As brunch events gain popularity, caterers are waking up to their potential
By Deanne Moskowitz
Capers Catering in Boston recently produced “a big, beautiful” high school graduation party on the water, a gift from the graduate’s grandmother. The girl “could have had any kind of a party she wanted,” marvels Kevin Marsland, the company’s executive chef. What she wanted was brunch.
In fact, brunch is the preference for a rising number of catered occasions, especially wedding receptions. And breakfast dishes are becoming regulars on dinner menus and as late-night snacks.
Marsland finds himself “pricing a lot more brunch menus” than ever, he notes, as it’s the perfect answer to a perennial question from his clients: “Is there anything more fun for less money?”
Kevin Lacassin, president and executive chef of Good Food Events + Catering in Tampa, Fla., also feels that brunch weddings have gained popularity, and recently booked his first bat mitzvah brunch reception.
Shauna Chrisman, president of Creative Cuisine Catering in Columbus, Ohio, says that she has “definitely” seen an increase in brunch weddings, adding that she has booked some breakfast-for-dinner receptions as well.
Keith Lord, director of culinary at The Wild Thyme Company in San Diego, reports an upswing in “wedding-centric” brunches, ranging from pre- and post-reception meals, to hotel-room get-togethers for the bride and her entourage, to receptions and breakfast-for-dinner events. Catering Mother’s and Father’s Day brunches instead of taking parents to restaurants is another rising trend.
And Jillian Klein, director of events and business development at Deborah Miller Catering in New York, whose business is primarily corporate, says that all-day brunch dishes perceived as healthier (such as avocado toast and frittatas) are lightening previously carb-heavy corporate meeting breakfasts, and that millennial executives are choosing breakfast-related hors d’oeuvres or snacks for evening events and even hosting brunches to entertain their clients (see “Toasting the Holidays” sidebar).
Most brunch requests are coming from cost-conscious millennials, who perceive them as more affordable, according to the caterers interviewed here. However, Lacassin calls the perception invalid, pointing out that food is the least expensive aspect of any event.
Not the sleepy fare typical of hotel buffets, these brunches also appeal to millennials as a way of distinguishing their celebrations. They want to bring the inventive foods they see on Instagram and the Food Network to their events. Caterers are giving them exactly what they crave: clever take-offs on boring classics, lively presentations instead of soporific sit-downs, and extra opportunities to customize their food.
The usual brunch favorites—bacon, eggs, pancakes and waffles—haven’t disappeared, but chefs are revitalizing them. They’re miniaturizing traditional favorites, making flavor and ingredient substitutions, and adding ethnic items to their repertoires.
Creative Cuisine’s Chrisman says that “breakfast basics are still big sellers,” but they “can all be updated.” She serves French toast “fries” with dipping sauces, savory egg-and-bacon muffins, and omelet “sushi” made with smoked salmon, dill cream cheese and capers.
“Updated versions” of traditional dishes also are in the lead at The Wild Thyme. Popovers replace English muffins on eggs Benedict, and biscuits renew old standards—French toast and Monte Cristos, among them. Waffle pops—quarter-sized rounds served on sticks with toppings and sauces—are big hits at wedding and baby showers.
Tiny, breakfast-inspired hors d’oeuvres are big at Deborah Miller events, too, according to Klein—whether at daytime weddings, where brunch menus have begun to prevail over afternoon buffets with carving stations, or at corporate evening events. One of the company’s most popular passed hors d’oeuvres for cocktail parties overall is a one-inch fried chicken and maple-flavored waffle sandwich, served with a pipette of sriracha-infused maple syrup.
Brunch is “a great place to integrate ethnic dishes,” in the opinion of Lacassin at Good Food. One of his favorites is pork belly breakfast fried rice, topped with a fried egg, served from a station.
A new addition to ethnic influences at The Wild Thyme, shakshuka (eggs baked in a spicy sauce of tomatoes, garbanzos, chilies and onions) is popular with the area’s many vegetarians, and can be vegan-friendly when made without eggs and substituting vegan house-made smoked sausage. Other specialties include Italian steamed eggs on toast with prosciutto and Parmesan, and breakfast paella with orzo, chorizo, Grana Padano, avocado and zucchini. Hispanic dishes such as breakfast tacos are menu constants, since the company is located near the Mexican border.
Capers, which has a number of big Asian clients, often makes Japanese breakfast bowls, consisting of soft-poached eggs, seaweed, and smoked or seared salmon.
Breakfasts of Champions
As with other meals, caterers are challenged to satisfy numerous dietary concerns at brunch.
Lord tries to make special guests comfortable by serving dishes that mimic the main menu. Build-your-own-omelet stations can offer vegan options such as flax eggs, house-smoked vegan sausage and vegan cheese. For the gluten-intolerant, Benedict stations can include gluten-free muffins and country-style breakfast potatoes.
Marsland makes many of his menus gluten- and nut-free, especially for celebrations such as mitzvahs. He removed the nuts from his basil, cilantro and parsley pestos. And, while the “From the Bakery” sampling isn’t entirely gluten-free, he always sends a dozen gluten-free blueberry muffins to events, even if they aren’t ordered.
Lacassin likes to offer dishes that naturally are vegetarian or gluten-free. Frittatas are a favorite because they are not only gluten-free and vegetarian, but “fresh, clean and healthy,” too.
Chrisman finds access to gluten-free ingredients easy now (including almond, rice, tapioca, coconut and chickpea flours), and notes that gluten-free baking is a standard in her commissary. Griddled gluten-free corn cakes with tomato jam is one successful brunch side dish, and the company’s vegan lemon-blueberry pancakes are so delicious that she prefers them over any others on the menu.
Klein finds vegans the most challenging when serving breakfast, since all the egg options have been eliminated. Popular replacements include avocado toast and a vegan, gluten-free granola bar, made with oats and banana.
Both Klein and Marsland stress the strong interest in healthy eating. Klein claims that most people prefer New American-style cuisine, which she associates with the “healthier” and “lighter” cooking of California.
For people who want something healthy, Marsland makes homemade granolas, truffle-like chia bites (containing cranberries and almonds or pumpkin and Nutella), and various cold-pressed juices, one with carrots and ginger, and another with beets, apples and strawberries. Also thriving are energy bowls featuring “superfoods,” such as kale, acai and various ancient grains.
Chrisman came up with a new health-conscious corporate menu item: breakfast salad. It’s a mixture of greens topped with chopped egg, applewood-smoked bacon, dried cranberries and homemade granola “croutons,” finished with creamy avocado yogurt dressing.
Caterers are perking up once-boring brunch service by repackaging sit-down dishes to suit more mobile, interactive formats. Plated service is giving way to passed hors d’oeuvres and make-your-own stations.
Offering many customizing choices, biscuit bars seem to be on the rise. An unusual mixture of exotic and down-home, The Wild Thyme’s biscuit bar is the number-one station there, bar none, Lord exclaims. The trendy chicken filling options (BBQ Fried, Nashville Hot and Korean Fried) may be paired with one of three biscuits (rosemary buttermilk, bacon jalapeño cheddar or maple), and saucing possibilities include country sausage gravy, gochujang aioli and honey butter.
At Capers, an in-house baker sets out big baskets of buttermilk and sweet potato biscuits along with bowls of filling choices. The options include fried chicken, pulled pork, scrambled eggs, cole slaw, maple syrup, shredded cheeses, bacon and gravy. Marsland has noticed revived demand for crepes, which are new to the younger generation.
Waffles are being pressed into station service, too, and so is French toast. Capers produces waffles live, serving them as breakfast or dessert. Chrisman claims that her crème brulee French toast “always receives great reviews.”
Among crowd favorites at Good Food, buttermilk fried chicken and Belgian waffles with maple-pecan butter is a buffet dish or hors d’oeuvre. Cream cheese stuffed French toast with berry coulis is sometimes cut small and slipped onto skewers as an hors d’oeuvre.
Egg dishes are being reborn as station fare or hors d’oeuvres. Lacassin rolled out a poached egg station using sous vide circulators to perfectly poach eggs on site, a technique he learned from another caterer but has made his own. The advantage is that the eggs don’t need to be produced a la minute and once cooked can stay in the water indefinitely without overcooking, then cracked on a paper towel and slapped on top of a dish. The concept is handy for Benedict made with biscuits, done either with short rib with jus, or fried chicken with sausage or white gravy.
“Classier than omelet stations,” in Marsland’s opinion, Benedict bars—where eggs are poached on site—also are big sellers at The Wild Thyme. Popovers or biscuits refresh the classic, and versions include California-style with spinach, avocado and roasted tomato, and English-style with bacon, bangers and Worcestershire hollandaise.
Shrimp and grits, served as small plates from a station, are selling in and out of the South. At Good Food, they are combined with onions, peppers and andouille in a white wine cream sauce. At Creative Cuisine, grits are chef-prepared and topped with Creole shrimp, shredded cheddar, whipped butter, crumbled bacon, diced scallions, tomatoes, maple syrup or Tabasco.
There’s nothing new about Bloody Marys and mimosas at brunch, but now caterers are taking these drinks to another level. Bloody Mary bars are popping up everywhere, most offering pickled or grilled vegetables (a great use for leftovers from the previous night’s charcuterie plate at multiday wedding events, notes Lord), sometimes a variety of hot sauces, and often a mind-boggling array of add-ons.
Since Lacassin hails from New Orleans, he likes to include bacon, Creole boiled shrimp and a variety of hot sauces. At Capers, a long list of options might include candied bacon, pepperoncini and mini cheeseburgers.
Persian Bloody Marys, flavored with vadouvan, a French curry, and some vadouvan-pickled vegetables, are among variations available at The Wild Thyme. Also “super popular” is chilled, spiked-upon-request Bloody Mary soup in pop-top Mason jars, with toppings from grilled kielbasa and smoked mussels to cheeses and poached shrimp.
Mimosas, traditionally combining champagne or prosecco with orange juice, now come with other juices, liquors and flavorings. At Deborah Miller, there may be multiple juices, cassis or St-Germain instead of bubbly, and such extras as pomegranate seeds, strawberries and blackberries.
The mimosa bar at Good Food “changes every time,” says Lacassin. Usually, it includes cranberry, grapefruit and orange juice, but sometimes cold-pressed juices or pomegranate juice.
At Creative Cuisine, where Bloody Mary and mimosa bars are popular, sangria bars are also happening. Chrisman, who favors the event space at Via Vecchia, a local winery, recently set up a sangria bar in its barrel room, showcasing the house-made product.
Trendy now, bourbon is often the alcohol choice for specialty drinks at brunch, too, notes Marsland. At two events last year, he served bourbon mules.
Of course, coffee is a “must.” Lord offers cold-brew, spiked coffees, and flavored hot chocolates (such as lavender, pistachio, rosewater and white chocolate) from a station. Klein kicks off some events with passed coffee or mini iced coffees, instead of champagne or water.
For the Instagram generation, a big part of the attraction of brunch undoubtedly is the food’s visual appeal. Appearing at evening events, as hors d’oeuvres or late-night snacks, diminutive versions of breakfast classics are particularly photogenic.
At an evening wedding recently, Deborah Miller served quarter-sized egg-and-cheese sandwiches on English muffins, like adorable miniature Egg McMuffins. Donut holes, tossed in spirits and flambéed, are sure to be attention-getters at the upcoming Good Food bat mitzvah brunch. And butlered hors d’oeuvres were buzzworthy at a Creative Cuisine wedding brunch: skewered apple fritter donut bites with demitasse coffee and hot chocolate; Bloody Mary shooters with caramelized bacon straws; and tiny Scotch quail eggs.
But the pièce de résistance was the three-tiered Belgian waffle wedding cake with whipped cream frosting, chocolate-dipped bride-and-groom strawberries, powdered sugar and maple syrup. It’s the kind of sensation certain to star on social media, celebrating the caterer responsible and keeping the brunch bonanza going.