Party Trends

Published in Gourmet Live 12.07.11
The chefs and planners behind blockbuster events like the Screen Actors Guild Awards tell Emily L. Foley what’s hot now

Clockwise from top left: David Rocco, Suzanne Goin, and Tony Conway

Less Is More

When big restaurant chains like Carrabba’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, and the Cheesecake Factory are offering smaller-portion entrée options, it’s official: More is no longer more. “The idea is to keep them wanting more,” says chef, cookbook author, and TV personality David Rocco, who served as the creative director of the Supper Club private cast dinners program at the Toronto Film Festival last year. “Even though these stars and directors were eating, they were still working, so it was important not to weigh them down and make them sleepy,” he says. “No one wants to leave a lot on their plate, because it looks rude—like they didn’t enjoy it.” The same principle holds true for dessert. “Gone are the days of one big slab of cheesecake,” says Rocco. “I like to serve an assortment of desserts in little shooter glasses. You have little bite-size portions of several different options and place them in the middle of the table, so people can sample a variety of desserts.”

Chefs as Entertainment

Celebrity caterer Tony Conway of Atlanta’s A Legendary Event notes that his clients (who include Elton John, Tyler Perry, and Jane Fonda) are moving away from passed hors d’oeuvres and toward chef-attended stations at their events. “People love all the food shows on TV right now, and they want to see the chefs in the room working with the food,” says Conway. “So even if it’s as simple as an heirloom tomato soup with grilled cheese triangles, the chef is there talking about how they made the soup while he’s carving the crust off the bread and handing it to the guest.”

Special Diets Welcome

“There are far more vegan and vegetarians diners now than ever before,” says Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin. So as Goin planned the menu for the 18th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards this coming January (this will be her third year as chef for the event), she made sure to include plenty of vegetables and meat-free sides for those not eating the grilled chicken breasts and slow-roasted wild salmon entrées. The standard salmon plate will be served with a spicy carrot salad, yellow beets, and an Indian-spiced yogurt sauce, while its vegan substitute will include Indian-style salsa and chickpeas, and will be served without the sauce. Goin will also serve roasted root vegetables over saffron couscous with persimmon salsa, so those not eating meat will still have a hearty meal. “It’s about catering to how the Hollywood crowd eats,” she says. “That means clean flavors, lots of vegetables, healthy, but just as importantly, visually stimulating.”

“We have more special requests across the board now,” says Deborah Lowery, whose Ladyfingers Catering in Louisville, Kentucky, has been catering the Barnstable Brown Party, one of the largest annual parties at the Kentucky Derby, for eight years. “Whether it’s vegan or gluten-free, we have to have a variety of options now to please every special request.” This means a vegetarian entrée of bowtie pasta tossed with baby spinach, roasted garlic, grilled artichoke, sundried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese. Plus, plenty of side dishes such as grilled asparagus and mashed potatoes with roasted garlic, caramelized onion, horseradish, and blue cheese.

Modest Luxury

“My clients are saying more and more that they want exquisite food and service without looking so opulent that guests will feel uncomfortable if they are having hard economic times,” says Conway. “I’m still doing over-the-top events with three different kinds of entertainment and a million flowers, but there’s always that conversation of diplomacy and being more mindful of where we should show our ’wow factor’.” Translation: While affluence will certainly never go out of style, in a time when even the most financially stable individual may be feeling the pinch, it’s how you show it that counts. “People are still serving top-shelf liquor, but you won’t see the bottles on display anymore,” shares Conway. “Now, instead of having servers walk around with bottles of Cristal, the champagne flutes are filled in the back, and brought out to the guests.” But one element people aren’t giving up is impeccable service. “If an event had 50 servers last year, the same type of event will still have 50 servers now,” says Conway. “Excellent service is a non-negotiable across the board.”

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