Three top caterers share menus that pack a punch for pennies.
STEVEN STARR EVENTS, PHILADELPHIA
“When we need to design menus that are inexpensive yet still have impact, we shrink everything down,” says sales consultant Jennifer Kelly. Comfort food, she says, lends itself well to this concept, noting that petite applewood smoked bacon BLTs and one-bite grilled cheese and tomato soup shooters are still very popular. An added bonus: Less china, flatware, tables and chairs are needed.
To save even more money, Kelly recommends using “noshing stations” in place of tray-passed hors d'oeuvre, which reduces service staff. Some favorite cheap-but-chic options feature traditional snack items such as mini hard and soft pretzels paired with a variety of gourmet mustards, and bowls of popcorn flavored with everything from truffle to citrus to white cheddar with basil.
Can't afford Kobe beef in those sliders? “Use Angus,” Kelly says. “But be smart about [your substitutions]. Keep in mind that brand integrity is important, and most clients use you based on your reputation. The majority of our clients will pay a little more to have our signature items.”
NEUMAN'S, NEW YORK
“The less expensive the ingredient, the more time it takes to make it work as an expensive-feeling menu item,” says president Paul Neuman, who notes that the trade-off for time spent is money earned. “We alter our Caesar salad, which is not an expensive first course, by wrapping the lettuce in a tuile made from Parmesan cheese.” Neuman also regards soups, served either as an hors d'oeuvre or as a first course, as another effective way of providing attractive food at a reasonable price. “Garnish a butternut squash and apple soup with crème fraiche, basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds, and you have a dramatic visual effect.”
I LOVE YOUR ACCENT
Familiar foods go glam with the right garnish, adds Neuman chef Larry Duda. “This can be a fine sliver of cornichon, a dollop of ketchup and a grilled onion ring on a slider, a pinch of micro greens on a tuna taco, or a few shreds of wakame [Japanese seaweed] salad atop a piece of grilled fish,” he says. “It's a great look with great flavor.”
“Desserts lend themselves to upscale presentation without great expense,” Neuman says. “We serve one-bite portions of crème brulee in Chinese spoons. By using different flavors like pistachio, mango, mocha and vanilla, we can transform this basic menu item into an elegant dessert.” Additionally, tiny cupcakes and individual layered desserts served in shot glasses have become enormously popular. “This plays into our clients' desire for a variety of smaller tastes,” he adds. “Again, the food cost is relatively low, but the visual and culinary impact is enormous.”
ENTERTAINING COMPANY, CHICAGO
EYES ON THE PRIZE
“Creative presentations, eye-catching color combinations and unusual serving containers are great ways to bring down-to-earth ingredients up to the luxury level,” says president Wendy Pashman. For example, she serves a trio of brightly colored soup shooters — minted cool pea soup, roasted heirloom tomato and roasted butternut squash — neatly lined up on a silver platter garnished with white roses.
“We use a great deal of global spices that really perk up the flavors of everything from egg dishes to vegetables to meats,” Pashman says. Her current favorite: Ethopian berbere, a blend of cumin, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, coriander, cloves, red pepper, ginger, turmeric, hot paprika and cinnamon. “We also use a lot of house-made condiments, including Indian-style mango pickle and chutneys,” she says, “as well as chef-crafted mustards and ketchups, such as our tomato chutney curried ketchup, which pairs nicely with tandoori sesame chicken breast.”
A LITTLE LUXURY
Don't skimp entirely on expensive ingredients; rather, use them sparingly or as an add-on, Pashman notes. “Many times we'll take a ‘luxury product’ like lobster, shrimp or veal and use it sparingly to create a dramatic-tasting dish without spending a lot of extra money,” she explains. “We do this with our lobster grilled cheese sandwiches, our shrimp tacos — instead of shrimp cocktails — and our house-made pasta filled with wild mushrooms and a touch of veal.”
ADD THIS ....
- Pancetta. This elegant-sounding but relatively inexpensive Italian-style bacon “really packs a punch,” according to Wendy Pashman, who uses it to add salty-smoky flavor to everything from Caesar salad (with pancetta croutons) to caramelized figs (with crisp pan-cetta and honeyed goat cheese) to crispy Brussels sprouts (with garlic bread crumbs and pancetta chips).
- Homemade potato and plantain chips. “One of the great, inexpensive items that always gets a wow,” Paul Neuman says. “Make sure they are fresh, homemade and accompanied by a great dip, such as a spicy mango salsa for the plantain chips, and a four-onion dip for the potato chips.”
- Hake. This cod substitute has the added bonus of being an environmentally conscious choice. “The flavor profile is very similar to cod,” Larry Duda says, “and though it is generally not as large as cod, for the price, hake is an excellent choice.”
- Thai curry paste. “This is a great example of an ingredient that gives tremendous bang for your buck,” Duda says; he uses it to flavor Asian dishes.
- Petite filet. “While not as tender as true tenderloin, petite filet makes up its shortcomings with a more pronounced beef flavor,” Duda says, adding that it's a sensible choice for buffets and hors d'oeuvre. And it costs roughly half the price of beef tenderloin.
- Marinades and sauces. “Marinades and sauces are easy ways to add powerful punch to inexpensive ingredients,” Duda says. He recommends pairing a soy-ginger dipping sauce with flank steak roulade or chimichurri sauce with chicken.