Inspired by regional favorites, catering menus throughout the country reflect the local bounty and the U.S.A. melting pot
By Sara Perez Webber
What’s American cuisine? You might get different answers in all 50 states. While a precise definition is hard to pin down, caterers throughout the land are pleasing customers by serving up regional favorites and utilizing local ingredients. These four examples show how the result is uniquely American—not to mention downright delicious.
Kansas City BBQ
Zarda Bar-B-Q & Catering Co., Kansas City Metro Area
Whether you’re on the Missouri or Kansas side of Kansas City, you’ll be able to find Zarda Bar-B-Q’s award-winning burnt ends. The family-owned company, founded by Jerry and Mike Zarda in 1976, has restaurants in Lenexa, Kan., and Blue Springs, Mo. And Zarda’s booming catering business extends its reach throughout this metro area that’s crazy for barbecue.
Zarda is the official caterer for the Kansas City-based American Royal, known for its famous World Series of Barbecue, the largest barbecue competition in the world; has catered spring training for the Kansas City Royals; and for years fed the Kansas City Chiefs when they traveled to summer training camp in Wisconsin. “We brought a full taste of home for the players,” says Terry Hyer, Zarda’s COO.
More and more clients are ordering that “taste of home” for their catered events. While Zarda has catered since the first location opened in Blue Springs, off-site catering has been growing by “leaps and bounds,” says Hyer. Earlier this year the company created a new position, hiring Taylor Jones to head up outside catering sales. “My one and only job is to go out every single day to prospective clients and remind them that we cater barbecue and have some of the best in Kansas City, and we can bring it anywhere,” says Jones.
In April, Zarda earned a badge of honor from the Kansas City Star’s Chow Town food blog that Jones can now tout to prospective clients—it won a March Madness-style tournament for the best barbecue burnt ends in Kansas City, for which readers cast 92,000 votes. Born in Kansas City, burnt ends are the crispy charred ends deriving from the fattier point region of beef brisket. Zarda smokes them fresh daily, serving them to customers hand-cut until they run out. “It’s pit to plate,” says Hyer.
Baked beans are another Zarda specialty—so popular they’re sold in grocery stores in 22 states, alongside Zarda barbecue sauces and rubs. The most popular catering package, The Picnic, includes a quarter pound of hickory-smoked beef, ham and turkey per person (Zarda has used only Ozark hickory to smoke meat since its founding), as well as baked beans, homemade coleslaw, potato salad, bread, barbecue sauce and kosher dill pickles. A newly launched package—Picnic Plus, which features more meat per person (one-third of a pound)—is picking up steam, according to Sarah Tyson, catering manager at the Lenexa location.
Business meetings account for much of the drop-off catering business, according to Erin Henderson, catering manager for the Blue Springs location, while demand for full-service catering for weddings is growing. In fact, while Zarda has long been a popular catering choice for rehearsal dinners, “we’re seeing more and more folks really wanting barbecue” at their weddings, notes Hyer.
These couples are choosing to serve their guests a taste of the hometown specialty. “There’s nothing like a fresh hand-cut burnt end on your plate with a nice bowl of baked beans on the side, fries or cole slaw,” enthuses Hyer. “It’s pretty much heaven on a plate.”
Maine’s Bounty, by Land and Sea
Dandelion Catering Co., Portland, Maine
When bridal couples book their destination weddings in Maine—a booming business in the scenic state—they may turn to Dandelion Catering Co. in Yarmouth, north of Portland, to ensure they’re serving their guests authentic local fare. “Once they’re here, they want the experience,” says Christian Hayes, executive chef, who owns Dandelion Catering with his wife, Christine. “We’ve steamed more lobsters at a picturesque farm overlooking the coast than I can count. People love that stuff.”
The Hayeses—both lifelong Mainers—launched Dandelion in 2009 in Portland, initially solely booking weddings. But as their reputation for restaurant-quality, freshly prepared cuisine grew, so did their bookings. Now weddings account for about half of their business, with corporate lunch drop-offs and other events—from bar mitzvahs to cocktail parties to multi-day photo shoots—making up the rest.
In fact, business is so good that the company has grown out of its 2,000-square-foot space at the Sparhawk Mill in Yarmouth. Dandelion is expanding in the same location, moving its offices up a floor to a new 2,000-square-foot space, and building a larger catering kitchen that’s opening in May. In the space previously occupied by the catering kitchen, it’s opening this summer a 40-seat restaurant, The Garrison, overlooking the Royal River.
“I think the food we serve has followed the same few basic principles since we started,” says Hayes. “You can create a refined and thoughtful dish that has a finesse and beauty but stays true to our humble and approachable take on food.” Dandelion’s new catering chef, Kaitlynn Gatchell, along with sous chef Meaghan Ruane, have taken up that torch, says Hayes: “The food they’re making is outrageously good and void of any sort of pretentiousness.”
The surrounding local bounty inspires Dandelion’s menus. “I grew up on the water with a family dependent on the fishing industry,” says Hayes. “I think the obvious ties to amazing, fresh seafood is such an incredible privilege to have as a chef, but also the abundance of farms producing stunning food is ridiculous. There’s so much agricultural talent and people committed to the industry. Our farmer’s markets are insane.”
The company works closely with such nearby purveyors as Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, which Hayes calls “a partner in crime since day one.” Lamb and whole hogs are sourced from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, cheese and yogurt from Flying Goat Farm in Acton, mushrooms from North Spore in Westbrook, produce from Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham and seafood from Harbor Fish Market in Portland.
The result is a catering menu infused with local favorites, such as raw bars, summer and winter versions of the Maine lobster roll, and New England Clam Chowder, as well as non-traditional dishes that incorporate what’s in season—fiddleheads, foraged mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and corn, for example. Some popular menu items boasting local bounty include Gatchell’s hors d’oeuvre of lobster corn dogs with charred scallion tartar, a new family-style olive oil poached monkfish and desserts featuring wild Maine blueberries.
“There’s quite a bit of seasonality” in the menus, notes Hayes: “There are things growing in Maine that don’t last too long, but when they’re here, everyone goes bananas for them.”
Jeffrey A. Miller Catering, Philadelphia
At the only certified organic garden in New Jersey state parkland, the team from Jeffrey A. Miller (JAM) Catering tends to an orchard and vegetable garden, keeps bees, and raises chicken, sheep and goats. The fruits of their labor feed guests attending events at the surrounding Waterloo Village, a picturesque, preserved 19th-century canal town in Byram Township—where the historic surroundings are enhanced by cuisine often influenced by mid-Atlantic traditions.
“We have two full acres of production,” says Jeffrey Miller, president of JAM Catering. “Clients love the fact that at our farm venue, there is actually a working organic farm onsite.”
The garden’s bounty and the venue’s location inspired JAM Catering’s pie board, a big hit at weddings. “In the northwest section of New Jersey, we are close to Amish Country, and the Amish are big pie bakers,” says Miller. “We do a pie board that is an homage to their tradition, with hand pies, open-faced pies and lattice-topped pies, served on reclaimed barn wood planks for a rustic look and feel.” Pears, peaches, apples and cherries from the garden’s orchard, as well as blackberries and raspberries from its bushes, play a starring role on the pie board.
“Bee-keeping also has a long tradition in the mid-Atlantic states,” notes Miller. “We serve the honey we produce directly on the comb, and put it out with our cheese board—which will feature this year, for the first time, our own fresh goat cheese.” (Goats were recently introduced to the garden.)
Menus at Waterloo are also influenced by “the large numbers of Italian-Americans” in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says Miller. “For our weddings, we make frittatas using our fresh eggs, and whatever produce we have picked that morning. We serve a thyme-potato or squash or kale frittata on our harvest table during hors d’oeuvres hour at every event.” In addition to the frittatas, JAM’s harvest table includes house-cured meats and house-cured sausages, grilled vegetables, hard cheeses and more fresh garden pickings.
“And, at the end of our events, just when folks are getting hungry again after some serious dancing, we open up our wood-fired outdoor pizza oven,” adds Miller. Toppings vary with the harvest, but popular varieties include white pizza with fresh oregano, eggplant pizza, and squash pizza topped with an organic egg.
Whenever the garden produces too much for JAM Catering to use at Waterloo Village, the excess produce goes to JAM’s main kitchen in Philadelphia, where it may be served at any of the company’s other 15 exclusive venues. Miller started the business 40 years ago as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, serving brunch-in-bed as a school project. Today the firm caters close to 600 weddings a year, employs 80 full-time staff, and recently opened a drop-off/delivery division called JAM by HAND.
JAM brings a taste of the region to all its venues, serving Pennsylvania Dutch soft pretzels, for example, rolled in a mix of course salt, cracked pepper, fennel seeds and celery seeds, and brushed while warm with melted butter. “We display them on our tiered copper pretzel stand, and folks love them,” says Miller. JAM also adds a creative spin to scrapple—the fried pork-and-cornmeal loaf beloved by locals—by serving a duck scrapple hors d’oeuvre with pickled cherries.
“We keep our menu flexible,” says Miller, “serving side dishes that vary with the season and are specific to our region.”
B. Gourmet Catering, Charleston, S.C.
Lauded as one of the most romantic cities in the U.S., Charleston, S.C., is one of the country’s top destination wedding locations. Ready to serve those brides and grooms when they wed down South amidst the picturesque plantations and live oaks draped in Spanish moss is B. Gourmet Catering, owned by founder Brooke Bishop and her husband Greg Stine.
Catering almost exclusively for weddings, B. Gourmet prides itself on “classical Southern cuisine with a modern gourmet flair.” When couples travel to the city to tie the knot, they tend to want a menu that “embodies all of the Charleston classics for their guests to experience,” says Bishop.
So Bishop will design a Carolina-inspired menu that may include such hors d’oeuvres as fried chicken waffle bites with pecan waffle and maple mustard sauce; fried green tomatoes topped with pimento cheese and bacon crumbles; or smoky beef brisket-topped buttermilk biscuits with caramelized onions, gruyere cheese and roasted garlic aioli. Some popular Southern main courses include buttermilk fried chicken; shrimp and grits; and a mac-and-cheese station where guests can choose from such toppings as pan-fried ham, smoked bacon crumbles and blue cheese crumbles. A popular dessert is the Charleston Treats trio: a classic lemon square, a praline pecan tart and—the crowd favorite—the Charleston Chew, a chewy and sweet pecan treat that evokes the flavor of the famous candy bar.
Of course, B. Gourmet’s repertoire extends beyond Southern. “You will see some French influence in many of our items,” says Bishop, who earned a certificate in French cuisine and culture from Institut Paul Bocuse in France, after graduating from Penn State University with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. “We never take any short-cuts, and all of our cuisine is made in-house and cooked from scratch.”
While not a South Carolina native, Bishop immersed herself in local food and culture when she moved to Charleston eight years ago, taking culinary courses at the Art Institute and working for another catering company before founding her own. “I began experimenting with my own techniques and flavors utilizing local classics like grits, pulled pork and fried green tomatoes,” she says. B. Gourmet turns to nearby purveyors for local ingredients, such as Ambrose Family Farm in Wadmalaw Island, S.C., for produce, and Lowcountry Shellfish in North Charleston for seafood.
And while Bishop often incorporates culinary favorites from Charleston into wedding menus, B. Gourmet also specializes in designing custom menus that often feature favorites from the home bases of the brides and grooms. “The most memorable custom menu I designed featured all Jewish-Asian fusion items, like mini pastrami steam buns, ramen soup with matzo balls, and a duo entree of latke-encrusted chicken and miso-sesame-soy braised beef short ribs,” she says.
The food of her adopted home state holds a special place in Bishop’s heart, however. “I love how comforting the cuisine is and how much history is behind it,” she says. “Also, who doesn’t love a cuisine that offers macaroni and cheese as a staple side dish?”