EAST MEETS WEST: Little fried wonton "tacos" provide a crispy counterpoint to smooth smoked salmon.
"The trend in appetizers now is achieving authenticity and integrity in ingredients," declares David Joyce, the Flik International executive chef at the helm of foodservices at the New York City law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton.
Joyce has attained plenty of success and excitement at numerous catered events by homing in on a particular ingredient or two and highlighting them in splashy presentations. For instance, to showcase olive oil varietals from different regions and countries (including Tuscany, France and Greece), he sets up a station in which a chef slices off thin slices of "impeccably fresh, high quality sashimi" and pairs them with several dollops of different olive oils. At the same time or alternatively, Joyce may offer a variety of salts to sample with the fish: Hawaiian pink salt, flake salt, French Brittany, and so on.
"We put the ingredients on a glass plate with a little bit of lemon, and the guests just say, 'Holy Mackerel,'" he exclaims. "It's very simple and pure, allowing them to see and taste the individual ingredients, and they love it."
Joyce also likes to introduce appetizers that he describes as "authentic with a twist," such as sautèed Indian samosa cakes served with mango chutney aioli; or a canapè made with lotus chips, a slice of candied ginger, and foie gras mousse piped onto a bit of caramelized pineapple.
Surprise ingredients make a big impression in appetizers, such as when Joyce adds ground coffee to a guava-barbecue glaze for pecan-crusted chicken breast slices. "The customers smell the coffee more than taste it, and find it very intriguing," he says. For simple appetizers with chicken, Joyce suggests crusts—always eye-catching and appealing. "Sesame seeds, pecans or other nuts, coconut, herbs—they all make for good crusts and add the extra allure to chicken," he notes.
When the sky's the limit, it's not hard to invent creative and eye-popping appetizers. But when an operator or chef has certain restrictions to work within, guidelines to adhere to, or a less-adventurous customer base to please, things can get a little trickier.
At Grandview Terrace, a lifecare facility in Sun City West, AZ, Dining Services Director Phil Borsom is constantly juggling distinctly different preferences between older residents (the G.I. generation, now in their mid-80s) and the younger seniors. To come up with generation-spanning menu selections for the facility's five annual appetizer-based celebratory events, he's found a happy medium.
For the older residents, carved meats and large shrimp are always popular standbys; even though the residents aren't paying for the event per se, such higher-ticket items make them feel they're getting good value, Borsom explains. "But the younger residents need other items," he says. "They don't even want to look at deep-fried shrimp. For them, we developed a lahvosh pizza, crab and smoked gouda in fillo shells (see recipe), crawfish cakes, bacon-wrapped scallops, and duck burritos. The older residents really thought we were out of our minds when we served the duck burritos, but the younger ones tried them and enjoyed them."
At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Executive Chef Richard Rockwell has been working closely with the new chancellor's wife, an R.D. with a doctorate, who has started a health initiative for the entire campus. The healthy eating emphasis incorporates catering menus, too, so Rockwell has had to develop innovative appetizers with less fat and sodium and more grains and fresh produce.
"We're working with less cream, substituting soymilk, and replacing a lot of the fat with fresh herbs (Dr. Bacchi, the chancellor's wife, maintains an organic garden on campus)," Rockwell explains. "Of course, there's sometimes no substitute for butter, but we're using less of it."
Adapting Floribbean style and tropical fruits to the menu has also allowed Rockwell to infuse intense flavor into appetizers, bypassing extra fat. "We use lots of guava spreads for canapès, developed a spicy '911 sauce' to serve with roasted Cuban pork or shrimp, and make use of tostones (dried plantain chips) as a base or garnish," he says.
Tricks of the trade
Paul Luttmann, executive chef at Avera Mckennan Hospital & University Health Center in Sioux Falls, SD, brings his classical Culinary Institute of America training to bear on the development of appetizer menus for his facility's catered events. His tips include:
Remember an appetizer is supposed to tease the palate; it's not meant as a full meal, so it should just be kept as a single bite.
Taste is crucial in appetizers, since they set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Try to steer away from any appetizer that's too savory. Instead, incorporate a sweetness, whether it's the sweet rice in sushi or canapès served with fruit salsa.
Make sure you keep functionality in mind. What's already on the shelf? Don't order something new that's not in the inventory just to create appetizers.
When it's a glamorous occasion (such as a charity event or large board party), go out on a limb and do new and exciting things (maybe a slice of smoked pork tenderloin on top of a homemade sweet potato cracker with salsa, or smoked catfish with shallot preserve). When the appetizers are for such things as weekly dinner or late night meetings, stick to more comforting foods (e.g., bite-sized beef Wellingtons).
Keep garnishing simple. Remember that simplicity equals elegance. In appetizers, it's all about the presentation. Visualize what you're going to make before you do it; it will make it easier and produce a better yield.
Convenience Appetizers Boost Check Average
About a year ago, Paul Hubbard, the associate director of foodservice operations at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, decided to add prepared appetizers to the menu in an attempt to offer more variety for customers. What he got was doubled check averages.
"We added items such as potstickers, mozzarella sticks, zucchini sticks, buffalo wings, tenders, jalapeÒo poppers and nacho platters, and suddenly, the typical person who would order a burger and fries was now ordering a couple of appetizers, too," he says.
At $2.79 per order (which usually includes five pieces of the chosen appetizer), appetizer sales quickly increased."We went from a $4.00 average to $9.00," Hubbard claims,"and we've increased our check averages during off-peak hours, too. Typically, someone might have come in at those times for a cup of coffee or a soda, but now they're picking up appetizers as well. Also, patients' families are choosing these items to take up to the rooms with them since, as finger food, they're easier to navigate than the larger menu items."