High End Promo — Dee Shultz & Erin Copper
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Roger Grody

Course Correction

The pros weigh in on menu planning for your dinner party or event.

In the last issue, a star-studded group of event planners provided invaluable guidance to amateur entertainers. Whether it’s an intimate dinner party at home or a gala packing a grand ballroom, there’s no shortage of stress for hosts intent on keeping their guests comfortable, content and well fed. With critical decisions about the venue, theme and entertainment out of the way, there remains one overriding issue that demands attention: the menu. Our all-stars return with their expertise on food and wine.

Because it is central to the overall experience, not to mention its profound impact on the budget, the menu needs to be addressed early in the event planning process. As founder of Patina Restaurant Group, chef/restaurateur Joachim Splichal has played a hand in creating menus for food service operations on both coasts, including acclaimed dining rooms at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center and L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. With clients such as the Emmy Awards, Splichal is used to pressure, as well as unusual requests. “Recently we did an all-vegan menu for 600 people,” he reports, quipping, “It’s hard to make carrots or tofu taste like beef.”

The most popular dinner party protein is, in fact, beef. Splichal tells us highend clients generally don’t want chicken, occasionally opt for lamb, and usually steer clear of politically incorrect veal. At Patina Catering’s events, the cuisine can be as cutting-edge or as restrained as the client demands, but a bit of flair makes its way into even the most conservative menus. The surprise course is often dessert, according to Splichal, who relish es the opportunity to leave guests with a memorable final impression.

Some of Philadelphia’s most prestigious social events are handled by Jeffrey A. Miller Catering, which soothes anxious brides and demanding Fortune 500 CEOs with equal finesse. Director of Event Planning Shelley Nohowel believes her firm, with its multinational roster of chefs, offers greater flexibility than a restaurant, which is more constrained by its own menu. The company’s culture reflects the passions of Miller himself, who honed his skills at Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe during summer breaks from business school, before founding the catering firm 30 years ago. Nohowel explains that menus are developed through educating the client. “Some clients have simple palates…. We want to entice them, not frighten them,” she says.

Through his PBS series, “Made in Spain,” celebrity chef José Andrés has introduced Americans to traditional Spanish recipes, but as a protégé of molecular gastronomy master Ferran Adrià, he is also one of America’s most avant-garde talents.

He shows both sides of his culinary personality at his restaurants in Washington, D.C., L.A. and Las Vegas. As director of catering and conference services at the hip SLS Hotel outside Beverly Hills, home to several of Andrés’ dining rooms, Summer Stearns is an ambassador for the chef’s exciting fare. “Chef José’s cuisine is an experience from start to finish,” she says, suggesting it requires trust and a willingness for adventure. Andrés says people frequently ask him how he knows when to keep an event menu relatively conservative and when to push the envelope. “It really comes back to what you want your guests to experience,” he says. “There are ways to keep things comfortable for a group, but you can always surprise and delight with unique touches and special dishes.”

Splichal may enjoy slipping in his surprises at dessert, but Andrés prefers to experiment with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. “I always encourage hosts to have a little fun,” insists the chef, who is known for reconstituting olives into a surreal textural experience through a high-tech process called spherification and revolutionizing old-fashioned sliders with foie gras or sea urchin. But as a student of classic European technique, even Andrés’ conservative menus are likely to be memorable.

With a portfolio of high-profile restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City and Florida, special events of all kinds carry the signature of prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr, from buttonedup corporate confabs to backyard graduation parties. Morgan Bedore, vice president of sales and creative development for Starr Restaurants, never has a problem assembling a world-class team of chefs, sommeliers and mixologists, thanks to the resources of more than two-dozen Starr venues that include trendsetters such as Morimoto and Buddakan.

Bedore reports that most inquiries are from people familiar with the restaurants and are seeking out unique menus. “For the most part, our clients are adventurous food people, but if a client wants meat and potatoes, we’ll come up with a very elegant way of serving meat and potatoes.” For instance, traditional beef tenderloin might be paired with an unusual potato dish or an unfamiliar grain to change things up. “We might serve it with a great sauce tableside — providing that extra layer of service — or present it on a more unusual plate to help it stand out visually,” explains Bedore of the many ways a simple dish can be elevated into something unforgettable, even for cautious hosts.

Wolfgang Puck, who built a career on innovation, nonetheless respects the preferences of less adventurous guests. “If you really don’t want truffles on your pasta, that’s okay — simple flavors are still delicious when you use the finest quality ingredients,” says the high-flying chef/restaurateur. Now in his sixties, Puck continues to expand his dining empire, recently reinventing the dining room at L.A.’s celebrity-favored Hotel Bel-Air. If Wolfgang Puck Catering can handle the Academy Awards, it can certainly handle your son’s bar mitzvah or that all-important reception for your boss.

Stephen Starr’s restaurants tend to set trends, and the company’s catering staff is equally au courant. Fashionable this season, according to Bedore, are artisanal cheese stations at buffets, menu tributes to local family farmers, and fanciful pairings such as puff pastry Kobe beef sliders accompanied by miniature glasses of Belgian ale. As the popularity of sushi begins to wane, she has begun switching out sushi buffet stations for crudo, as this Italian counterpart to sashimi provides a new twist on a familiar theme. According to Shelley Nohowel, retro-chic comfort foods — nostalgic items with contemporary, upscale twists — are all the rage, represented by dishes such as lobster mac-and-cheese or a cup of organic tomato soup served with a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich.

Puck emphasizes that presentation is as important as execution, reminding us, “First you eat with your eyes, then with your mouth.” He suggests clean, contemporary china and flatware to most effectively showcase inventive dishes. “An elegant table sets the mood,” he says, but cautions hosts to curb their temptations to use excessively ornate table settings, and recommends simple crystal stemware to present wine at its best. Bedore favors distinctive accents such as custom-printed menu cards or Murano glass charger plates. She also values client tastings as a means of fine-tuning a menu. “For example, we may be able to get incredible local ramps or rhubarb for a spring dinner and use the tasting to sample a new recipe or ingredient.”

Bedore believes specialty cocktails are a great way to loosen up even the stuffiest of crowds, noting her staff creates new signature cocktails on a daily basis. “We sometimes will even match them with the color palette of the venue,” she reports. For his part, Andrés’ passion for whimsical cocktail hours might result in drinks crowned with cotton candy or wafting plumes of smoke produced by liquid nitrogen.

Wine is an essential component of any event, and these top caterers have access to remarkable resources. The SLS Hotel’s Stearns indicates a sommelier needs to build a rapport with a client, earning his or her trust. Brick Loomis, the wine director at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, suggests his job is all about understanding a client’s level of sophistication. “Some just want you to take control and make a decision while others know exactly what they want from the get-go,” he explains.

Some of the most sophisticated pairings are not particularly expensive, and many savvy oenophiles will be impressed with an obscure Pinot Noir from New Zealand or an exotic Sagrantino from Italy’s Umbria region. But for high-profile, big-budget events, Loomis doesn’t lean toward the esoteric. “I’m a Champagne and Burgundy guy all the way,” he states, insisting they pair best with luxurious food. “These are the showiest, fanciest, most cerebral wines there are. There’s a reason why the lists at the best restaurants in the world are heavy on Champagne and Burgundy,” argues the sommelier.