Crowd-pleasing catering


Trends: Buffets and sushi out, farm-to-table and tray passed in

Palates in San Diego are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and clients expect caterers to provide cutting-edge food and drink. For chefs such as Giuseppe Ciuffa, Scott Wagner and Adam Hiner, who are defining regional trends, it’s a challenge they meet head on.

“The San Diego community is definitely stepping up its culinary appreciation,” said Wagner, owner and executive chef of ChileCo Catering. “It’s more like the clientele is falling in line with what I’ve already been doing.”

Gone are the days of an open bar and buffet line loaded with chafing dishes. Catered events go way beyond what’s on the menu: Clients want ambience, atmosphere, signature dishes, a one-of-a-kind occasion that weaves in the elements of sight and sound and taste.

“The majority of people out there are looking for that experience,” Wagner said.

Dishing on food fads

According to Ciuffa, owner of Giuseppe Restaurants & Fine Catering, which includes the Museum Cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, there is one trend every season that is all the rage and this year it is farm-to-table cuisine. Think organic, locally grown, seasonal, sustainable.

“When I look back,” Ciuffa said, “I grew up with all those things. For the last 30 years, I never thought about it and now it’s one of the hottest trends.”

Eco Caters, co-owned by Hiner, can vouch for Ciuffa’s claim. In the past year, its clientele has quadrupled.

“Our business has been increasing mainly because of the fact that we’re focused on organics and we’re a green company,” Hiner said.

Piggybacking on the go-green movement is a more open attitude toward vegetarian and vegan fare.

“Before, the vegetarian guest was probably left out,” Hiner said.

Presentation is everything

Last year it was kiosks and food stations. This year it’s group seating and tray-pass service.

“A lot of people are gravitating toward communal tables instead of the traditional wedding where it’s all rounds,” Wagner said.

This type of setting lends itself to family-style service, where platters and bowls are brought to the table and guests serve themselves.

“People like to interact with each other, and they feel more connected when they’re sitting down together,” Hiner said.

Some clients are discovering the appeal of hors d’oeuvres and tasting menus. Bite-size portions are typically served from trays, but the mini portions lend themselves to multiple-course meals or what Ciuffa calls flow-style service. Instead of a traditional sit-down dinner, the entire meal is served on small plates throughout the course of an event.

“It allows the people to flow. It allows the people to socialize,” Ciuffa said. “They don’t have the obligation to be seated at one table all night long.”

Location, location, location

Caterers are often relied upon to enhance the event venue or create menus around a specific destination.

Ciuffa said the type of event can dictate the setting clients choose. Coastal locations are fashionable for weddings, while many corporate clients are drawn to the urban ambiance of downtown San Diego.

“Downtown is becoming like a miniature L.A.,” Ciuffa said, noting that companies frequently rent empty lofts or skyboxes and decorate them for a one-time affair.

When it comes to design, Ciuffa said bright colors--yellow, lime-green--and natural elements--brick, wood, marble--are the in thing.

Wagner has seen an increase in the number of clients hosting events in their own home in an effort to cut costs. Coinciding with the spring season is a resurgence in the popularity of garden parties.

“It’s a more sophisticated form of barbecuing,” Ciuffa said.

Trend-worthy drinks and desserts

It has become passe to leave the liquid refreshment in the hands of a bartender. Instead, the must-have event accessory of the season is a mixologist.

Clients are discovering that bar service is one area that can make their event stand out. Wagner said he typically works off the color scheme to create at least two specialty cocktails, one geared toward the men and one for the women.

The standard gin or vodka martini has been transformed by the infusing of savory flavors, like wasabi, and fresh herbs, such as basil. Making a comeback, said Ciuffa, are old-school drinks like mint juleps and whiskey sours.

Champagne bars, featuring exotic citrus, berries and fresh-squeezed juices, are another well-received option.

Fruit is also making an appearance on the dessert table in the form of tarts, marinated berries and sorbet.

“People are a lot more health conscious,” Ciuffa said. “I see the use of fruits at the end of dinner, especially at this time of year.”

There is one trend that never goes out of style, and that is quality.

“The main thing that I see,” Hiner said, “is people want someone who’s easy to work with and food that tastes good.”

Hot or Not

-What’s hot: Cross-cultural menus, Indian and East African cuisine, upscale comfort food, and European bistro-style dishes

-What’s not: Sushi, Asian-fusion, fried and breaded food, and cupcakes