In one corner of the ballroom, plates heaped high with mussels fra diavolo and clams casino compete alongside shrimp cocktail shooters. In another spot, chefs dole out fresh pasta with mini meatballs and pesto penne while servers weave through the crowd carrying lambchop lollipops and plump pigs in blankets.
It’s all hands on deck for banquet season when passed and stationed hors d’oeuvres whet the appetites of members and guests. As chefs prepare their menus for weddings, golf tournaments and other catered events, they consider which trends are worth trying out and reveal the most challenging part of pulling off a perfectly paced lineup.
The Mighty Mini
Bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to creating standout hors d’oeuvres at Friendly Hills Country Club in Whittier, Calif. Executive Chef Peter Phan has been serving up miniature versions of popular dishes more frequently and notices that the pint-sized trend continues to demonstrate tremendous staying power.
“People always seem to have an affinity for something familiar, but in a tiny version,” he says of his mini street (“sidewalk”) tacos, mini lobster rolls and bite-sized chicken pot pies.
Before joining Friendly Hills in 2015, Phan was the Executive Chef at SeaCliff Country Club in Huntington Beach, Calif., for four years. His private club experience has enabled him to better understand his customers’ needs as he learns their preferences for passed versus stationed options and incorporates some of his own ideas. “I create selections seasonally, but I usually like to keep the few popular [ones] all year round,” he adds.
While Phan does not see classic hors d’oeuvres phasing out in favor of new trends, he recognizes the opportunity to revamp tried-and-true favorites into new versions. One example is the charcuterie board, which has gained traction thanks to social media. “This is a classic that just reinvented itself,” Phan says. “I had my first charcuterie board when I was 6: Lunchables.”
Another trend Phan has been seeing is raw or crudo foods, be it ceviche, seared, ahi or poke. He counts ahi poke as one of his more popular selections and varies his serving style: on a simple skewer, a wonton chip and marinated in a cool amuse bouche spoon. In fact, with more foodies using what he deems ‘culinary buzzwords,’ Phan makes a point of peppering in favorites like wagyu, sous vide, hyper-local, smoked, organic and wild-caught when appropriate.
Balancing trends with server-friendly selections is especially important to Phan. “The goal of an hors d’oeuvre is to create one or two bites full of flavor and texture, and in a banquet setting, you are making numerous amounts of them,” he says.
While extra prep work is permissible, intricate assembly is not. Phan cites his Mama Phan’s Wontons as an example; they can take hours to make the filling and stuff the wrappers of bulk orders but require just a few minutes to boil, sauce and garnish.
“The wontons can be made in advance, and staff can typically cook them while doing another task,” he adds. In sharp contrast is a crispy taco with ten different ingredients. “Imagine building 300 of those in a 60-minute cocktail hour,” he says. “If it takes over a minute to garnish a small bite, then it’s just not efficient.”
While Phan may have perfected his hors d’oeuvres playbook, he still wrestles with overall timing. Even with the best-laid plans, he acknowledges that things can—and will—go wrong.
“It’s a challenge when the itinerary doesn’t go as planned,” he says. “The wedding ceremony ended 20 minutes early or late, the speeches went a lot longer or the golf tournament is playing slow.” When these moments creep up, Phan says the only way to handle this is to have a clear line of communication with your crew and restrategize. “It’s simply organized chaos,” he says.
Interactive and Engaging
Chefs who can tap into their creative side with engaging hors d’oeuvre displays are finding favor with members and guests alike. At Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, Md., Executive Chef Dan Schwartz has been dazzling denizens with his Amazing Grazing Table, which featured a medley of sweet and salty options like green apple shooters, a charcuterie board and chocolate bark.
No stranger to the banquet production space, Schwartz has spent the past 21 years managing catered affairs, three of which have been at Turf Valley. When planning menus for weddings, galas, and corporate and association events, he and his staff closely examine each item and assess whether it would be best served passed or at a station. Schwartz will tweak his lineup to create an equal balance and typically updates selections once or twice a year.
Another showstopper is Turf Valley’s chef-attended, made-to-order crepe station, teeming with toppings and fillings such as cinnamon apples, mixed berries, chocolate fudge and strawberry compote.
“We enjoy experimenting with the latest trends, especially those that offer a more interactive experience,” says Schwartz. “Our newest specialty stations allow guests to select from a variety of items.”
While refreshing Turf Valley’s hors d’oeuvres menu, Schwartz notes that some old standards aren’t as popular as they once were. “Ice sculptures and raw bars have been phasing out because of the high cost,” he says. Traditional options are more prevalent with passed hors d’oeuvres, including such member favorites as mini chicken and waffles, caprese bites and shrimp casino. Offering a wide variety also allows Schwartz to appeal to those attendees with dietary needs.
“Our goal is always to ensure the highest quality in our food and beverage and preserve the taste and temperature of the item,” he notes.
Even with such attention to detail, chefs must do their best to ensure a smooth event execution and avoid potential setbacks. To have a sufficient supply of hors d’oeuvres on hand, Schwartz has devised a simple formula: one passed selection per person, two station items per person and three seafood items per person “because of their popularity,” he says—“for example, our mini crab cakes.”
Schwartz likes to balance passed and stationed options and may add or remove items as needed.
Because no catered event is complete without a memorable finish, Schwartz carries his hors d’oeuvres expertise over to the dessert table. A display of mini Mason jars is filled with cookie dough, lemon bar, cookies and cream, and strawberry shortcake—the makings of a happy ending to any memorable meal.