NACE food trends panel 2 1-14-2014 6-19-45 PM

Matthew King, Jon Riley, Jim Solomon, Linkie Marais

The Next Cupcake

Stay ahead of the party food curve: how food is served, what’s on the table, and where to repurpose leftovers.   Here’s the inside scoop from a recent New England Chapter of NACE (National Association for Catering and Events) panel featuring three expert chefs.  Presenters included: Jim Solomon, Chef and Owner of The Fireplace in Brookline, MA; Jon Riley, Chef and Owner of Capers Catering; Linkie Marais, Food Network Star; and Matthew King, Executive Chef of Smith & Wollensky.

Smith and Wollensky hosted this event in their spectacular “castle,” originally built in 1891, at 101 Arlington Street, Boston.  Tasha Bracken, of SD Events and Co-Program Chair of the New England Chapter of NACE, was an adept moderator.  After opening remarks Tasha asked the four chefs for their insights.

Jim Solomon noted that there’s an interest in small plates, wine and spirit tastings, and themes, such as the Great Gatsby and John and Abigail Adams.  Jim, a self-proclaimed history buff, serves seasonal, reliably delicious, local New England fare.  In addition, Jim sets the bar for being community spirited.

A New England chef, Linkie Marais’ cooking is influenced by having lived in South Africa as well as Mississippi.  Linkie added that many are opting for traditional family style meals.

Matthew King, of Smith and Wollensky, agreed asserting that some, however, still prefer French Style serving which is offered at Smith and Wollensky.

Jon Riley, of Capers Catering, noted that many clients have a heightened interest in food and choose a combination of served food and family style courses.  For example, some opt for a cocktail hour, followed by small soups and salads that are served, followed by a served plate of protein with family style side dishes on the table.

Having family style plates that need to be passed is an ice breaker.  Though some may think that family style serving is less expensive, that’s not the case.  Jon explains that family style serving is more expensive.  Extra food, serving dishes, and staff are costly.

All panelists agreed that they get more requests for gluten-free, allergy sensitive, and special diet foods.  They all take pride in accommodating requests.  Linkie emphasized the importance of making food attractive.  If a cake needs to be made with special flour, make it beautiful.  People eat with their eyes.

Tasha noted that 40% of food that’s processed at restaurants and catering facilities goes to waste.  And, due to the Good Samaritan Law, if food is given away and someone gets ill, the restaurant that donates the food is not responsible.  She asked the panelists if they repurpose food waste.

Jim Solomon replied that The Fireplace donates to Lovin’ Spoonfuls, an organization that picks up leftovers and delivers it to organizations that feed the hungry.

Jon Riley, who runs Capers Catering, is reluctant to give leftover food away given that after the food leaves their premises, Capers is no longer in as much control over how the food is stored.  However, when there isn’t concern about spoilage he donates leftovers to a local, appreciative fire department.

Matthew King, of Smith and Wollensky, noted that eventually restaurants will likely be required to donate compost.

Naomi Raiselle, New England Chapter of NACE PR Chair and Creative Director at Generations Cinemastories, reminded all about the New England NACE’s Feeding our Neighbors initiative, whereby leftover event food is donated to nonprofit organizations that feed that hungry – truly a worthwhile trend.

Tasha asked the panel about other notable trends that they might be noticing.  For example, some events are featuring drinks with infused ice cubes.

Linkie added that people are enjoying simple, bold flavors, organic foods; rare foods like forged mushrooms.  Desserts are often lighter than before, such as ice cream sandwiches made with frozen yogurt and sorbet.  Jim added that mini whoopee pies, invented in Maine, and desserts served as mini bites are popular.

Jon Riley exclaimed that more brides are opting not to order wedding cakes.  Rather they might cut a small cake for photographs and serve a fun, lower cost dessert such as brownie pops or a pie buffet with whipped cream and ice cream, or cobblers.

Linkie noted that many brides enjoy using dummy cakes and presenting the dummy cakes in an unexpected way, such as floating down from the ceiling.  Matthew added that bottom line, it’s important to make the cake presentation fun and interesting.

Tasha moved on to the next party ingredient – beverages.  She asked panelists what they see trending in alcoholic drinks.  Matthew replied that vodka is the “go to” liquor.  It blends well with other flavors.  Jon agreed adding that herbs and fruits are popular ingredients of specialty drinks.  And, he added, lemonades and teas are big.

Jim said that some restaurants are featuring imaginative drinks combining alcohol in typically nonalcoholic drinks, such as snow cones, milk shakes, and cotton candy.

Linkie noted that lemon is the fruit of the year.  She’s also noticing that people are ordering infused dark liquors like Honey Jack Daniels, as well as craft beers, and beer and whiskey pairings.

In wrapping up discussion Tasha asked if there were any overall trends that hadn’t been discussed.

Matthew replied that Middle Eastern spices and heat (hot peppers, etc.) are more prevalent.

Jon noted that as much as some customers are still enjoying cupcakes, cupcakes are gradually being replaced by other creative, fun desserts, such as anything (brownies, pies, cookies, cake) on a stick.

Jim said that he sees more restaurants incorporating farm to table and becoming more conscientious about their environmental footprint.  Sometimes farms are listed on menus.  He is dedicated to serving what’s in season.  For example, The Fireplace will not feature asparagus in the middle of winter.

Jon noted that he gets produce by working with the Chefs Garden in Ohio.  Matthew, who oversees the purchasing for the 9 Smith and Wollensky restaurants all over the country (Boston to Las Vegas), creates a core, seasonal menu and contracts with produce companies all over the world.

Hearing how these chefs get, serve, and repurpose food was enlightening.  Though cupcakes still enjoy a place at some tables, it’s clear from Jim Solomon, Jon Riley, Linkie Marais, and Matthew King that other foods and traditions are the “new cupcake.”

When you go to a restaurant or entertain what foods are appealing?  How do you prefer to serve or be served?  Does the restaurant or do you have a plan for unused food?  What trends interest you?

Life is short.  Celebrate!