These days, food is a lot more than sustenance. It’s an experience, and in the case of corporate and nonprofit meetings, eating has become an event within an event. In-person gatherings are alive and thriving once again, but this time, creativity is what’s trending among today’s Chicagoland caterers.
Going way beyond the food that’s on the plate, area caterers are offering unique touches to their catering process, and it’s something eventgoers and planners alike appreciate. For instance, Patrick Crosson, CMP, DES, chief experience owner of Chicago-based PC Events & Experiences—who regularly plans events for upward of 500 people—thinks of his go-to caterer, Catering by Michaels, for any event that calls for a distinctive feel.
“The events team at Catering by Michaels acts as a sounding board, a creative strategist, and a logistics partner,” he says. “Ideas aren’t generated in a silo. Many unique and creative experiences come from a food setup or a welcome drink experience. They bring those ideas to life and make it a lot easier for our team to get our jobs done.”
There are many inventive trends that are emerging from the world of catering, and they can be experienced in and around the city of Chicago.
Cooking as a Live Show
Lisa Ware, president of Catering by Michaels based in Morton Grove, says one of the more unique touches can be discovered at its buffet and action stations: live cooking in front of guests, which she observes has become a popular trend since the Food Network has turned chefs into celebrities.
“We love action stations. They are an incredible opportunity to surprise and delight our guests and make the food an experience that adds to the event,” she says, reflecting on past successes. “Anything we can do to bring some of the food prep in front of the guests improves freshness and quality while creating ‘wow’ moments, which is a win-win.”
This is something at which Jewell Events Catering in Chicago also excels. Myles Bosack, director of marketing, agrees with this line of thinking, adding, “Engagement is everything.”
“We love interactive food stations, especially when our culinary team is able to interact with guests,” he observes. “Chefs are now admired like rock stars, and we love when our talented culinary team is immediately appreciated from our clients and guests on-site.”
Many caterers have started to recognize the importance of offering customizable options to attendees with certain food preferences, or, namely, ones with food allergies or dietary requirements.
“We are focused on creating opportunities for customization,” Ware says. “For a while, caterers were just trying to make food that would be safe for everybody, and that’s no fun. We are creating experiences where the guests can interact with the food and prepare it to their liking.”
This way, when the chefs take the time to develop delicious dishes that all guests can enjoy, it’s an effective way to make everyone feel included.
Food as Art
Gone are the days when caterers simply placed food on plates and went on their way. Now, attendees can get in on the action through creative catering presentations.
For example, Andrew Root, senior sales manager of Boka Catering Group in Chicago, says one thing that best showcases its blend of culinary and artistic elements is the Graffiti Street Art Dessert Activation. He explains how, during this immersive experience, desserts transform into “canvases for guest interaction.”
“With spray cans filled with vibrant hues of sprayable cocoa butter, attendees adorn cookies and Rice Krispie treats, which are artfully displayed on a faux white-brick wall, turning the dessert course into a dynamic and interactive art gallery,” he reflects.
Catering by Michaels is getting in on the trend, too, with a “Choco Taco station” in which chefs hand-dip and decorate dessert tacos to the order of each guest, making for personalized art they can eat.
Feasting for Five Senses
Specializing in seasonal, chef-driven cuisine—something that, in and of itself, is a recent and creative trend—Duce Raymond, managing partner of True Cuisine in Wood Dale, says they always want their guests and clients to walk away with an experience that heightens and delights all of the senses.
In other words? Eating at events is going far beyond flavor these days. It’s also about what guests can see, hear, feel, and touch, and about achieving this sensory experience through creative methods. For example, Root says, when creating a memorable culinary experience, Boka Catering Group relies less on external decorations and more on artistic presentation of the food itself, in a way that captivates and engages attendees.
“Our Smoke and Flame station is not just about the flavors, but also the visual and aromatic allure,” he says. “Guests are drawn into the mesmerizing display of chefs caramelizing short ribs with fiery Searzalls and thick-cut bacon under glass cloches with smoldering maple. The sight and intoxicating aroma create an atmosphere that’s both elegant and inviting.”
Catering by Michaels is all about sensory presentation as well. The company well-known for its innovative food stations in which each food element of the station is paired with a presentation piece that’s hand-picked, “so the station is as beautiful as it is delicious,” as Ware puts it, touching upon the sight experience.
Whether it’s through the Sweet Baby Ray’s embellishments—which include accents of wood, brick, and wrought iron—or the house catering company’s modern and sleek details, which feature black granite, hammered silver, and clear melamine vessels, True Cuisine advocates “eating with the eyes,” something at which many creative caterers are now excelling, Raymond says.