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Fun Culinary Trends to Make Your Guests Feel Like Kids

Every month, Get Fresh aims to provide inspiring and educational content for International Caterers of America (ICA) members. This month, Ken Barrett-Sweet, vice president of The Catered Affair, presented on some of the latest and greatest trends catering professionals should keep their eyes on in 2020.

Barrett-Sweet opened the webinar with a statement on memory, how it continues to play a major role in live events and how guests can experience our culinary creations. As catering professionals, we often tap into childhood memories that activate an emotional response in guests.

“Doing something as simple as serving ice cream at an event,” says Barrett-Sweet, “will give your guests something to talk about.”

Here are some activation trends that his team has used, as well as ones he’s been seeing from other leading culinary experts:

Carrot tartare board

Playing with your food is hot right now! This vegetable garden presentation pushes the envelope with a plant-based diet many clients are asking for. It’s assembled table-side; your event captain can instruct guests when it’s time to enjoy. You can mount with ingredients like fresh peas, so guests get the aroma of fresh-picked peas as you’re pouring it.

Photo Credit: Eleven Madison, NYC

Creme caramel cheesecake

This dish uses various types of caramel, caramelized hazelnut and cotton candy. Cotton candy is making a comeback!

Photo Credit: Pinterest, Marilene Almedia  

“We used balsamic vinegar and spun it in the cotton candy machine,” Barrett-Sweet says. “We served it with foie gras lollipops. You can create this dessert with elements you purchase and rent a cotton candy machine if you don’t have a pastry chef.”

Food walls

Cade Nagy from Catering by Design led this trend, and everyone else is following suit. They’re great strolling pieces because guests can walk on either side of them. When they see a wall of cupcakes, their senses are immediately activated. Commercial fabricators can customize pieces for caterers.


For those who want a dinner that’s not formal, this is an out-of-the box way to take everything off the table so it’s all about the people and everyone gathered there. Hanging platters allow guests to serve themselves. Platters can include fresh vegetables, garnishes and condiments.

For a recent family-style project, Barrett-Sweet explains, the florist had provided his event team with a massive green runner for the table. The team then arranged oysters along the runner’s various components. Finally, the server invited guests to select oysters right from the centerpiece.

Some of the more extravagant displays do require a little extra love and maintenance.

“Next time, we want to make sure it’s easier to deconstruct,” Barrett-Sweet says. “It took a while to take components off the table and transition to the main course. It’s important to think about practicality. You can always evolve your creations.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Grazing vignettes

Grazing stations enable culinary professionals to present food uniquely in small spaces, and they’re an inexpensive, attractive way to showcase something that’s a little bit more pedestrian.

“We created several vignettes for a contemporary art museum,” Barrett-Sweet said. “People were able to move about the space, experience the art on the walls and ceiling and get little bite sizes of food as they walked through the museum.”

Smart Ovens

Breville Smart Oven made its debut at 14th Annual StarChefs Congress this year, and it offers a new way to create a pizza activation station. The oven can cook a pizza (up to 16 inches) in two minutes. It runs on a standard plug and will cook the pizza from top to bottom.

Smoking beverages

For those who live in areas that can host cannabis-based parties, this trend is for you! Use a smoking gun and serve the cocktail directly from a bong. Guests can pour the cocktail into their cups.

Smoked tea cocktails are also very popular. They are generally served tableside. You can prebatch any cocktail. Give it to your staff to serve. No crazy mixology skills required!

Photo: Shutterstock


Blue Ridge Catering reinvented the donut with their creation that featured smoked pork tenderloin, kimchi pears and apple butter tucked inside an apple cider donut.

“The idea is to take ingredients you’re already using, like pork tenderloin, and use them in multiple ways, as a way for your kitchen to really maximize efficiency,” Barrett-Sweet says.

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Childhood favorites

We’re looking at you, snow cones. Create an activation station featuring shaved ice!

Ice blocks

Pinch Food Design created an innovative stair-stepping tray with blocks. It can be used at small parties with multiple servers.

Warming trays

Spring USA has created large warming trays that can hold up to three hotel pans. It’s especially useful for when you’re working in an old building or where space is limited. Take your buffets to the next level!

Printed beverages

You can take any frosted beverage and print on it. Ripple Maker lets you print onto beverages that are hot or cold. You can even put selfies onto the beverages. Guests love it.

Tea-infused cocktails

Tea is making a comeback with a vengeance. There is easy access to it, and education around it is strong. You can make simple syrups with tea or infuse tea leaves right into the spirits.

Sprit-Free cocktails

All you need are a few simple ingredients. Add a juice or broth into it, then let it infuse. The Vitamix Blender is a culinary device that allows you to froth your mix. It’s a unique way to serve a spirit-free cocktail.

Plant-based cuisine

It’s here to stay! Kale is the new cabbage, and mushrooms are making their way into the spotlight of many dishes. Dry vegetables are a great addition to salad or garnishes for main courses. Oh, and the Impossible Burger is everywhere.

Example: Carrot Hot Dog by Daniel et Daniel Turmeric Bun, Curry Sauce, Raita, Crunchy Spiced Chickpeas

International Caterers Association

For motivated caterers, International Caterers Association is a resource that provides Education, encourages peer to peer Relationships and Inspires creativity while embracing all segments of the catering industry. For more information, visit