Move over, prime rib. Sayonara, standard stir-fry. Action stations are getting a makeover, just in time for wedding season. As chefs enhance their repertoire with fresh takes on classics and a crop of brand-new concepts, they are busy dishing out crowd-pleasing dishes that are bound to become member favorites—and memory makers.
At The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.), stations that speak to a diverse palate is the goal of Executive Chef Samantha Cavaciuti (pictured, left).
“We are focusing heavily on new dessert action stations and stations that are personalized,” she says. Ensuring that members have plenty of choices, Cavaciuti has been expanding her banquet stations with a variety of creative options.
To get a jump on the action, stations are preset with the necessary equipment and as many shelf-stable items as possible in advance of an event. Presentation is another important aspect; stations are outfitted with props and special lighting to accentuate culinary stations.
When designing new concepts for her action stations, Cavaciuti draws upon her past trips to Canada, the Bahamas and around the U.S. for inspiration. She also focuses on seasonal ingredients locally sourced to further elevate flavor profiles.
“We make use of our pickling and preservation program to offer fruits and veggies year-round,” she adds.
For this season’s roster of dessert action stations, The Polo Club will be offering made-to-order donuts, along with dipped ice cream pops with ruby chocolate and Callebaut Gold. Meanwhile, a ‘torched’ dessert station adds a dramatic flair to ballroom events with its fire-and-ice displays.
“We add eye-catching giant sparklers to increase the wow-factor, taking s’mores pops, individual baked Alaska and crème brûlée to the next level,” Cavaciuti says.
On the banquet station side, individual charcuterie and cheese boards are destined to become a fan favorite. The Polo Club members are also getting a taste of Middle Eastern flavors with a build-your-own shawarma bar, where the focus is on clean eating and vegan cuisine. Classic sushi and Asian stations are enhanced by a scene-stealing build-your-own-poke-bowl offer.
“Guests of all ages love the endless mix-ins to customize their perfect bowl,” notes Cavaciuti. “The beautiful colors grab their attention.”
Meanwhile, Israeli-style Mexican street corn is earning its own recognition.
“Swapping chili powder for Za’atar spice and adding labneh instead of the common mayo, lime and cilantro sauce [enables] our chefs to prepare this street food favorite in front of guests for a quick action display—and keep lines moving,” she says.
Practice Makes Perfect
Determining whether a particular culinary concept will make an impression on guests is important, and for The Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, the secret is testing out that idea in advance. According to Executive Sous Chef Andrew Haapala, hosting pop-up action stations allows the culinary team to gauge their popularity before adding them to the official lineup.
“This lets us draft recipes and set up the stations with pictures in advance of selling it to membership,” he says. “It also allows us to make sure they are feasible to operate for large-scale events.”
Having spent the past eight-plus years at the Richmond facility which has two clubhouses and five dining outlets, Haapala has become a pro at assessing what’s needed to execute a high-end event. When developing a memorable station, it all boils down to putting a fresh spin on a favorite concept.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says, “[but] simply doing what chefs before us have always done: providing a new twist on a classic.”
This year, club members and their guests will be treated to two new stations: wood-fired tostadas and fire-and-ice oysters, the latter of which will be hickory-fired and served three different ways: with oyster ‘chowda’ and crispy potatoes, a Thai chili chutney and a charred shishito butter.
“Taking something as simple as a roasted local oyster and looking at it as a base, adding ingredients—both local and exotic—and putting some thought into garnish can elevate it to something truly special,” says Haapala.
While the simple lure of an open fire can be enough to mesmerize guests, a carefully curated presentation ups the ante of a compelling concept. Haapala makes a point of scouring what he calls the club’s “dumping grounds” to source unusual elements for station displays, including cut logs, garden retainment beams, rocks and cut firewood.
Bells and whistles aside, the proof of a top-notch setup rests in the number of repeat visits. “A station’s success is determined by the crowd that forms around it or when you see a guest come back two or three times,” he says.
Haapala errs on the side of caution by maintaining a full staff on the banquet floor, so they can keep an eye on service and jump in at the ready.
Adding fresh flavors to the familiar by incorporating new techniques is the modus operandi of Executive Chef Blair Cannon at Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“The action station chef’s personalized experience, flavorful aromas that tantalize the guests’ senses and a beautiful table presentation allow us to create a memorable experience for all attendees,” he says. While standard carving and salad stations continue to be the bread and butter of banquet operations, Cannon understands the value of captivating members with innovative concepts to keep them returning for seconds.
Strategizing well in advance of an event helps Cannon prepare accordingly, with floor plan layouts, staffing and plating needs and product procurement. Creating a timeline illustrates how all the pieces will fall into place.
“Determining the guests’ traffic flow and how many will go up to a station at one time will affect menu execution capabilities,” says Cannon. Confirming that the right equipment is already available or, if necessary, easily obtainable also fosters a smooth delivery. “We inventory three times a year two months before each season to ensure breakage is limited and inventory levels are on par for our banquet needs,” he adds.
With the right tools in place, Cannon can confidently turn to an accumulating list of potential station concepts. Dubbed the “Ideagram File,” this shared document contains screenshots and photos of finished product designed to pique the interest of the culinary team. “This keeps an archive where we can access inspirational ideas and help fight the ‘writers’ block’ mentality,” he explains.
Straight from this food-for-thought file is this year’s action station lineup. A Himalayan salt block station will showcase seared fennel-dusted ahi tuna lollipops with Moroccan-preserved lemon coulis, micro cilantro and crispy cipollini onions. (The blocks will bake in a 400° F oven all day, then bumped up to 450° F during service. They will then be set on a butane burner display to retain their heat and rotated, while a backup set bakes in the oven.)
Utilizing the club’s Arteflame wood fire grill are stations featuring mini boardwalk festival gyros, Mexican street cart taco bars, hibachi stir-fry with flaming onions and a grilled chuck tender complemented by whipped potatoes, leek confit and rosemary-infused port gastrique.
Cannon will also use a smoking gun to create a shrimp and grits station, while cotton candy machines get a savory update with chilled wasabi cotton candy-wrapped Thai shrimp lollipops.
Anticipating a strong reception, Cannon has a plan for foolproof execution: “We would do the sautéing and building out there for show, and the banquet chefs will sauté some of the shrimp in the main kitchen to ensure the dish components are stocked fully.” C+RC