Street and ethnic foods are two of the hottest current restaurant trends—and club and resort chefs are adding excitement to their banquet and buffet menus by creating signature spins on these and other dishes.
In Mission Hills, Kan., Andrew Kneessy, Executive Chef of The Kansas City Country Club (KCCC) makes a mean street taco for his buffets. This action station features spit-roasted pork served on tortillas, with guests’ choice of an array of Mexican-style toppings.
|Summing It Up:• Street and ethnic foods are menu-trending, especially in banquet and buffet settings.
• Mix traditional and contemporary dishes to give buffet and banquet menus wider appeal.
• Make big jobs easier with the right equipment.
• Action stations communicate freshness.
An integral part of the success of this dish is the use of “really good, authentic” corn—not flour—tortillas, Kneessy emphasizes. He purchases the tortillas at a local Latino market, where they are made daily. Guests may embellish their tacos at the station with grilled pineapple, cilantro, minced onions and red and green salsas.
“It’s not a high-cost item and it’s easy for us to produce quickly,” he says. “Guests really enjoy the experience of putting together their own tacos.”
The freshness communicated by an action station is also in keeping with the “uberseasonal” nature of the food served at KCCC, most of which is grown on local farms—and some even right on the club’s property. Over the past few years, action stations have been working their way into an increasing number of events, even at a club like KCCC that tends to be very traditional.
“Action stations have really taken off here, especially among the younger members, and they [let us] do more creative food prepared a la minute,” he says. “We’ll generally have multiple action stations, maybe three or four at a large event.”
Initially, the stations were found mostly at smaller events, Kneessy notes, “because people are generally more hesitant to go outside the box with a bigger party. But now we’re seeing them included more often in parties of all sizes, in combination with some of the members’ established favorites,” he reports.
At a buffet seafood station, for example, a silver bowl holding the requisite jumbo shrimp and an elegantly garnished platter of smoked salmon will now share the stage with Kneessy’s two-bite piece of spicy tuna on a mini-rice cake, his twist on sushi, and/or lobster tacos.
If the bride’s mother is involved in the menu planning, you can bet that the club’s Bombay chicken— made in a spicy yellow curry and served over rice—will be served at the dinner, Kneessy adds. Guests can up the exotic factor with coconut, peanuts, chutney and caramelized bananas.
Other dishes that often find their way to the buffet table are satays and tandoori chicken. For vegetarians, there is a spicy Indian dish made with chickpeas and potatoes. Another popular vegetarian choice on casual buffets is a mushroom barley burger. “By blending the classic dishes with some that are more cutting-edge, and ethnic choices with more traditional American food, we can satisfy members of all ages,” Kneessy says.
For a buffet that was set up for a KCCC Board of Directors meeting, Kneessy “rolled out the cool stuff”—in this case, a rolling charcoal barbecue grill in which he roasted a couple of whole pigs for Carolina sliders and street tacos.
“You build the fire on top and it’s like cooking the pork the traditional way, buried in the ground,” he explains.
Kneessy purchased the grill three or four years ago, and has also used it for numerous golf events at the club. “It’s easy to use and can roast a whole pig in four-and-a-half hours,” he says. “It’s not an expensive piece of equipment, only a couple of hundred dollars.”
When cooking larger quantities of proteins for banquets and buffets, Kneessy uses a controlled-vapor oven that employs steam heating to cleanly, efficiently and consistently cook and hold the meat.
“I use it a ton,” he says. “It’s the easiest way to cook a large, party-size tenderloin to a perfect medium rare, and it keeps brined chicken nice and moist.”
He even sears off steak portions and programs the oven to hold them at 134 to 136 degrees, without worrying that they will overcook. Kneessy says he has been using the same controlled-vapor oven for 14 years without any maintenance issues, and in fact uses the technology so much that he recently purchased a second one.
Bill Justus, Executive Chef of the The Boar’s Head, a resort property in Charlottesville, Va., relies on his cook-and-hold oven for special preparation of large proteins (“It can accommodate a whole pig on a spit,” he says), as well as other tasks such as roasting vegetables or drying tomatoes.
“By cooking and holding at the correct temperatures, it saves us a lot of time,” Justus says.
Like Kneessy, Justus mixes tried-and-true dishes with the exciting and new—sometimes both on the same plate—on his banquet and buffet menus. For example, at a buffet station that features the comfortably familiar macaroni and cheese, guests are invited to jazz up their dishes from a choice of toppings that includes grilled chicken, seared shrimp, braised beef tips, pork barbeque, roasted peppers, chopped herbs, bleu-cheese crumbles and roasted tomatoes.
Grits, the regional Southern staple, can be garnished with the guests’ choice of sautéed shrimp, frizzled prosciutto, country ham or bleu cheese. For one function, servings of grits were crowned with pork belly and green tomato relish.
For hors d’oeuvres, The Boar’s Head’s Korean taco station blends two cultures to replicate a street-food standard. For this dish, Justus uses beef short ribs and a Korean barbeque sauce and serves it with wasabi aioli, sriracha drizzle, kimchi, cucumber slaw, tomato citrus salsa, fresh cilantro, avocado puree and crisp Napa cabbage slaw.
“We like to serve small bites with a lot of flavor,” Justus notes. “We also like to create unique flavor combinations and offer plenty of variety.”
On his buffets, carefully composed small plates alternate with traditional chafers to also add variety for the eye. Guests are asking for more small plates and action stations, Justus notes, and he is also getting more requests for casual buffet fare, such as the pig picks he recently served for several wedding rehearsal dinners.
And while plated banquet menus usually offer a choice of meat or fish, a growing number of people who are planning parties at The Boar’s Head request “duets” of surf and turf, Justus reports. So the banquet menu now offers pairings of grilled medallion of beef and jumbo lump crab cake, mesquite grilled breast of chicken with bourbon-seared salmon, and grilled tenderloin with herb-seared Gulf shrimp.
Banquet menus are also increasingly being planned with guests’ special dietary needs and preferences in mind, Justus said. His banquet and buffet menus now include entrees that are vegetarian and gluten-free. To make it easier for the menus to be inclusive of all guests, all of the soups and sauces made at the resort are also gluten-free.
Vegetarian entrees are as creative as the rest of the menu, including wild mushroom ragout with arugula, roasted asparagus salad, and goat cheese-infused butternut squash faro with arugula roasted red pepper salad.
On buffet dessert tables, petit pastries, torched-on-the-spot crème bruleés, s’mores stations and fondues are increasingly replacing whole cakes and pies, Justus says.
Showstoppers like Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Foster (served over banana bread at The Boar’s Head) never go out of style, he notes. Nor does cheesecake, which is offered in single servings that can be topped with brandied peach compote, muscadine (a type of grape) preserves, assorted fruit sauces, pecans and whipped cream.
Plenty of Action
The carnitas action station offered at North Hills Club in Raleigh, N.C., has become an often-requested addition to buffets in recent years, says Tom Budd, the club’s Executive Chef. Staffers make the flour tortillas right at the station for guests to fill with pork, beef, salsas and other fresh toppings.
Another favorite is the avocado martini bar, where slices are fanned out in martini glasses for guests to top with scoops of lump crab meat; scallop, shrimp or snapper ceviche and/or pico de gallo. “This is a nice dish to serve for parties outside on the pool deck,” Budd notes.
Tuna in any form is popular at North Hills, whether prepared tartare on an attractive plate or in a spicy “firecracker” style that’s served in martini glasses or on decorative spoons. “At North Hills, every party has to have a raw bar or other seafood offering,” Budd says.
While he’s not had a call for many dessert action stations for weddings and other large events, at member events Budd does include crepes, waffles and ice cream with caramel sauce.