Flashy soirees, swanky fundraising galas, glamorous cocktail receptions—they’re all just a day in the life of Alison Awerbuch. The 25-year catering industry veteran and Culinary Institute of America graduate has spent the past two decades cooking up high-end menus, designing elaborate decor and plotting grand affairs with Abigail Kirsch, one of New York City’s most respected catering firms. Sound out of reach for your association? Think again. The company frequently caters association events in the New York and tri-state areas and knows firsthand the F&B challenges meeting planners face when working on large conferences. Chalk it up to years of experience and a keen eye for detail, Awerbuch is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to turning ordinary things like doughnuts and ice cream into showstoppers. Connect’s Kelsey Ogletree talked with Awerbuch about what’s trending on event menus and got her to spill a few secrets on creating interactive stations sure to keep people talking long after a meeting ends.
What role does food play at an event?
Food is an extremely important aspect—the quality and taste, as well as the presentation. If you can master both, that’s a win-win.
What trends are you seeing?
People are eating more casually. The gastropub, local, farm-to-table movements that started seven or eight years ago are more casual. We’re taking that trend and adding a twist to everything on the menu by either changing some ingredients or adding new ones to make them more interesting and fun. For example, we take the classic deviled egg—something people love and don’t eat very often—and add a buffalo spin. We use a smaller-size egg and cut them horizontally so they stand up and have more eye-appeal, and they’re easier to eat. We crumble a local blue cheese on it, and add some hot sauce and local micro celery on top. When you look at it, you might think, oh, it has the appeal of something I know from the past, but when you taste it, it’s a little more special.
Any other classics you’ve revamped?
We do chicken and waffles, which is trending now in restaurants. Typically, that dish is an entree—a waffle topped with fried chicken and maple syrup. Our version is a tiny bite. For the fall, we’re adding celery root and herbs right into the waffle batter. We do a crispy little piece of fried chicken, and add a root vegetable slaw that goes into the cavities of the waffle with a maple glaze. We also make macaroni and cheese cupcakes in muffin tins. Each one is topped with a smoked tomato and golden raisin chutney.
We’ve heard you’re taking Dominique Ansel’s famous Cronut to new levels.
They’ve definitely gotten national recognition, and people are doing their own versions. We wanted to take that and run with it. We’re doing Cronuts and doughnuts in a lot of different ways. We’re making bite-size Cronuts with smoked salmon, lemon, dill and fried capers, and we make a savory doughnut with bacon-pretzel brittle, cheddar cheese and caramelized shallots.
How do you make food interactive?
One thing we’ll do is an elaborate doughnut or Cronut station. Guests start with a plain doughnut or Cronut, dip it in a glaze and put different toppings or sauces on it. Then we have what we call ‘dust’ that gets sprinkled on top. We call it a ‘dunk, drizzle and dust’ station. Doing a station that’s interactive gets people talking. They’re lining up, talking to each other, laughing, having fun, even taking bites of each others’ doughnuts—I’ve seen it happen.
Any beverage trends you’re seeing?
There has been a real trend of showcasing beverages more, with all the mixology bars that are all over. Something interactive that we’re developing is a mix-your-own cocktail bar that’s in addition to a traditional bar. Guests can choose from four or five infused juice blends—a pineapple-ginger or cucumber-lime infusion, for example—and four or five different types of liquor, as well as bitters, syrups and garnishes. A server is there to assist, but guests can mix and match, and make their own drinks. The way we’re designing it, there’s not a wrong blend. Any of the juice blends would pair with vodka, gin or tequila, so it all works together. We’ve also seen a trend with virgin cocktails. This concept also works for guests who want to stay away from alcohol but have more interesting options than juice, soda or water.
“If your attendees are going to eat breakfast, lunch and snacks, they want to be alert, but feel like they’re eating how they normally eat each day when they’re preparing their own meals. Serving heavy, high-carb foods is not acceptable anymore.”
I think it’s about giving them the choice to make their own, exactly. Guests want more variety in smaller portions. People are gravitating toward things like butlering in phases: small plates and
carts with one item versus an overwhelming buffet where they have to line up and fit eight or 10 items on a plate. Guests want to try a lot more things, and if they’re eating small bites, they don’t feel guilty or get full as fast. It gives them the ability to try things that maybe they normally wouldn’t order in a restaurant because they don’t want to commit to a full portion. The big trend is more variety, smaller portions and being able to make your own choices.
What’s something caterers wish meeting planners knew?
Sometimes planners put form before function. At a recent event, a planner insisted on putting a bar and a food station somewhere we knew was not going to work. It was too close to the entrance and would create a bottleneck. We tried to explain our concerns, but the planner wanted to keep it there anyway. At the event, lines got very long and guests were complaining, and then the planner realized it was wrong. But at that point there’s nothing we can do. My advice is if a caterer strongly recommends something, it’s for the best of the event, especially when it comes to logistics and timing.
Speaking of timing, how can planners be mindful of catering staff during sessions where meals are served?
During a sit-down dinner, there’s not a lot of regard to when speeches are going to take place or lengths of speeches. We try to work with planners on those things. I’ve been to events where a planner doesn’t want to clear plates until after the speech, but the speech lasts 45 minutes and all the guests are sitting with dirty plates during that time. Or the planner will insist on doing speeches between the appetizer and hot entree, thinking the speech is going to be 30 minutes but it extends to an hour. It’s hard to keep the quality of a hot meal accurate when something is so prolonged because it’s going to get overcooked or dry.
What are ways to add flair to conference F&B without driving up costs?
Sometimes it’s coming up with menu items using less costly but still wonderful and delicious ingredients, or choosing less labor-intensive items. Labor is very expensive. When clients are on tight budgets, we suggest not having butlered items and stations at the same time. That way we can use the same staff to run both.
Another thing you can do is heartier passings, using the same staff throughout. If you butler three or four heartier items in addition to hors d’oeuvres, people can make a meal out of it, and it’s more cost-effective than doing stations and buffets. It also saves on rentals. When you’re doing buffets and stations, not only do you need the tables and linens, but also china and flatware for each guest, and food vessels.
What’s the bottom line on budget?
Some ingredients, like lobster, caviar and rack of lamb, are expensive in general. But with most menus, it’s labor and the sheer variety of foods that drive up costs more than individual ingredients. Planners will ask me, ‘If I don’t have a beef tenderloin or shrimp appetizer, will that save me money?’ But that’s really negligible in the total cost.
How has event F&B changed during your career?
First and foremost, our clients and guests are so much more knowledgeable about food and beverage than they used to be. They get much more excited about interesting, great-tasting food and beverage, and they’re also more demanding. With the Food Network and celebrity chefs, people are exposed to food all the time, each and every day. You can’t run away from it, it’s just a part of culture.
Years ago, the choices were much more limited. Food and beverage weren’t that visible, so people accepted what was given to them. Now, every planner we meet with is jazzed about creating their menus, giving suggestions, talking about where they ate in the last few weeks. They’ll say things like, ‘Could we replicate this? Have you seen this recipe? Let me send you this website.’ Our clients are asking for things they’re exposed to in the media. People really like food.
Grab ‘n’ Go
One way to keep people talking is to send them home with something sweet to cap off the evening. Awerbuch recommends doing a smaller version of the doughnut station on a cart near the main exit, from which guests can grab fresh doughnuts or Cronuts and a small cup of something warm. “We do a homemade hot chocolate infused with cinnamon, orange zest and toppings,” says Awerbuch. “For the fall, try mochachinos.”
Sips ‘n’ Bites
For many association events, Awerbuch creates pairings of butlered small appetizers or desserts with mixologist-crafted cocktails in shot glasses that keep with the theme, whether that’s a color, season or ethnicity. “People are trying to drink a little bit less, but they’re getting a great burst of flavor in something smaller,” says Awerbuch.
Serving treats that play to the inner child of a meeting attendee is a surefire way to kickstart fun. Abigail Kirsch’s twist on the classic ice cream sandwich is a sophisticated ending to an afternoon break or outdoor reception. For example, flavor combinations might include pistachio sandwiches with lemon ice cream and coconut; carrot cake with caramel, Nutella and butter-pecan; or raspberry cake stuffed with ganache and truffle gelato. “Just don’t serve them in a 100-degree tent in the middle of summer,” says Awerbuch.
For more ideas from Awerbuch and her colleagues at Abigail Kirsch Catering, click through our gallery of deliciously creative dishes. Fair warning, you’ll be hungry afterward.
Photo credit: Abigail Kirsch Catering