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November 14, 2013

Create stations where the fun is as important as the food

Seafood Action Station

Today's action stations can range from a chef finishing up and serving items on the spot, to guests putting together their own combination of elements, to items that smoke or bubble or change color. A great action station can turn an event into something guests will talk about for weeks -- and who doesn't want that?

"We love using action stations where we can," says Suzanne Dunbar of L-EAT Catering in Toronto. "They add a little excitement to the event and, in some cases, negate the need for other entertainment. They're also more visually appealing than a typical buffet set out with chafing dishes, etc., and guests appreciate seeing their food being prepared before their very eyes."

Jeff Miller of Jeffrey Miller Catering in Philadelphia, PA says cooking has become a demonstration sport in the last few years, what with Top Chef and Iron Chef and Master Chef and even local chili cook-offs, not to mention the Food Network. "Everyone wants to watch," he says. "Where we can do that at an event, it's a good thing."

Iron Panini Action Station

Ironed Panini Station
George Jewell Catering, Chicago, IL

"We're kind of the go-to caterer for doing things that are pushing the envelope," says Myles Bosack, director of marketing. The ArtEdge Gala was the perfect place to try out some of those push-the-envelope ideas--including an ironing board panini station, where servers used irons to finish off ham-and-cheese and tomato-and-cheese sandwiches. 

Ceviche Action Station

Ceviche Coloring Crunch
Marcia Selden Catering and Event Planning, Stamford, CT

Guests are able to put together their own delicious seafood cocktails, with choices of fish (shrimp, lobster, tuna, snapper), three sauces and a variety of herbs and veggies (scallions, peppers, red onions, diced mango, jicama, edamame, jalapeño). A chef/server tosses the guest's chosen ingredients in a small, shiny stainless steel bowl, then puts it into the serving vessel, often a large martini glass. Next, guests can top their concoction with "crunch" that ranges from tiny purple potato chips to toasted shards of coconut, pepitas, plantain chips, shredded wonton chips or sesame seeds. 

The ingredients are all prepped at the commissary before the event, then set up quickly. Big metal troughs behind the station are filled with ice and the bowls of fish sit in them. The metal bowls were low-cost items bought at Ikea. An assistant takes each bowl after it's been used to mix a guest's ceviche, gets it washed and returns it to be used again. "The metal bowls look really nice," says Robin Selden, "and each person feels special because they have their own bowl that we're mixing in."   

Campfire S'mores Action Station

Campfire Spheres
G. Catering & Events, Nashville, TN

Chef Burke Conley saw a smoking gun demonstrated at the Catersource Tradeshow and was fascinated. He bought one and started playing with it. "I thought about what goes well with smoke and that was a campfire and that led me into the idea of s'mores," he says. In this case, the "action" takes place with the food itself. Conley and his team use sealable plastic spheres, place a homemade marshmallow in each, then top that with chocolate ganache and a graham cracker crumb. As guests arrive, the spheres are filled with hickory smoke from a smoking gun, then reclosed. "The guests open the spheres and smell the campfire smoke, then taste the classic flavors of s'mores," says Conley. "Instant comfort!"

Small Plate Action Station

Small Plate Action Station
Purple Onion Catering, Vienna, VA

Purple Onion's small-plate action stations can be vertical or horizontal. The action is taking place behind the scenes, with chefs replacing plates as guests pick up their items. Adam Gooch says they use inexpensive bookcases to create the stations. For a horizontal station, they lay the bookcase on its side, then use cake stands or buckets to hold strands of wheat grass. Square tiles give a surface for the food items. "Or we do the vertical stations where someone is making the small plate behind it and sliding it into the bookcase, like a little window in the restaurant," Gooch says.

Purple Onion has bought numerous sets of the bookcases, paying $40 or less for each. With moving blankets and packing tape, they can transport the bookcases easily to and from an event and at that low price, they can afford to get rid of a bookcase if it's damaged or just looking overused. Sometimes, Gooch says, they don't charge the client for the presentation, which helps the client feel he or she has gotten a great deal.


by Linda Picone
excerpt from Catersource magazine
November/December 2013

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