Station Nation: Caterers Across The Country Share The Innovative Ways They’re Serving Food To Guests

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The make-your-own s’mores station around the outdoor fire pit at sbe’s Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails in Los Angeles.

By Sara Perez Webber

Successful catered events these days often involve all the senses. Not only do event guests want their taste buds tantalized, they enjoy seeing imaginative presentations, hearing the sizzle and smelling the aroma of their food being prepared, and holding clever vessels that put the standard white plate to shame. Rising to the challenge, caterers across the country—including the four profiled here—are finding new ways to serve food at station set-ups that showcase their cuisine and their creativity.

sbe Events & Catering

Chris Crary, the new executive chef for sbe Events & Catering in Los Angeles, says clients are expecting more innovative stations at their events. (Crary, who appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas in 2011, previously served as executive chef of sbe’s Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails in Los Angeles.)

“They want to be wowed, they want to be surprised,” says Crary. “They are sick of the norm and want to see the next great thing!”

A few station concepts that “wow” sbe guests include an “Interactional Pasta” station, in which pasta is handmade in front of customers, cooked and then served in giant hollowed-out wheels of Parmesan. “People love to see all the aspects of how food is made,” says Crary.

Another favorite is the “Dinosaur Prime Rib” carving station. “We roast a whole bone-in ribeye, and we ask our butcher to not cut the bones so they are super-long,” says Crary. “We end up with 18-inch bones sticking out of a prime rib, and for a little fun, as opposed to your standard horseradish sauce, we offer house-infused horseradish vodka that we keep in a frozen block of ice.”

Even a salad station becomes visually interesting when sbe covers multiple tables with butcher paper and plates the salad directly on the table, making it look like the lettuce and accompaniments are growing right out of the table. At Hyde Sunset Kitchen + Cocktails, outdoor fire pits are the setting for a make-your-own s’mores station, with guests roasting their own marshmallows, then assembling their dessert with all the fixings.

“Guests love being able to interact with the food and other people,” notes Crary about sbe’s interactive stations. “It’s a great way to meet new people and learn new things about people you have known for years. Customers get bored of the same-old, same-old, and, quite frankly, so do we.”

Crary and his team are working to include more technology into stations, such as illuminating food by placing lights under glass tables and trays. At the other end of the spectrum, he’s “playing around with eating off of trees and branches,” like manzanita branches.

“Clients want fun innovative ways to serve food,” he says. “At sbe Catering, we don’t own any standard white tray-pass plates. Mostly we use slices of wood from trees with the bark still intact.”

If Crary is setting up a buffet, he’ll do whatever he can to avoid using a chafing dish. “I like to plate things directly on the table or use vessels that typically wouldn’t be used for buffets,” he says, such as small terracotta pots purchased from CB2. Recently he used plastic seed pots as disposable containers for an asparagus and “dirt” grab-and-go.

“If I could, I would make every one of my stations interactive!” adds Crary. “It is so important in these times of smart phones and social media to actually interact with people—see how things are made, understand what goes into food, have fun with it. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.” •••sbe.com

Wolfgang Puck Catering

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Guests loved the “chef shadow box” concept at a recent Wolfgang Puck Catering event in Dallas.

Guests couldn’t stop talking about a recent station concept dreamed up by Wolfgang Puck Catering (WPC), which debuted at the Night at the Museum event at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, where WPC is the exclusive caterer. In the “chef shadow box,” a chef stood inside a light box preparing food, which guests could pick up from a table in front of the box.

“I don’t think anyone’s done this before,” says Stephanie Edens, vice president of sales for Wolfgang Puck Catering. “For the chef to be present but not present, it’s mystical. Guests aren’t sure if it’s a projection, but they realize there’s a live person back there. It’s a fantastic way to do an action station with a chef attending but add a little bit of a mystery to it.”

Another recent station innovation involved suspending orchids and other flowers in lighted blocks of ice to create a frozen sushi station. Guests chose their sushi rolls from a display on top of the ice block. “We collaborated with a local ice carver and worked on a concept that would bring something new to the sushi station and ice-carving,” says Edens. “It was two-fold in its purpose; it kept the sushi nice and cold, and it presented something eye-catching and unique.”

Since WPC provides catering at venues in nine U.S. cities, chefs and teams in each city share best practices. A popular concept across the country has been the Hot Toddy Station. While the specifics may vary, the station generally offers three to four warm cocktails made-to-order, such as a pear brandy hot toddy, and can also include mulled wine, hot cider and hot chocolate, and garnishes including homemade marshmallows and swizzle sticks.

“People appreciate being able to customize to their own preferences,” says Edens. “’Build-your-own’ concepts are a trend not just in catering but in restaurants as well. People enjoy being in control.” •••wolfgangpuck.com

Cutting Edge Cuisine

In Bloomfield, Mich., Cutting Edge Cuisine is living up to its name, having become locally identified with its innovative stations. Its most popular, the sushi wall, displays sushi rolls on pieces of metal inserted into a wall covered with greenery. The sushi is accompanied by pipettes of soy sauce, wasabi and ginger.

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Cutting Edge Cuisine in Bloomfield, Mich., is known for its innovative stations, such as its salad wall.

“We roll it all in-house, and we take pride in sending our team members to training for this art,” says Emily Marrah, catering director.

The sushi wall often accompanies the salad wall, custom-made for Cutting Edge. The wall, covered with faux ivy, displays mini mason jars featuring two salad varieties. The company also pairs the sushi wall with a dim sum station, with chicken, shrimp and pork dumplings cooked by a chef and then served in bamboo baskets, often with steamed barbecue pork buns.

At another increasingly popular station, clients choose a preferred grain for their event—either mushroom-scented quinoa, creamy Parmesan polenta or cheddar grits—which is served with a choice of toppings, including sweet-and-sour eggplant, grilled zucchini, crispy onions, whipped ricotta and roasted red peppers. “The quinoa is gluten-free and vegan, so we can provide a vegan option, which we’re seeing more demand for than we have in the past,” says Marrah.

Inspired by the popularity of Mediterranean cuisine in the area, Cutting Edge’s hummus station features a chef making the hummus in front of guests while a chef attendant grills whole-wheat pita bread. It’s served with hashwi and such toppings as pomegranate and parsley. “We did it this past weekend for an event, and people could not get enough of it,” says Marrah.

Looking forward, the company is working with a florist to create a living floral wall—similar to the salad and sushi walls but covered with live flowers and displaying cold canapes. It’s also building a brick fire pit that will be used to prepare wood-smoked lamb chops in front of guests at an upcoming wedding. The rustic-looking piece will be transported to the event site with a forklift, then disassembled so it can be used again at future events. “We like interactive stations,” says Marrah. “We like our chefs to be engaging with the guests.” •••cuttingedgecuisine.com

Joel Catering & Special Events

At Joel Catering & Special Events in New Orleans, “we’ve always had a high demand for food stations and buffets at our events,” says Sarah Hall, president, who adds that cocktail reception-style events have traditionally been much more common in the city than seated or served events. “That being said, we’re definitely having more conversations with our clients about the style of food stations and food service, and it’s become more common to add food stations to cocktail hours, when we’ve normally just served passed hors d’oeuvres.”

Joel Catering often offers food-and-beverage pairing stations, so guests can pick up a drink that complements the food being served at the same station. “Wine is always a great choice—like our Wild Mushroom Truffle Risotto with Italian red and white wine—but we also like to pair food with cocktails,” says Hall. “We’ve matched a station with traditional food, like beef tenderloin and fingerling potatoes, with a traditional cocktail like an old-fashioned.” Hall notes that the company doesn’t decrease the number of bartenders with this set-up; the drinks at the food stations are an addition to regular bar service.

“To offer a beverage that matches food elevates the dining experience and makes it more convenient for guests to get a drink,” says Hall.

Joel Catering tends to skip traditional staffed stations, such as carving stations, in favor of “food stations that really take advantage of having a chef on the floor,” says Hall. “Being in New Orleans, we love to have a station where we sauté shrimp to order and serve it atop our stone-ground grits. We also have a great station with seared or grilled New Zealand lamb chops served with a white bean puree and romesco sauce.”

Taking full advantage of the local cuisine, a recent corporate event featured such Big Easy-flavored stations as “A Tribute to Popeye’s,” with Southern fried chicken and white truffle macaroni and cheese; “Nola Po-Boys,” mini gourmet po-boys with a choice of cochon de lait with mirliton slaw and purple onion confit, or shrimp remoulade with pickled green tomatoes and shredded lettuce, along with a choice of Zapp’s potato chips; and beignets fried to order with such dipping sauces as chocolate, lemon curd and mocha cream. Joel has also brought dinners to a sweet end with a New Orleans specialty tailor-made for an action station—bananas Foster, with a chef preparing to order sliced bananas sautéed in a sauce of rum, brown sugar and banana liqueur, served with ice cream and a topping of praline crumble. •••joels.com