Creating memorable moments with clever and interactive food stations
By Connie Jeske Crane
Whether they’re dessert walls, cilantro-scented DIY taco bars or rumbling carts bearing dim sum, it seems food stations are everywhere these days. As the International Caterers Association reported in 2016, “One of the biggest growths in requested food styles has been food stations, with more caterers providing more food stations than ever before.” And the trend shows no signs of stopping.
So why all the love? Demographics, for one; the food station concept captures many of the things today’s event attendees (predominantly millennials) want from a catering experience: the chance to move around and interact, novel flavors and a “wow” factor.
In Los Angeles, with 20 years in the foodservice industry, Stewart Levine is a partner with Gastro Garage, an unconventional and buzzy catering company with a wonderfully wild riff on food station interactivity (blowtorches and welding masks, anyone?). Blending theater, molecular gastronomy and serious heat, the company exemplifies the current industry-wide emphasis on the experiential. Levine says the company wants guests at their food stations to “be able to experience with us, and then walk away and tell the story and have that memory, that moment, long after they put that food in their mouth.”
So how to avoid disaster and same-old concepts while creating food station magic? We talked to innovative caterers from across North America about how to successfully inject interactivity. The range of options might surprise you. Caterers today are drawing guests in with everything from cutting-edge cuisine to the simplicity of cheese.
Reimagining a Classic
Dating back centuries to Alpine regions of Switzerland and France, traditional raclette consists of giant wheels of cheese being melted, then scraped, over boiled potatoes. So how did such humble fare hit trendy food stations? Jeffrey Ware, director of operations at Catering by Michaels, explains: “We were visiting one of our peers, Butler’s Pantry in St. Louis, and they actually came up with it and served it as a lunch.” Ware says his team was so wowed, they adapted the concept and have offered a raclette food station for about a year now.
Upfront planning included sourcing a raclette machine and quality European cheese, but Ware also links the station’s success to menu design and personalization. “A lot of places just serve [raclette] on a piece of crusty bread, but we’re offering fresh-baked pretzel rolls, and a variety of sausages that guests can choose from—a cranberry boar sausage, a chipotle buffalo, kielbasa and an apple chicken,” says Ware. After the station chef grills the sausages and loads on gooey cheese, guests can experiment with fun toppings like black cherry preserve, plum preserve and Dijon mustard.
Asked about challenges with the station, Ware laughs and says his team has learned to accommodate the “pronounced aroma” of raclette cheese. “It’s much better in really large venues, outdoor events,” he notes. Overall, Ware says this event station works well grouped with other live cooking stations. “Guests love seeing chefs in their chef whites, and interacting with them and asking questions, especially with something like raclette.”
Wowing with Molecular Gastronomy
With Gastro Garage’s Gastro Tank station, “what we’re doing is deconstructing classic sandwiches, things you’re familiar with—Philly cheesesteak, pizzas, lobster, s’mores, apple pie—and we reconstruct it into this ‘Gastro Tank,’” says Adam Manacker, Gastro Garage partner. “It’s a savory brioche-style doughnut, not sweet, blowtorched on the outside to create a light crust, almost like a pizza. Then we take it and inject it with a nitrous-based foam and blowtorch awesome toppings.”
For example, the company’s Cuban sandwich—a huge favorite—features slow-roasted pork, applewood-smoked ham, pickle, a Gruyere cheese foam filling, mustard, olive oil and red chile sauce. The unique interpretation always has guests bursting with questions. “People don’t even really understand what it is they’re eating or what’s happening,” says Manacker.
But besides a great show and palate tingles, Manacker says, “Everybody who wants to can come behind the station and hold a blowtorch, put a welding mask on.”
So what does it take to pull off a unique food station concept like this? The partners’ previous industry experience (including Levine’s work with uber-chefs Wolfgang Puck and José Andrés) informs practicalities from recipe design to punctuality. And Gastro Garage’s Los Angeles setting (where it’s catered Hollywood parties for celebs including Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone) helps in hiring the charismatic frontline servers—preferably with acting chops—needed for fun live stations. “The way we train our guys is very similar to a Blue Man Group,” says Levine.
Getting Cozy with Chocolate
On the sweeter side, Sandra Abballe, owner of Succulent Chocolates & Sweets in Toronto, tends to the chocolate cravings of corporate and wedding clients. Abballe does brisk business offering so-called “Death by Chocolate” experiences by leveraging quality products from France and Belgium, along with helpful onsite chocolatiers and lots of interactivity.
Guest experiences include a s’mores station featuring house-made marshmallows, and a truffle-making station stocked with pre-made ganache. “They take it into their hands—we have supervisors and gloves—and then they have three toppings of choice, typically toasted coconut, crushed caramelized hazelnuts and classic cocoa powder,” says Abballe. For 2019, Abballe is rolling out a new chocolate graffiti station where guests paint a giant chocolate bar with colorful cocoa butter “paint,” then smash it and take a piece home.
While she can incorporate company logos into various elements, Abballe says what corporate customers really value is engaging clients in an experience. “They want to make sure they’re having a good time, and create that experience for them because that’s usually the time they have to build relationships,” she says. And how exactly do people respond? “Oh, they love it,” she says. “They love the fact that they can physically put their hands into the chocolate. I think that almost brings out the inner kid in them!”
Bringing out the inner kid in guests is a goal achieved by creative stations that evoke childhood memories. Black LAB Events in Los Angeles, for example, has long been keeping the party going with alcohol-spiked takes on kid favorites. Co-founder Joel Black, an early L.A. mixologist, is renowned for his Instagram-ready shaved-ice cocktails (boozy snow cones, if you will). “It’s just one of those things that you see and you want, especially in L.A. in the summer,” he says. Besides a shaved ice machine, Black’s winning formula includes recipe adjustments (to account for ice melt), craft spirits, house-made syrups, fresh juices and exciting flavor combinations—like gin, lime juice, cucumber and thyme.
In addition, the company does boozy milkshake stations, “which are almost equally as popular as boozy snow cones, where we’ll put our staff in white paper hats and white aprons and give them that ice cream hop look,” Black says. He advises rounding out the bar with wine and beer—as well as restraint. “I don’t believe in full-sized boozy milkshakes,” he notes. “I think that’s a full-sized hangover the next day.”
In Boston, BG Events and Catering is also generating nostalgia via a cotton candy station. Timothy Seeberg, director of major events, says after fine-tuning adult-friendly flavors like whiskey sugar, tequila sugar and vodka mint sugar, his group has used cotton candy in many ways. “We’ve coated homemade marshmallows and brownie bites, and have topped cocktails and virgin cocktails with the grown-up cotton candy.” His main advice? With this crazy-popular melting favorite, you need to keep enough attendants at your station. “It becomes an ‘Instagramable’ moment, which is the ultimate compliment!”
For More Information
BG Events and Catering • bgeventsandcatering.com
Black LAB Events • blacklab-ventures.com
Catering by Michaels • cateringbymichaels.com
Gastro Garage • thegastrogarage.com
Succulent Chocolates & Sweets • succulentchocolates.com