Caterers give us the dirt on earth-friendly fare in step with the cost-conscious times
No need to feel blue attempting a “green” feast on a budget. Here, caterers share their success stories with event menus that are both friendly to the earth and easy on the wallet.
Local often costs less. Lucky for Josh Thomsen, executive chef of the Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley, Calif., he lives near many farmers markets filled with local fare. There, he can buy directly from the grower, which “takes out the middlemen who add on extra dollars,” he notes.
In fact, many caterers agree that going local is more important than going organic. Local food travels less, so it costs less to transport it. And, caterers say, it usually tastes better to boot because farmers pick the fruit when it's ripe rather than planning for it to ripen while en route to the market.
As for vendors, Thomsen favors the United Meat Co. to provide organic meat from small farmers and Greenleaf Produce Co., both in San Francisco, for seasonal produce.
Despite sustainable seafood's pricey reputation, certain species can still keep your budget afloat. Tara Gage, account executive of Susan Gage Caterers in Oxon Hill, Md., recommends going with lesser known fish to stay eco-aware and dollar-wise, such as cobia. Crowd favorite tilapia is included on the Monterey [Calif.] Bay Aquarium's list of seafood recommendations, too.
Not to say you should have a beef with beef. There are ways to keep meat on the menu and still trim the fat from your budget. “Because each cow only has one cut of tenderloin, it is a very costly cut of beef,” Gage explains. “However, if clients are willing to use different cuts — such as hanger and skirt steak — organic beef becomes more cost-effective.”
But for Susan Gage Caterers, it's not just about greening an event here and there — the company wants a greener business model as well. So the catering group tapped Washington's Green Living Consulting to help them with the endeavor. First up: a vegetable and herb garden planted in the spring “with the hope of growing all of our herbs in-house by 2010,” Gage says.
A meat and two sides used to be a meal mainstay. No longer. Gregory Griffie, executive chef of the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, suggests promoting your veggies to entree status and treating meat as the side dish. Or go whole-hog (or really, the opposite of whole-hog) and opt for vegetarian or even vegan menus. This can often, Griffie notes, “result in cost savings due to the absence of sourcing a $15-per-pound protein.”
And don't just veg out — get creative. Griffie is a fan of the Renewing America's Food Traditions Grow-Out program in Brooklyn, N.Y., which promotes biodiversity and — don't laugh — endangered vegetables, whose production has fallen sharply over time. As an example, think how scarce heirloom tomatoes were 20 years ago. The program connects farmers who have a surplus of crops with chefs eager to purchase high-quality, local products at reasonable prices, Griffie notes. He also is a fan of San Francisco's CleanFish, an organization that promotes artisan fisheries committed to the renewable seafood movement.
Fresh food needs less flavor fussing. Because local and organic fare will naturally taste better, you can “let the natural flavors of the ingredients come out without having to use too much oil or seasoning,” says Eric Fenster, co-owner of Back to Earth Catering in Emeryville, Calif. Buying sustainable food in season is the most surefire way to get optimum flavor for minimum buck. “For example, the price of local, organic asparagus in spring is cheaper than buying conventional asparagus from South America in autumn,” Fenster notes.
While meat and seafood are more often included on sustainable menus than they have been in the past, Fenster says beware of some budget-busters. Oysters, shrimp and wild salmon often drive up the cost of a menu, as do labor-intensive preparations.
For the future, Fenster hopes for a certification process for the service side of sustainable food, not just the production. Still, when it comes to production, Fenster has many vendors he relies on, from San Francisco's Veritable Vegetables, a wholesale organic vegetable distributor, to Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station, Calif., which supplies all-natural grass-feed beef.
FARMERS MARKET MENU
This menu showcases items from chef Josh Thomsen's local farmers market, resulting in a price tag that was “half of what it would have been had I used a huge produce company,” Thomsen notes. The final cost? Sixty dollars a head.
Chilled Sweet English Pea Soup with Crispy Parmesan and Truffles
Napa Valley Heirloom Tomatoes with Handmade Mozzarella, Toasted Organic Kalamata Olive Bread and Garden Basil
Fingerling Potato-crusted Halibut with Chanterelles and Sweet Corn Puree or Red Bluff Kobe Skirt Steak with Black-eyed Peas and Dwelly Farms Sugar Snap Peas
Warm Almond and Local Apricot Galette with North Beach Mascarpone Gelato
ECO-AWARE WEDDING FARE
A bridal couple's eco-awareness went well beyond the $50-a-head menu by Susan Gage Caterers. Envirosax shopping bags served as wedding favors, and the couple “registered” with Heifer International, which gives gifts of livestock to people in Third World countries and teaches the recipients how to raise them in a humane, environmentally sound manner.
Yellow Tomato Gazpacho with a Tower of Tomatoes
Hearts of Palm and Avocado topped with Micro Greens
Oregano and Garlic Grilled Tilapia with Tomato Caper Butter
Risotto with Spring Peas
Spring Asparagus with Lemon Butter
Back to Earth Organic Catering
Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel
Susan Gage Caterers
The Claremont Resort & Spa
LOCAVORES' SPRING/SUMMER BANQUET
A veggie-centric meal with a cost-conscious cut of meat — flatiron instead of filet — helped keep the cost to $62 a head for this buffet-style dinner by chef Gregory Griffie. Many of the food items are local, certified organic or certified sustainable.
Certified Organic Mixed Greens, Avocado, Fennel, Local Shaved Radish and Lemon Vinaigrette
Local Cucumber, Dill and Red Onion Salad
Maple and Black Pepper Roasted Certified Organic Chicken
Certified Sustainable All-natural Grass-fed Hearst Ranch Flatiron Steak with Shaved Vegetable Salad
Seared Local Scallops with Foraged Local Mushrooms and Spiced Vinaigrette
Local Heirloom Squash Vegetable Medley
Cheddar Cheese and Toasted Local Corn Polenta
Local Apple Streusel
FARM-TO-FARM-TABLE WEDDING MENU
The Back to Earth team carefully sourced local ingredients and then prepared them simply for this wedding menu. “The fish was caught off the coast near Fort Bragg [Calif.], the organic olive oil was pressed within 100 miles of our kitchen, and all the fruits and vegetables were harvested at peak ripeness,” Eric Fenster says. The team also kept costs down by limiting the number of dishes offered. The $28-a-head menu was served on long farm tables hand-fashioned by the groom.
Strawberries, Local Goat Cheese and Toasted Walnuts in Baby Lettuce Cups with Balsamic Drizzle
Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta with Fresh Basil Oil
Butter Lettuce, Arugula and Romaine with Tamari-roasted Sunflower Seeds and Shallot Vinaigrette
Grilled Summer Vegetables with Sweet Corn Polenta and Exotic Mushrooms and Fresh Herbs or Roasted Pacific Rock Cod with Sweet Corn Polenta and Primavera Vegetables with Parsley Pistou and Micro Greens