In a world of picky eaters, local caterers figure out how to serve a crowd
These days, catering formal events can be like mediating the Battle of the Special Dietary Needs. Lauren Gammon, owner of the Starksboro-based Nomadic Chef , recalls a request that particularly challenged her skills: "This woman called me up, and she was a vegan and wheat-intolerant, and the groom didn't eat any grains or beans — he only ate meat and vegetables, basically. I was like, OK, how am I going to do this?"
No problem. For the potentially clashing couple, Gammon whipped up some menus "that included nut-based cheeses and a cashew dip," she recalls. "It's not difficult to accommodate one person and still accommodate everybody else."
Local caterers such as Gammon are showing that nontraditional celebratory food doesn't have to be joyless. True, their fare doesn't look or taste much like the catering staples we remember from childhood: rubbery, sauce-dolloped chicken breast, bone-dry salmon and — for the vegetarians in the crowd — overcooked penne with some broccoli on top. When Gammon's clients request a meat-free menu, they're more likely to get goat cheese and apple tartlets with caramelized onions; pumpkin and wild mushroom dumplings with Asiago dipping sauce; and slices of flatbread topped with grilled eggplant, pine nuts, roasted red peppers and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.
Salivating yet? Sure, people these days are more conscientious than ever about what they put in their mouths. Caterers have to navigate a maze of special needs, from the life-threatening nut allergy to the gluten-free diet to the preference for locally sourced cuisine. But in the Green Mountains, at least, they're doing it with style. If these businesses have their way, bland tofu dishes and insipid, factory-farmed meats will be a thing of the past.
At Burlington's Let's Pretend Catering  — owned by NECI-trained chefs Daniel Samson and Liane Mendez, with Barbara J. Bardin as "Chief Fantasy Officer" — buying local foods is a matter of course. It's also good business. Samson estimates that 75 to 80 percent of Let's Pretend's clients want to include Vermont products in their events, because food from close by is "fresher, it's nicer. It's beautiful food picked at perfection."
It's easier to get now, too, thanks to the Vermont Fresh Network  — which links Vermont farms and Vermont chefs — and local suppliers, such as Black River Produce , that work with multiple producers to deliver fresh watercress, or the right kind of steak, on demand.
But what about guests who flee flesh — or watercress, for that matter? Samson says the "tapas" trend, which swaps the traditional slabs of protein and piles of "starch" for sensuous smaller portions of food, has helped his company meet the diverse needs of a crowd. With their mix-and-match aesthetic, tapas can draw ingredients from just a few food groups, allowing each eater to pick her own poison: The gluten-free gal can go for meat and veggie combos, while the lactose-intolerant dude avoids creamy dipping sauces. Take Let's Pretend's fall "mini-plates" menu, which offers a little something for everyone: Carnivores nibble small portions of venison tenderloin with apple balsamic gastrique and pancetta cracklings, or baby arugula topped with a goat cheese crostini, duck confit and merlot cherries; their vegetarian pals swoon over a mascarpone tart with honey-toasted figs and toasted pine nuts, or squash ravioli with rosemary cream.
Samson says all of Let's Pretend's menus are customized, though only 10 percent of its clients have drastic dietary needs. "We've done lots of meals that accommodate special diets: gluten-free, locally grown or locally raised, vegetarian or vegan."
Of those alternatives, he says the gluten-free meal is hardest to pull off because wheat crops up in the oddest places. For example, ground pepper often contains a wheat-based additive that keeps it flowing freely. "Everything here is made by our hands," says Samson, "so we know exactly what is in everything."
As a general rule, though, Let's Pretend avoids meat substitutes. For traditional vegetarian faves, such as tofu or seitan, Kismet  in Montpelier is a good bet. Alongside local meats and cheeses, owners Alanna Dorf and Crystal Maderia offer creative meat-free dishes, including summer vegetables and seared tofu in parchment parcels with vegan "cream" sauce; and cornmeal-crusted, marinated tempeh with a "sweet and sumptuous Moroccan sauce."
Both have years of vegetarian cred behind them — and cooking cred, too. Maderia, who recently loosened her dietary restrictions to include carefully sourced, ethically raised meats, grew up in a catering family and used to help her mother with events. Dorf, a vegetarian who was vegan for many years, formerly worked at Farmhouse Café and Catering Company in Calais. "We can accommodate people with very high food ethics," Maderia says. "But our rates are really competitive. Our prices aren't more than other caterers who use conventional ingredients." The sample menus on their website range in price from $45 a head for a buffet dinner featuring local, seasonal foods to $105 per person for a sumptuous localvore meal plus brunch the next morning.
Some hosts use a party as an opportunity to educate their guests: "We did a wedding last year where they were localvores . . . we used fiddleheads and wild leeks . . . They wanted a list on every plate of where every ingredient came from," Maderia says. Think that sounds labor intensive? Try whipping up a menu for a bride who is vegan and wheat-free, but requests feta, salmon and ice cream as major elements of her meal.
Alternative wedding cake? Kismet doesn't do 'em, but refers clients to Janet Makaris who runs the Sunflower Bakery out of her home in Huntington. She offers gluten-free and vegan options as well as sugar alternatives.
Gammon, the Nomadic Chef owner and world-traveler, sees a couple all-vegetarian weddings each season. "I'd say that 20 percent of them are fully vegetarian," she reports. Some events have trickier dietary specs, like the aforementioned nuptials of a vegan and a grain-phobe. "I don't try to convince them not to do it," Gammon says. "It's one meal in their life, and if they want to make a statement that way, I want to do it for them."
Though her food appeals to the meat-free crowd, Gammon defines herself more broadly in the marketplace. "The way I explain what I do is to say that I have 'an ethnic orientation with farm-fresh flair,'" she explains.
Gammon doesn't whip up global cuisine just because it's trendy and flavorful: She lived in Indonesia and Singapore as a child. "My dad was working for United Technologies at the time, and we were transferred over to Jakarta in 1979," she says. As an adult, Gammon has continued to travel extensively in Asia. She says that on two recent trips, one to Nepal and another to Laos and Thailand, "my belly was leading me. Every time I go to Asia, I spend most of my days walking the cities looking for intriguing food vendors." She wrote her business plan on one such excursion.
All that research and wanderlust result in some eclectic menus full of exotic flavor. Gammon's meat-free "salad" offerings range from Moroccan couscous salad in a sun-dried tomato and saffron vinaigrette, to Indonesian peanut noodles in an anise-scented sauce, to Greek orzo salad with artichokes, tomatoes and feta drizzled with a lemon-parsley vinaigrette.
Gammon, who spent 12 years as a vegetarian, says she serves "the full spectrum." In the end, though, whatever the dietary restrictions she's working with, it all comes down to taste — and her experience with Asian cuisine, traditionally low in meat and starch, certainly helps. "Doing gluten-free dishes, you go into the ethnic realm and it's not that difficult," she explains.
Still, it's not easy to please everybody with a nontraditional feast. While the twentysomething bride and groom may be gung-ho to treat their guests to all-organic food with no lactose, moms and dads may balk at such requirements. "It's usually an internal conflict within the family," Gammon says. "The bride says, 'We really want to do a vegetarian menu,' but Mom is really pushing for meat. That's usually where a lot of the stress of planning comes from, more than from the clients themselves."
The chefs from Let's Pretend and Kismet have noticed the same trend. Maderia of Kismet corroborates: "A lot of times I begin doing the consultation with the bride, but when they start talking to their family . . . some of the more creative dishes get lost." Dorf adds, "I think it's true that the older generation has a more conventional sense of what a wedding should be."
Yes, even when peace is declared between vegans and steak hounds, or carb counters and grain guzzlers, the battle of the generations rages on. But if anything can bring the warring factions to one table, it's delicacies such as Kismet's "spiced, fresh-fruit sorbet," "gazpacho served in salt-and-pepper rimmed glasses," or a Ploughman's platter filled with local organic cheeses, seasonal fruits, chutney, jam and Vermont pickles. It's easy to forget you're eating by other people's rules when the food is so damn good.