Summing It Up
Use “live chef” cooking stations or family-style service to break away from traditional chafing-dish presentations.
When Rick Waters was hired as Executive Chef for The Peachtree Club in January 2004, the private club was best known for the panoramic view of downtown Atlanta from its 28th- floor wedding and banquet facility.
Since then, Waters’ personal goal has been to redirect the gazes of members and visitors away from the window and toward the centers of their plates. To do so, he uses not only innovative recipes, but also out-of-the-ordinary presentations.
At the Peachtree Club that means getting away from traditional “mass-produced” buffet chafing dishes and replacing them with live “cooking” stations, where chefs put the finishing touches on the food right before the guests’ eyes. One particularly popular station features risotto, which is prepared in the kitchen, then reheated with chicken stock and cream and topped with a wild mushroom and truffle oil ragout in the dining room.
“Just the aroma of the truffle oil as it’s pouring into the pan is enough to let people know that this dish is special,” Waters says.
Waters also sometimes opts to give risotto an ultra-trendy twist by spiking it with smoky chipotle peppers, mixing in some crabmeat and smoked gouda, and forming the whole savory ensemble into two-ounce panko-coated cakes, served with a classic remoulade sauce.
Does this really go over well with people who are used to having the usual plates of chicken or prime rib plunked down in front of them at weddings?
“Thanks to the Food Network, many consumers tend to be a lot more savvy now about ingredients, and they’re willing to try new things, in any setting,” Waters feels. “They’re looking for fresh ingredients and fresh concepts.”
Striking a Balance
Club chefs do recognize that in banquet settings, extreme envelope-pushing—or “anything that guests might find weird or strange,” as Ed Esneault, Executive Chef at the Foxwoods Resort Casino-affiliated Lake of Isles Golf Club in North Stonington, Conn., describes it—doesn’t often extend to traditional entrees. Although Lake Of Isles has only been open for member dining and social functions since March (public debut is scheduled for May), Esneault recognizes that pleasing members and attracting non-members calls for a careful balance of creativity and caution. So while he does offer a filet of sole, he elevates it with a stuffing of lobster risotto.
Great ideas-including recipes- for buffets and events that will wow your members and guests.
Similarly, Marc Raffa, Executive Chef of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, acknowledges that crab cakes are often—and will likely continue to be—a preferred banquet item. When they’re on the menu, he slips in a Thai accent with an accompanying lemon grass beurre blanc. For salmon, he adds cucumber lattice crust and cumin-scented tomato sauce.
And when Steven Russakoff, Executive Chef at Seattle’s Ranier Golf and Country Club, serves chicken for a wedding or event, he takes it to a new level with a spinach and feta cheese, or a mousse of more chicken and pistachio nuts.
Club chefs know there are limitations when trying to translate a delectable dinner for two into a feast for 200 or more. Some recipes have to be eliminated immediately because they’re not durable enough to sit on a buffet table (“It can take people 45 minutes to get to a buffet,” notes Russakoff). Others require too much last-minute work—a particular problem for a chef like Raffa who serves a la minute, rather than pre-plating. Ingredient costs are also a major consideration, especially when competing for wedding and banquet business where per-person rates are critical. And bakery items are the most difficult to upsize, the chefs agree, because they are based on strict formulas instead of recipes.
But when they find a recipe—for any course—that looks like it can make the “quantum leap” from small- to large-scale, chefs are reporting many successful techniques for converting the measurements. Some tap into their computers for occasional assistance, using special software like MasterCook or ExecuChef. But even then, they caution, the resulting calculations should only be used as a starting point; quantities and flavors may need to be adjusted several times.
Smaller Portions, Larger Variety
Once they’ve found ways to successfully translate recipes to a grander scale, many club chefs are getting similarly favorable reactions as The Peachtree Club’s Waters as they break away from traditional banquet expectations—not only through what they’re serving, but how it is served.
Chef stations have also become an integral part of the banquet offerings at Belmont Country Club, Belmont, Mass. Executive Chef Steve Sharad is introducing more exotic fare, such as mushi duck with Chinese pancakes, by having stations do “small plate presentations” of various courses. “Instead of four courses, maybe we’ll do six,” he explains.
At Seattle’s Rainier Club, Executive Chef Russakoff is moving away from traditional rack of lamb by setting out Frenched lamb chops that guests can pick up by the bone. Changes have to be introduced slowly in a club setting, says Russakoff, and presentation is a first step.
At Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club in California, “family-style service” that was all the rage 20 or 30 years ago has returned in a big way, according to Executive Chef Orlin Marcus. Whether it’s a wedding, banquet or bar mitzvah, clients like to see an entire, nicely garnished main dish placed in the center of the table, he says, so they can then pass around plates for service.
But Marcus’ approach for these meals is anything but homespun. One of his favorite presentations is a whole snapper steamed en papillote (in an envelope of parchment paper) or wrapped in banana leaves and flavored with a fusion of Asian lemongrass, ginger, sake, garlic and soy sauce.
Craig Meyer, Executive Chef at the Algonquin Golf Club in St. Louis, Mich., says he has also been successful with Asian-style banquet fare, such as rice paper-wrapped Vietnamese spring rolls—he’ll perk up the filling with smoked chicken or tuna and fresh herbs—and a traditional Asian pad thai served al fresca. For the pad thai, the ingredients—sliced rare beef topped with fresh herbs such as cilantro and basil, some green onion and jicama—can be assembled in individual serving bowls in advance. The hot broth is poured on top at serving time. And since tapioca is a common ingredient used in Asian fare, Meyer likes to conclude this type of meal with a tapioca trifle made with seasonal fruit.
No Skimping on Side Dishes
As Meyer’s success points out, the same thinking that’s expanding the offerings for the main banquet dishes in club settings is also being extended to other courses, too. Being in Atlanta, Waters knows that out-of-town guests, especially, will expect a taste of the South as part of their banquet experience. So he gives it to them, but in a bit of an unexpected way. He makes a trio of the traditional Middle Eastern hummus, but instead of using chick peas as the base, he uses black-eyed peas, a Southern staple, and serves this appetizer with sweet potato chips instead of pita wedges.
Marc Raffa at the Philadelphia Cricket Club adds shiitake mushrooms and Maytag blue cheese to make his scalloped potatoes anything but standard fare. Veggies might be individual zucchini timbales (a layered dish cooked in a tall mold) with Persian yellow squash and carrots.
For easy serving and maximum eye appeal, the Algonquin Club’s Meyer creates grilled vegetable stacks skewered with stick of rosemary, plated with a little pesto or sundried tomato vinaigrette.
New Room for Dessert, Too
For his dessert buffet at the Peachtree Club, Waters combines chef station dynamics and a take-off on tapas, the Spanish-inspired one- or two-bite appetizers that have made such a major impact in trendy restaurants around the country. At the stations, guests can create crepes to order from a variety of fruit fillings. There’s even a “carving station” featuring a brown sugar-encrusted pineapple, accompanied by a spread of fresh cheeses and strawberries.
Waters’ dessert tapas may include anything from mini-ramekins of crème brûlée to button-size chocolate tarts. In addition to being more cost-efficient (with little to no waste), the former economics major says bite-size portions make sense according to the “law of diminishing returns.”
“When you eat the first bite of something, that’s the best it can be; each bite after that has less of an impact. With mini-portions, we do away with diminishing returns,” he explains.
A strategy of more variety but smaller portions works well in large-scale dining, club chefs report, because people are often willing to “taste” something unfamiliar, but don’t want to “commit” to full-size servings.
Finding New Recipes
Emboldened by their successes with new types of banquet fare, many club chefs say they are now coming up with more large-scale new recipe ideas just by keeping a more open mind when they dine out themselves. Lake of the Isles’ Esneault, for instance, says he came up with his popular antipasto pie by “deconstructing” a restaurant dish he particularly enjoyed, and then adding his own signature touches. Others note that networking with other club and resort chefs through associations and at events such as the Club Chef’s Institute (see box, p. 32) has added immeasurably to their repertoire.
Raffa says he gets 85% of his inspiration by surfing the Internet. Marcus canvases the multi-cultural staff in his kitchen. And Meyer likes to go cook with other chefs in their kitchens.
As a last test before putting new items on their banquet menus, many club chefs run them as “specials” in their restaurant dining rooms. Marcus also introduces many dishes at his club’s Board of Directors meetings.
“Our board is very diverse, like a good microcosm of our membership,” he notes. “If they like a recipe, I know I have something.”