to a few top providers to learn what diners are really looking for now.
Industry commentators have long heralded the death of restaurant fine dining, and it seems fancy French food is no longer the mark of a good dinner party either. Chef Daniel Abou-Chedid, owner of Fork ‘n’ Knife Catering, said there’s been a definite shift to a more informal style of dining at catered events. “Back in the day when we first started, catering was all about the entree, main and dessert and this beautiful three course meal,” he said. “Today, people want a rustic banquet; they want whole smoked meats and interesting concepts about food. The gathering menu is what everyone’s on about…they’re more into the rustic, laid back, chilled, ‘let’s get together and have a bite to eat’ thing.”
No longer restricted to selecting a rigid menu of set dishes, clients now want their meal to be tailored to their personal tastes. Top caterers offer menus that are not only fully customisable, but also take into account the theme of the function, with the client having input into style and presentation, making the food another themed element at the party. “When I design a menu, the first thing is about looking after the customer, because we design our menus to be exactly what the customer wants,” Chef Daniel said. “For example, one of our clients was putting on a Gatsby-themed party, so we took that on when we were creating the menu and we designed a lavish buffet and a seafood tower to structure around that Gatsby style. Everything was on silver platters, we had a really opulent tiered seafood display and it was really about a showy display of abundance.”
Tel Aviv-born Chef Michael Rantissi, of Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co fame, has taken his Middle Eastern dishes out of his restaurant and into people’s homes with Kepos Catering. Chef Michael said modern audiences are more adventurous than ever before. “I think people are moving away from that fear of food and they want to be able to have more variety of food on the table,” he said. “All our clients are looking for a Mediterranean theme and it’s all about the hommus and the felafel and they want that to be transported from the restaurant in the same format – the same standard of presentation, the quality…the whole cultural experience that goes with the food.” There’s fun in a globetrotting menu, but clients are also looking to caterers for cultural mashups that keep meals tasty and interesting. Zushi, one of Sydney’s favourite Japanese restaurants, is doing a roaring trade with its catering, but the kitchen’s most popular dish isn’t strictly Japanese. “Sashimi Tacos are our most popular dish,” Serena Ang, co-owner and General Manager of the Zushi Group said. “It’s layered Huon Tas salmon, yellowfin tuna and avocado, topped with yuzu granita and flying fish roe. With a touch of wasabi on the side, you simply mix it all together and pop it on the wonton crackers. A modern twist on Japanese cuisine.”
The chef-led evolution of catering has transformed the catering process from the delivery pre-prepared platters, to the delivery of a professional kitchen team to an event. Chef Daniel Abou-Chedid said this is one of the most important elements he and his team consider at the menu-design stage. “We try to design our menu so that we can actually cook it on site. That’s really important. Also cooking from raw, not cooking from par-cooked,” he said. Prioritising freshness can be a challenging task in venues without a kitchen or with limited space, so Fork ‘n’ Knife provide consistent quality with their own portable trailer kitchen. “We do a lot of site visits beforehand to make sure the venue suits what we want to do before we design the menu. We also have a look around to make sure we’re prepared for what we’re about to get into. Every single job is a totally unique experience,” Chef Daniel said. “We have venues where we don’t have power, or we can’t use gas, or we have to worry about the fire alarms – a whole bunch of different things that we try and take into account before we go and do it. But we can work with anything you’ve got!”
Clients are increasingly looking to caterers to provide their party’s Instagram cred and chefs are spending time styling grazing tables and dessert bars accordingly. Chris Stubbs, hospitality industry veteran and owner of Bayleaf Catering, Bad Betty Burgers and Mondo Bartenders, said his team keeps its finger on the pulse of the latest food styling trends online and in Australia’s best restaurants, then delivers these on a grand scale for hundreds of people at a time. “We always work to the design principle of engaging all the senses – taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing, with the use of fresh market flowers from the bright and colourful to the amazing native Australian flowers and soft and hard fragrant herbs,” Chris said. “We design multi-level 360 degree buffets, rather than having beautiful food on a flat surface. The buffet must also be boxed in with a black table cloth (so everything above the table cloth will bounce to the eye) and then coloured décor to suit the grazing buffet and appropriate knick-knacks to ‘wow’ the station. We have even used music with strategically placed speakers on an “ocean-to-plate” grazing station with an incredible client response.”
With food allergies on the rise, an ability to cater for special dietary requirements is more important than ever. But how’s a chef to maintain the integrity of a specially prepared dish when the fashion for sharing menus dictates the way food is served? “We have seen an incredible increase in special diets, with the introduction of many new diets over the past five years,” Chris told. “Our events team must work closely with the client and the core customer with open channels of discussion to ensure that all dietaries are catered for in a safe environment – super-important when you think that a contaminated pan that has trace elements of nuts could do incredible harm to an individual,” he said. As a result, the Bayleaf team take a multi-faceted approach to managing an event where guests have food allergies. “We ensure that our floor team are extensively briefed by our Executive Chef on the menu and ingredients prior to service,” Chris said. “Our grazing tables are chef-manned so this strategy engages the customer with the chef. We use menu boards that are clearly labelled and each item on the grazing table is then labelled again to ensure that we capture as much dietary information as possible on the grazing station.”
Worrying about providence is no longer the sole domain of chefs. Clients are now concerned about what happens to their food before it lands on their plates and this has become a consideration when selecting not just a menu, but also a caterer. “I think we all want the food to be healthy and sustainable. People want to know where their food is coming from, who the growers are, is it sustainable, how much has the food travelled to get to them,” Chef Michael Rantissi said. “Ten years ago, I don’t remember people asking about our vegetable growers and what kind of vegetables they have. I try as much as we can to cater to this concern by treating produce with respect, for example by making sure that the majority of cooking is done on-site. This maintains the integrity of the product and it gives a much higher quality result than the old-fashioned thing where you would transport the food already cooked.”
Sure, some clients are paring back on the fancy trimmings, but there’ll always be parties (and hosts) that are crying out for a display of flamboyance. Zushi offers a special crowd pleaser that brings the (right kind of) drama to an event. “We offer unique experiences to customers that go above and beyond the normal Sushi catering platters offered by Japanese restaurants,” Serena Ang said. “We offer a Mobile Zushi service where we send our Head Chef to you. Chef Lee can design a menu and make your next event more unique by making the food right in front of you with handy tricks and years of skills to display!”