Food, Wine & Thou

eared Bay Scallop on Miso Spoon with Horseradish Lime Dipping Sauce


French writer Michel de Montaigne once said, “The art of dining well is no slight art.” He spoke those words over 400 years ago, yet the sentiments still ring true today. Food really determines the success of any party.

Chicagoans have the luxury of a long list of caterers from which to choose, and TCW consulted four of the best: Jodi Fyfe, principal at Paramount Events; George Jewell, founder of Jewell Events Catering; Marguerite Lytle and Rita Gutekanst, principals at Limelight Catering; and Molly Schemper, head pastry chef/owner of FIG Catering.

Sit down, food stations, passed hors d’oeuvres…how to decide which is best? It’s a question of knowing your audience. “A sit down meal is usually for weddings and events where you have toasts and speeches,” explains Ms. Fyfe. And Ms. Schemper agrees: “It’s definitely more formal.” But perhaps one of the biggest advantages to a seated meal, Ms. Gutekanst continues, is that you’ll know exactly what the per-person portions are, allowing you to keep a better eye on cost.

The experts agree that food stations are far more casual and give more of a ‘party’ atmosphere. But it can also be the most expensive choice. Ms. Lytle points out, “You need to have a lot of food on hand to keep the stations looking abundant and it’s harder to gauge exact amounts per person.” On the positive side, they give guests an excuse to end a boring conversation. “You can just say, ‘Oh, I’d like to try the veggies over there,’” Mr. Jewell laughs.

Then there’s passed hors d’oeuvres, which Ms. Schemper says are typical of a cocktail reception or an event lasting two to three hours. Ms Fyfe says passed hors d’oeuvres are also “casual and a good choice as long as there are enough servers to match the number of people.” The big plus: passed hors d’oeuvres are always the least expensive option.

Now how do you choose the perfect dishes? At a tasting, of course. These foodies agree that the road to event success is paved with communication between client and caterer. And that becomes evident at the tasting. But who to include?

For a wedding, Ms. Fyfe says a typical tasting includes the bride, groom and anyone else who might be paying for the event. Ms. Lytle agrees, cautioning, “It’s fun, but too many people and the tasting gets carried away with too much chatting. It’s a business meeting. We’re trying to get to the heart of the event and need to focus on food and presentations.”

Tastings are also essential for Mr. Jewell. “That way, the hosts know exactly what they’ll be getting at their event.” A tasting can also put one on palate overload. Ms. Schemper explains that after seeing the FIG menu, “some say, ‘I want it all!’ We suggest clients taste things they’re unsure of rather than things they know they’ll like.”

Finally, we need a toast with the most! The consensus is that a bar sets the tone of the event. It’s often the first area guests approach when they walk in. It should be fun and lively, but that doesn’t necessarily mean over the top in the expense category.

Today’s proliferation of craft beers and artisan wineries can make any event a standout, while still keeping costs in control. Add to those choices a single signature cocktail, a spirits bar that includes just one liquor variety (like a gin or bourbon bar) or small batch liquors, and this portion of an event can really be the most exciting.

Other ways to keep an eye on price? Remember that bar costs include not just the liquors, but the glassware and bartenders as well. No surprises at invoice time is everyone’s goal. And what about the requisite Champagne toast at wedding receptions? All the experts agree: the words are more important than what’s in the glass. Some hosts toast with whatever is in the glasses at the time. Others select the Champagne cocktail option; it’s more economical than Champagne alone.

But one area you don’t want to skimp on is in the safety of your guests. “You frequently have guests who don’t drink often,” Ms. Schemper observes. “Therefore they have a lower capacity for alcohol consumption.” For that reason, all the caterers insist shots are never allowed at their events. Mr. Jewell suggests that the tasting is the perfect time to discuss everyone’s expectations for guests who have imbibed a little too much.

Ground-breaking chef and food writer James Beard says, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” It’s certainly the star of the day when it comes to a special, memory-making occasion. Final pointers: plan ahead and be true to yourself. And the number one rule: it’s your party; having fun is the order of the day. Cheers!

Photos courtesy of Paramount Events.
Above: Seared Bay Scallop on Miso Spoon with Horseradish Lime Dipping Sauce


About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University who's written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles and has published three books. Her biography of Virginia Hall, Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, has been optioned for a movie. Her most recent book, It’s Just Hair: 20 Essential Life Lessons, is a 2012 International Book Award finalist. Ms. Pearson is also the founder of Courage Concepts, an organization that cultivates courage in women and provides workshops/keynotes for corporations and other organizations.