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What’s Cooking This Year?

Here’s a look at the top 10 food and catering trends seen during Catersource + The Special Event and Art of Catering Food

The Florida Sunshine Tour (Catersource + The Special Event along with Art of Catering Food) may be over (at least until February of 2024 when we head to Austin, TX), but inspiring catering and food trends seen during the week (check out our summer issue for this year’s top event trends) will live on. Let’s look at some of this year’s hottest trends and how you can incorporate them into your business.

“Trends are not universal, and trends are not static,” said Michael Stavros (M Culinary Concepts) in his session Caterers Assemble! - Tantalizing Trends, Clever Concepts, and Inspired Interactivity.

This action station during the Closing Night Celebration truly came with some action courtesy of an acrobat from Key Artist Group. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces/SpotMyPhotos

Let’s take a look at what trends are popular now, what’s new, and what we can expect to see next. 

All photos courtesy WASIO Faces unless otherwise noted 

1. Lights, Camera, Action

With the pandemic firmly behind us, this year marks the return of the action station. Culinary theatrics are back.

On the live cooking side of things, today’s caterers are making everything in front of guests: paella¹, tomahawk steaks², tortillas³, and ramento name a few.

The Closing Night Celebration featured both a seafood and vegetable paella station. 

CRU Catering prepared pralines live for attendees during their Seven Crazy Stations session.

Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering had a live tomahawk carving station during the Culinary Tour. 

Chef Phuoc Vo (CBK Catering & Events) demonstrated how to make tortillas live during Art of Catering Food’s Lunch & Learn. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

“Having a chef out there makes the difference,” said Jason Sutton (Footers Catering) during Culinary Theatrics: How to Get the Most Action Out of Your Station. “It’s a chance for [guests] to see what’s cooking.”

“It’s [also] a chance for guests to interact with the chef,” said Jay Varga (The JDK Group) during Culinary Theatrics. “They can have a more natural conversation about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Build-your-own bars continue to be all the rage; everything from tacos5 to poke bowls to waffles.

Art of Catering Food’s Lunch & Learn featured a build-your-own taco bar. Photo courtesy Kathleen Stoehr

“Customization is key,” Stavros said during his session. “Everyone wants it their way. It’s all about abundance; it’s all about choice.”

Hawker trays are a great way to keep your action station moving throughout the event6. Immersive and experiential dining is also trending, such as post-apocalypse ration walls and even a station where guests can “plant” their entrée choice and then it “grows” from a garden7.

Server-passed arancini (asiago and Sicilian) were served during the Closing Night Celebration.

Hawker trays traditionally bring food to guests, but why not napkins? Champagne Creative Group could be seen roaming the Closing Night Celebration with their “napkin dresses,” which guests could rip from as needed. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces/SpotMyPhotos

Lastly, there are also stations that can get guests in on the action through interactive beverage stations8 and food stations9.

Guests could help themselves to some sparkling rosé during the Opening Night Party courtesy of a fountain. Photo courtesy Amber Kispert

During the Closing Night Celebration, guests participated in a Porrón wine challenge. 

1) Seen during the Closing Night Celebration and CRU Catering’s Seven Crazy Stations session; 2) Seen during the Culinary Tour to Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering’s facility; 3) Seen during AOCF; 4) Seen during Culinary Theatrics: Getting the Most Action Out of Your Station; 5) Seen during both AOCF (Lunch & Learn) and the Opening Night Party; 6) Seen during both the Awards Nominee Reception and the Closing Night Celebration; 7) All of which were recognized during the CATIE Awards Ceremony (check out our summer issue for more on these awards; 8) Seen during both the Opening Night Party (luge shot) and Closing Night Celebration (Porrón wine challenge); 9) Seen in Sterno’s booth on the Tradeshow floor

2. Authenticity is key

Locally sourced ingredients continue to be in demand, but stocking local breweries, wineries, and distilleries are now on the rise as well. 

During the Culinary Tour, Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering served up Florida fish tacos, which featured local mahi mahi. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

Local craft root beer (shown) and beers were served during this year’s Culinary and Venue Tour as well as the Closing Night Celebratio

“It’s time to start doubling down on what’s unique to your area,” said David Merrell (AOO Events) during his session Current Trends in the Event Industry. “Authenticity is absolutely the key. People want to travel and know about where they’re going to, they want that authentic connection to the destination that they are in right now.”

3. Food that travels

After the past couple years, the ability to gather and network is more important than ever, which is why “grab and go” food is becoming increasingly popular—it offers the chance to quickly grab a bite so that guests can continue to their next conversation. 

“I love walk-around food,” Stavros said. 

Chris Towne offered a chicken and waffle appetizer (served in a miniature waffle cone) during his Art of Catering Food session, Apps that Slap!

“It makes it so easy for the guests,” said Mike Bicocchi (Elegant Affairs) during Culinary Inspiration & Trends with Andrea Correale.

“Walk around food” can mean food on sticks¹, in cones², in glasses³, in boxes, or on spoons³. In terms of cones and sticks specifically, the look of the display can always be quite unique. 

Ceviche shooters were served in martini glasses during the Closing Night Celebration. 

“They all stand up like soldiers, and they give a really great look,” said Andrea Correale. 

1) Seen during the Culinary Tour and on the Tradeshow Floor; 2) Seen during the Closing Night Celebration and AOCF (Apps that Slap!); 3) Seen during the Closing Night Celebration

4. Top that! 

Condiments and garnishes are becoming increasingly popular in dishes and cocktails to take it from good to great. 

“This is your chance to take them up another level,” said Chef Karen O’Connor (Daniel et Daniel) during her AOCF session Top That! “You can add another little hit of flavor, or color, or texture to finish your plate and make it brighter.” 

Jason Sutton (Footers Catering) garnished his top sirloin bite (during AOCF) with a gorgonzola dipping sauce (prepared by Karen O’Connor [Daniel et Daniel]). Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov 

Catersource + The Special Event as well as AOCF looked at some unique garnishes and condiments throughout the week. For example, Varga discussed the power of caviar pearls (made with powders such as balsamic, lemon, or wasabi and sodium alginate) during his AOCF session Salads...Who Needs Lettuce? (check out our summer issue for Varga's wasabi pearl recipe).

“It’s an easy way to elevate any plate,” he said. “When you think of molecular gastronomy, you think of it as very precise, but it’s not as scary as most people think.”

Jay Varga (The JDK Group) used wasabi pearls to garnish is ahi tuna salad bite (sesame crusted ahi tuna with deep fried Lotus root, mandarin aioli, quick pickled English cucumber, fresh orange segments, tangerine lace). Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

Correale also touched on the molecular gastronomy trend when she discussed microsponge garnishes as well as fluid gels. 

Karen O’Connor (Daniel et Daniel) garnished salmon (prepared by Jason Sutton [Footers Catering]) with pineapple Maui Zaui sauce. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

In her session, O’Connor touched on such sauces as banana ketchup, green chermoula labneh, beet jam, scallion ginger relish, green apple and bacon vinaigrette, red chimichurri, and wowee
mustard sauce. 

Justin Pasha (The Cup Bearer) showcased several pretty garnishes (including everyone’s favorite “the flavor blaster”) during his cocktail sessions (Experiential Cocktails and Cocktail Trends with Pasha and Jeff). 

Edible flowers (as Justin Pasha [The Cup Bearer] demonstrated) are always a classic cocktail garnish.

ACF Chef Ryan Manning got in on the garnish and condiment talk during his session A Chef’s Approach to Mixology and his incorporation of jams and jellies, cookie cutter garnishes, and custom edible photo garnishes. 

ACF Chef Ryan Manning showcased a number of unique garnishes during his session A Chef’s Approach to Mixology

ACF Chef Ryan Manning garnished a classic margarita with a miniature sombrero. Photo courtesy Kathleen Stoehr

5. Veg-abilities 

Vegan and vegetarian diets continue to be on trend, and one ingredient is trending above all others: mushrooms.

Pam Smith prepared a number of mushroom-centric dishes during her session Veg-”abilities”: Curating Plantforward & Plant-based Menu Items That Are Craveable, Flexible & Forgivable

“We want to be making dishes so memorable that you only want that dish,” said Pam Smith during her session Veg-”abilities”: Curating Plant-forward & Plant-based Menu Items That Are Craveable, Flexible & Forgivable. “Mushrooms are the answer you’ve been looking for—they’re great for the tastebuds, they’re great for the body, and they’re great for the planet.” 

Pam Smith prepared portobello fries (with a side of miso aioli) during her session Veg-”abilities”: Curating Plant-forward & Plant-based Menu Items That Are Craveable, Flexible & Forgivable. Photo courtesy Amber Kispert

Pam Smith prepared a “barbecue pulled port sandwich” (pulled portobello mushrooms), which she served alongside portobello fries during her session Veg-”abilities”: Curating Plant-forward & Plant-based Menu Items That Are Craveable, Flexible & Forgivable. Photo courtesy Amber Kispert

Mushrooms have become so popular that The New York Times named it the 2022 ingredient of the year. 

“They were big last year, they’re big again this year,” Stavros said. “People are loving the mushroom diet.” 

6. Make the dough

Now, doughnuts aren’t anything new. Doughnut walls have come and gone, and the cronut craze has started to settle down. But doughnuts still remain popular. 

“Doughnuts are the new thing,” said Nettie Frank during her AOCF session Beyond Basic: Doughnuts = Dollars (where attendees enjoyed a blueberry cobbler doughnut). “They never go out of style. 

“Dress it up, make it savory, make it sweet. Elevate it, be innovative, be creative. These are fun little pastries that we want to pipe and decorate.”

Nettie Frank provided samples of Blueberry Cobbler Doughnuts during her Art of Catering Food session Beyond Basic: Doughnuts = Dollars. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov

Over the years doughnuts have evolved to include myriad hybrid versions (i.e., cronut¹, waffle doughnuts, cannoli doughnuts, macaron doughnuts, doughnut sandwiches, etc.), and the presentation itself has even been elevated beyond the humble doughnut wall. Think doughnut cakes, build-your-own doughnut bars, doughnut cocktails, doughnut towers, and even
flaming doughnuts². 

The doughnuts market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 2.65% between 2022 and 2027. The size of the market is forecasted to increase by $3.2 million

“Even though it’s something that’s been around for hundreds of years, you can still create something out of that and make it new and exciting and innovative and you can call it yours,” Frank said.

During the Culinary Tour at Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering, attendees were able to top off their cronut with an assortment of add-ons including sprinkles, nuts, and crushed cookies.

1) Seen during the Culinary Tour to Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering’s facility; 2) Discussed during AOCF (Culinary Theatrics: Getting the Most Action From Your Station)

7. Mr. Roboto 

From cocktail-making to burger-flipping, many food and beverage businesses are beginning to discover the benefits of using robots to improve their productivity. 

Technology Leaders and Creators were spotted on the tradeshow floor demonstrating their robotics technology, including a robotic arm holding a glass of wine. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces/SpotMyPhotos

Autonomous food service robots (such as Matradee and Servi) are already beginning to pop up in hotels and restaurants, but rest assured they’ll be coming to catering as well. 

“It’s coming. This is not going to be a fad, this is going to be a thing,” Stavros said. 

Will we see full-fledged robots serving at events? Probably not. Will kitchens be manned by robotic chefs? Unlikely. But they’ll definitely be helpful with kitchen prep, especially when talking about robotic arms. 

“The robotic arm thing is getting to a point where it’s going to be practical for caterers,” Stavros said. “This is not eliminating the need for chefs, but this offers you that perfect precision piece.”

8. Mock it up

The sober curious movement (the minimizing or elimination of alcoholic beverages) is here and it’s here to stay. 

“The sober curious trend is for people who typically drink in a social setting but have considered changing how much and how often they drink,” Stavros said. 

A non-alcoholic cocktail, the Blue Iceberg Mango Mule (ginger beer, honey syrup, mango puree, lime juice, and fresh cucumbers), was served during the Closing Night Celebration.

Consider these statistics:

  • #DryJanuary has 86 million views on TikTok
  • #SoberCurious has 301 million views on TikTok
  • #Mocktail has 670 million views on TikTok 

“For someone who doesn’t imbibe, now they can have a cocktail,” Stavros said. “I don’t even like to call it a mocktail because they’re made with spirits, they’re just distilled to have no alcohol.” 

During the Venue Tour (to The MEZZ), Puff ‘n Stuff Events & Catering served up the MEZZzmerizing Spritzer (muddled cucumber, lemon juice, lime juice, agave, club soda, and garnished with a cucumber slice). 

Some of the most popular brands in today’s market for non-alcoholic spirits are Seedlip, Droplet, Ghia, Figlia, and De Soi. 

Regarding non-alcoholic cocktails however, it’s important to remember to treat them the same as you would any other cocktail: serve them in beautiful glasses, garnish them creatively, and ensure that your non-alcoholic guests enjoy the same experience. 

“The way to do it is by implementing the same key elements,” said Michelle Bueno (The Cup Bearer) during the session Experiential Cocktails. “You still have to create that theatrical element.” 

“If you think about it, a lot of the cocktail additions don’t actually have to do with the liquor,” Justin Pasha (The Cup Bearer) said during the session. “These are additional experiences.” 

9. Shell shocked

Seafood, specifically shellfish, is continuing to trend. 

Mini Maine Lobster Rolls (fresh lobster meat, creamy dressing, toasted New England bun) were served during the Opening Night Party. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces/SpotMyPhotos

Global fish consumption has doubled since 1998 and is projected to nearly double again by 2050, according to the Food Institute.

Oysters (with a champagne mignonette) were served as part of Connect Live. Photo courtesy WASIO Faces/SpotMyPhotos

Shellfish (shrimp1, oysters, lobster, and crab) continue to be some of the most popular menu items year after year. 

Shellfish can even make a play in terms of the action station trend in the form of ice bars (check out our summer issue for more on this trend) and even rolling oyster carts2

“Shrimp on the barbie” was included in the Australia food station during the Closing Night Celebration’s international food tour. 

 “These are premium items that carry a premium price,” Stavros said.

1) Served during AOCF (Dry Pasta: The New Risotto) and Connect Live; 2) Discussed during Culinary Theatrics: Getting the Most Action Out of Your Station

10. Asian inspiration

Asian food (everything from Dim Sum to pho to ramen1 to potstickers2 to bao buns3 to canned fish) is trending on menus across the country. Fusion4 dishes are
also trending.

Andy Krause, Jason Sutton (pictured), and Jay Varga demonstrated how to use a ramen siphon (as part of an action station) during their session Culinary Theatrics: How to Get the Most Action Out of Your Station.

“Asian food is still a huge influence, and it will continue to be,” Stavros said. “These are fun foods, finger foods.” 

Catersource + The Special Event attendees got to experience a taste of Asian cuisine throughout the week; however, the true star of the week was Chef Yia Vang (who delivered the keynote during AOCF) when he discussed the important role food plays in terms of culture. 

“Hmong isn’t a type of food, it’s a philosophy of food,” he said. “If you remove one of these elements (rice, protein, vegetable, and hot sauce) it would not be considered dinner—it’s a snack. All of those ingredients work cohesively together. Hmong food is all about cohesiveness, about balance. “Food has to work together.”

Following Yia Vang’s keynote during Art of Catering Food, attendees could sample his skirt steak (marinated in oyster sauce, fish sauce, oil, and Szechuan coffee rub) which was served with his Tiger Bite sauce and rice. Photo courtesy Savannah Spirov 

These are the trends that we think will stay popular throughout the rest of 2023; what trends caught your eye during Catersource + The Special Event?

Puff ‘n Stuff Events and Catering served a Tuna Taco (ponzu vinaigrette and wakame served in a wonton shell) during the Venue Tour.

Joshua House (The JDK Group) submitted a bison meatloaf slider with a banh mi slaw and Thai chili sauce in this year’s DICED competition.

Bryce Cherven (Footers Catering) prepared an Asian-style burger with Korean barbecue sauce, kimchi slaw, and rice wine pickled cucumbers on the side.

1) Seen during Culinary Theatrics: Getting the Most Action Out of Your Station;  2) Served during Connect Live; 3) Sampled during AOCF (Apps that Slap!); 4) Two of this year’s DICED competitors prepared Asian-inspired burgers; Puff 'n Stuff Events and Catering substituted a wonton shell for a taco shell during the Venue Tour. 

Amber Kispert

Senior Content Producer

Amber is the Senior Content Producer for Catersource. Amber previously worked as a Communications Specialist for LeClair Group and a reporter for the Woodbury Bulletin, both located in Woodbury, Minn.  As a self-described "foodie," Amber loves to experience the world of food and beverages, and is excited to help share the stories of Catersource and the world's caterers.