When it comes to hors d’oeuvres, I want to avoid a tired cliché. When a client asks for scallops wrapped in bacon, I try to conceal any sign of a facial twitch.
Laborious little bears that they are, passed hors d’oeuvres make the culinary first impression of an elegant dinner party. When the bites come around, what do they say about the chef, the team, and the staffing levels? Often a dinner party starts with 4 to 6 different passed hors d’oeuvres and enough of each one per person at the party. For a party of 200, that’s 1,200 pieces and that is before any of the courses are served.
There are many ways to achieve the piece count, some of which are not very glorious. Specialty companies and even broad liners do a good job of making out-of-the-box product that is often pretty good. Sometimes a client really wants Kobe beef pigs in a blanket. What shall I do? Make them from scratch?
Aside from a few particular items like the Kobe pigs, we are fortunate enough at our club to be able to make them all from scratch. We have enough hands to do it, and it takes hands. Many hors d’oeuvres involve a vehicle, a main ingredient, a topper like a sauce or a miniature salsa, and maybe even a little bit of chervil or bias cut chive. There are many chefs out there, with their teams, working hard, on all of the components and building concepts, all to create a tasty and memorable first impression.
What makes great hors d’oeuvres? For starters, I want to avoid a tired cliché. No one wants to watch Friends and Seinfeld reruns any more, though they were once very good shows. When a client asks for scallops wrapped in bacon, I try to conceal any sign of a facial twitch, and suggest highlighting the excellence of our local scallops, by searing them hard and topping them with a smidge of bacon aioli. It may not be a home run hors d’oeuvre, but at least I am not embarrassed. Add a house-made, savory, thyme shortbread cracker, and maybe now you have the home run. Of course the scallop has to be just the right size—tall enough to take a sear, but small enough to go neatly in the mouth. (Yes, sigh, I have used ring cutters to size scallops uniformly, and scratched my head over what to do with the $17 per pound cut bits.)
Here are a few hors d’oeuvres insights from top club chefs (okay, I just picked this blog subject so I could get some more hors d’oeuvres ideas!):
- Chef Bernard Pilon, of Norwood Hills Country Club, takes care to be sure that the hors d’oeuvre is not awkward, forcing the guest to figure out what to do with a skewer or an oyster shell. And, he says, it should be 1 to 2 bites. “Crostinis and flatbreads are not only self–contained, but they are also versatile with regards to the unlimited amount of toppings one can put on them. We do a pork jowl and egg flatbread which people adore.” (Yum, pork jowel and egg. I might be using that one…)
- Chef Carolyn King of the Edgartown Yacht Club offers, “What makes a good hors d’oeuvre is a surprise. They love whimsy, but it has to be uncomplicated and easy to eat. Shave a red pear, skin on, cover with warm, acidulated simple syrup and form lovely little roses on crostini with already melted Brie.” Chef Carolyn also relays a funny story about mini crudité in bamboo cones with the dip in the bottom (they were stunning!), but some of her older members tried to eat the bamboo cone. Oh, the dining public—forever needing to be told not to eat the artichoke leaves. (Warm Brie, a well-handled pear and crunch. Yum again!)
- Chef Jon Maley of the University of Washington Club, focuses on balance of salty, sweet and acidity. “We are always trying to find the next edible vessel we can put food on. Crostinis, potato chips, vegetable rolls to name a few.” Chef Jon lists smoked pork loin with golden raisin chutney on a potato chip as one of his favorites. He is also trying some healthy options like kale chips and seaweed paper. (Cool!)
- Chef Mark Chaput of Vineyard Golf reminds us to try to use what we have in-house. He cuts a beautiful tuna loin and the trimmings become ahi tuna won-tons with wasabi and soy glaze. He just made creamy goat cheese and ricotta mousse on brioche with toasted pine nuts, dried cranberries and chive oil. (Sounds killer and I have those items in my coolers every day!) Chef Mark “kicks up the basics like smoked-salmon deviled eggs with crème fraiche and black caviar.”
At our club, Executive Sous Chef Josh Scott and I find ourselves confronted with something that’s undeniably delicious, and we simply want to get it into a bite. Two nights ago we did seared foie gras on toast (squares), with a sherry vinegar syrup for a wedding of 170. Our lead sauté cook did nothing but sear tall, scored, beautiful pieces of foie that weighed nearly an ounce. Another cook plated and finished them. It was an expensive little number, but one that I really wanted to do and it was remarkably good. I “taste tested” a couple.
I recently brought in lardo for a terrine. It is silky and delicious, cured and quite edible even in its raw state. Chef Josh sliced some thin, put it on a crostini, flashed it warm with the torch and added a slice of sashimi tuna. The two are great together.
Well, happy hors d’oeuvre-ing. Please feel free to share!