• Irene Levy Baker

Caterers Cook Up Captivating Cuisine

Want to generate some buzz about your event? These accomplished chefs and caterers can help meeting planners create experiences that will be remembered long after guests have posted pictures to social media.

“At the most successful events, guests walk out feeling better than when they came in and knowing exactly why they were there,” says Shaun Roberts, vice president of sales for Great Performances, a caterer and event company based in New York.

Great Performances was founded in 1980 to provide flexible part-time work to women who were pursing artistic careers and has since grown into the largest independent catering and events company in the New York tri-state area, as well as into the largest women-owned foodservice company in the region.

Great Performances demonstrated its commitment to sustainability long before it was fashionable when it opened its own organic Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY back in 2007. Today, the caterer continues its commitment to the future of the planet with plant-based menus where vegetables are featured, paired with animal protein sides.

This vegetable-centric caterer offers a popular twist on the traditional meat station by instead offering a vegetable carving station that features whole roasted vegetables served with a variety of sauces.

Also tapping into the trend toward more veggies is Garces Events. “Plant-based items are all the rage,” explains Claire Kos, senior catering sales manager. Garces Events is the full-service catering and events division of Garces Restaurant Group and is rooted in the culinary vision of world-renown Iron Chef Jose Garces, known for his heartfelt approach to Latin hospitality.

Garces Events is the exclusive caterer for a number of high-profile venues in Philadelphia, including: Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts; Academy of Music Ballroom; Spruce Street Harbor Park and many others.

Kos notes that most guests are accustomed to dining out and have sophisticated palates, and therefore warns against “dumbing down” the whole menu merely to appease a few. “Surprise your guests with bold flavors and impress them with beautiful displays.”

Garces Events puts this philosophy into practice by serving up a dish like Onion Bhaji, which is an onion fritter with cilantro and mustard yogurt with mint chutney. They might also present it on an eye-catching black plate to further showcase the new menu item, because “guests eat with their eyes first,” explains Kos.

She also recommends providing hearty and filling items for vegetarians, such as Grilled Haloumi spiked with watermelon and green olive.

Gran Caffe L’Aquila was originally an award-winning cafe located in the Abruzzo region of Italy. After an earthquake destroyed the cafe - along with much of the town - the cafe was rebuilt in Philadelphia, PA. Today, Italian expats flock to the restaurant for its authentic Italian cuisine and atmosphere, as do groups who are looking for an authentic Italian experience.

Riccardo Longo, founding partner, culinary and wine director for Gran Caffe L’Aquila, wows event guests with customized experiences that provide a taste of Italy. “Planners are seeking out memorable and unique experiences,” he observes.

The restaurant thrives on educating guests about Italy and happily obliges with wine dinners focusing on a particular region of Italy, olive oil tastings, coffee experiences in its labs highlighting the differences in Italian regional coffee that features city-by-city

regional tastings, and a popular “Aperitivo" Italian happy hour that boasts Italian cocktails and assaggi along with other activities.

Gran Caffe L’Aquila also is widely known for its house made gelato by Chef and Founding Partner Stefano Biasini, an Italian gelato champion. Biasini creates both sweet and savory gelato and can even put together a multi-course dinner featuring gastronomic gelato - from antipasti to pasta to meats. The restaurant hosts authentic Italian experiences for 10 to 200 guests in its Rittenhouse Square-based restaurant and culture school.

Di Bruno Bros. was founded by two brothers who emigrated from Italy to the United States in the 1930s. Today, their grandsons run the thriving gourmet shops, online and catering business that offer specialty foods from around the corner - and around the world.

Recently opened, BANCA by Di Bruno Bros. is a stunning new event space in Philadelphia that features customizable, full-service catering menus by Chef Ashley James, Di Bruno’s managing director of culinary. Formerly a 19th century bank, BANCA has arched windows, high ceilings, and, much like Di Bruno itself, old world charm with modern amenities. The new restaurant is ideal for corporate and social receptions, non-profit fundraisers, parties and more.

Di Bruno Bros. also boasts exclusive or preferred catering partnerships with several venues, including: Mann Music Center; The Fillmore; University City Science Center - Quorum; One Liberty Observation Deck; Philadelphia Magic Gardens; the Bok Building and others; or, they can bring their Italian specialties to corporate offices or customer selected venues, too.

To make events even more memorable, Daniel Love, senior sales consultant for Di Bruno Bros., suggests adding an educational component.

Di Bruno can arrange for a cheese monger to introduce and discuss the origin of various rare cheeses. Chef James recommends serving hors d’oeuvres on a vessel made of the same item, such as a mini grilled cheese served and a huge loaf of bread, or mini sliders served on a giant slider bun, or a cacio e pepe fettuccini served in a hollowed-out Parmesan wheel.

Chef James also likes to have fun with cheesesteaks by not only creating mini traditional cheesesteaks, but also substituting chicken or making a vegan or gluten-free version.

It’s not surprising that Di Bruno Bros. incorporates a lot of cheese into their events, as they are widely known for their amazing cheese and charcuterie presentations.

As Chef James notes, “Cheese is part of our DNA; we love, understand and source the best products.”

Catering By Design (CBD) is a catering and event decor company that is renowned for serving authentic regional cuisine paired with striking creative decor and floral design through CBD’s design division, garnish. They help create events in venues throughout the region or they can bring their catering and design skills to the client’s home or office instead.

CBD partners with many premier sites and is an exclusive caterer for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, One North Broad in the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, Bolingbroke Mansion in Radnor, PA, and the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA.

Their menus are constantly evolving to reflect the changing demographics of the region, according to Peter Loevy, president of Catering By Design. “Mediterranean foods are always in fashion and clients are now looking beyond the coast for flavors and aromas that are more diverse than ever before,” he explains.

Loevy adds that Persian dishes have been in demand, including such accompaniments as sour cherry relish, pistachio pestos, sour tomato sauces and grains such as freekah. Broader iterations of Asian cuisine have burgeoned, too - from a Japanese Grill that includes the use of king oyster mushrooms, garlic red miso butter and yuzu kosho vinaigrette to the unique spices used in South Indian cuisine. Latin cuisine, including tamales, arepas and even a Peruvian cheesesteak are also crowd pleasers.

A creative caterer can be the key to events that will make guests not only want to post pictures online, but also whip out their phone days later to show off an exciting dish or display from the event they recently attended.

Irene Levy Baker, owner of Spotlight Public Relations, is the author of 100 Things To Do In Philadelphia Before You Die and also Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia

Party Planning Tips

• Do something authentic and unique. Gran Caffe L’Aquila likes to “wow” guests with authentic and unique experiences such as customized wine dinners or Italian culture classes.

• Great Performances suggests choosing the three most important moments of the evening and presenting them in the most effective way possible. Instead of trying to “top the competition,” just stay true to the mission and people will feel like they’ve had a complete evening.

Focus on the timeline, too, advises Great Performances. Don’t let the food get so overwrought that the evening drags along and becomes more about the food than the overall experience of the evening.

Great Performances also says that even planners on a tight budget can still make their event feel like a million bucks by planning little food moments presented in smaller batches that appear and then disappear. This will help in keeping cost down and interest high.

• Grazing stations can be as simple or elaborate as a budget allows, notes Catering By Design. And those on a tight budget can choose foods that don’t require the need for servers/waitstaff.

• Di Bruno Bros. advises planners to avoid the trap of doing what has always been done. Explore new ways of entertaining guests, like dinner by the bite instead of a plated meal, or brunch food at a cocktail reception, such as French toast, bacon and quiche.

To help brand an event, Di Bruno recommends picking a single element (such as a color, logo or shape) and really playing it up.

• Garces Events suggests that planners get creative with presentation. Ask the caterer to serve menu items in unique ways - maybe on a chilled spoon or in a carved-out vegetable shell or as part of a beautiful display where guests get to select their own toppings.

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