Catering to food trends: Melbourne's best party food in 2015

Brown sugar pavlova from Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers.
Brown sugar pavlova from Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers. Photo: Kate Gibbs

As we head into the party season once again, it's clear as gin that Melburnians love a tasty shindig. We love a rooftop, a smart cocktail, a cute little canape.

But think about hosting and catering your own soiree and it sends a chill down most of us fierce enough to refreeze those mini spring rolls.

We're food-savvy but we're time-poor and this clash means we can't get away with plumping cushions and shaking out a box of Jatz​, no matter how ironic or retro we plead.

ASRC Catering's kesra, mini berbere spiced rolls filled with akaree (African bean pattie), lettuce, pickled red onion ...
ASRC Catering's kesra, mini berbere spiced rolls filled with akaree (African bean pattie), lettuce, pickled red onion and vegan harissa aioli.  Photo: ASRC Catering

"People's knowledge of food and celebrity chefs is much more extensive these days," says Georgina Damm​ of Damm Fine Food, "When I started out, it was lots of chicken sandwiches, smoked salmon mini bagels and fruit platters. We now offer items like raw ceviche bars, Prosecco icy poles, things that you never would have seen on menus 10 years ago."

So if it's time to cut to the chase and call the caterers, here are some of the latest trends from these party saviours.

1. Make it personal

Brown sugar pavlova from Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers.
Brown sugar pavlova from Bright Young Things Culinary Event Makers. Photo: Kate Gibbs

Kate Stewart, director of Bright Young Things, says one of the major changes in catering has been just how personalised it's become. "It's no longer, 'Here's our menu, choose six items, see you later'. Now it's a more personal approach, with caterers trying to inject a little bit of the client's personality into the setting."

She says the location is one of the key considerations because it has so much to do with the ultimate feel.

Hosting an event in a warehouse space has a totally different feel to an event on a penthouse rooftop, so you need to tie all your elements together and celebrate the space rather than fighting it.

Bright Young Things' salmon betal leaf canapes.
Bright Young Things' salmon betal leaf canapes. Photo: Kate Gibbs

"You want to make sure the food is within the client's comfort zone but also that what you're offering is special."

This personal approach also eschews the "one size fits all" of budgeting. "Having an oyster table isn't going to cost you a lot of money but it's going to look wow and feel generous," says Stewart.

2. A wealth of health

Bright Young Things' chicken liver parfait and marmalade cones.
Bright Young Things' chicken liver parfait and marmalade cones. Photo: Kate Gibbs

You know you're in for a long night of greasy discontent when all you can see are mountains of fried beige around a bowl of store-bought sweet chilli, but thankfully the trend for healthier catering options has been addressed far and wide. Monique George of Fred & Ginger Catering has noticed this push particularly in the corporate space, while Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) Catering says there is increased demand for meat-free options and a decreased demand for fried food.

3. Serve it with a twist

The quirk factor is another request that caterers are addressing. Monique from Fred & Ginger has noticed that wedding clients are becoming increasingly focused on "custom menus that have a quirk and are in line with current food trends", while other requests are more left of centre.

A wine and cheese flight from Milk the Cow.
A wine and cheese flight from Milk the Cow. 

Georgina Damm was recently requested by architecture and design website The Cool Hunter to create an all-black menu for the launch of an artist named CJ Hendry.

"After quite a few hours playing around with the chefs in the kitchen, we designed an amazing menu with black mini toffee apples, test-tube caviar soups, squid ink and gold-leaf risotto plates and charcoal brioche lobster sliders that the guests absolutely loved."

This unique aspect filters on to the use of venues as well.

The ASRC Catering kitchen in Brunswick.
The ASRC Catering kitchen in Brunswick.  

"We have recently reopened the George Ballroom, which is a great example of an iconic venue that has been given a new life," says Damm.

"There seems to be a return to using traditional venues, but with a very modern twist. There's something really special about a venue like the George Ballroom that has a colourful history and many stories from years gone by.

"We have just booked a wedding where the bride's grandmother was also married in the ballroom, almost 60 years ago!"

4. Global flavours

The new guard of caterers is certainly offering menus that are less straight-up Western and much more of a joyful spin of the globe.

ASRC Catering finds that many of its customers prefer the less common foods on the menu.

"The African section is currently the most popular, while 10 years ago the Middle Eastern items were the biggest sellers.

"Food that is interesting and unique has become increasingly popular – moving away from traditional style corporate sandwiches and wraps and towards a more international food menu is a big trend.

"Our most popular canapes are Vietnamese rice paper rolls, almond and cheese ugali (a polenta-like starch), African empanadas and nokul (pastry). And everyone loves the basbousa (semolina cake) and melitinia (sweet cheese pastries) for sweets.

Damm Fine Food also offers a sensational kosher menu that includes heirloom tomato tart tartin, fresh goat's cheese, rosemary and balsamic, as well as water chestnut sang choi bao with banana blossom, sweet soy and green chilli, while fromagerie Milk the Cow can come to your place and create a cheese-lover's dream of a funky, oozy, Bacchanal of dairy.

5. Nuts about allergies

Caterers, like the rest of the food industry, are feeling the impact of an increase in dietary requirements and are adjusting their offerings to suit.

At ASRC Catering, they've noticed that "food intolerances and allergies have become a big issue. We now receive significantly more requests for gluten-free and vegan items than 10 years ago. About two years ago, we had a surge in requests for low-fructose menu items, however, this specific type of request has dropped considerably in the past six months."

6. Trends by social media

Yep, the ol' social media is also having an impact on catering trends.

"You now see what everyone else is doing immediately," says Stewart.

"You're not waiting for a magazine to come out next month to see what's going on. It's not taking six months to come to Australia anymore.

"You see these trends in real time and you have to be on your toes." Damm has noticed that clients are very hands-on with menu design, wine selections and event styling.

"We have Pinterest to thank for that, I guess".

7. Ethical eats

Emma Musgrove started Fred & Ginger Catering back in 2006, borne out of a passion to create beautiful, innovative food with minimal environmental impact.

Monique George from Fred & Ginger says, "We are noticing that people are very concerned about where food is coming from and if it is ethically and environmentally produced.

"As a business, we are very conscious of using local, seasonal and quality ingredients, that are produced in ethically and environmentally sound ways.

"There's definitely a move to using more seasonally produced and locally sourced products from speciality suppliers," says Damm.

"People are very aware of where their meat comes from, how their bread is made and if the produce is organic, for example. So a move towards more sustainable food is a very current trend. There's also a big trend towards finding artisan food providers who do one item very well, like doughnuts or a cheese or a unique type of sausage that isn't mass-produced."

HealthyBYTe is not afraid to use old bread that would be going to waste in its bread-and-butter puddings.  It gets its bread from OzHarvest, a perishable food rescue operation  which often ends up with more bread than  it can use. Sourcing ingredients from such operations is a way of educating the consumer about such organisations.

Obviously, one of the greatest catering solutions with a social impact is the awesome (and winner of The Age Good Food Guide Food for Good award) ASRC Catering, which was established by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in 2005.

"The aim of the business was to provide employment, training and hands-on work experience for asylum seekers who have the capacity and right to work. Any profits generated by the business go back to fund other ASRC programs such as health, case work and food bank.'

8. Super stylin'

Current catering is not just dropping off a cling-wrapped platter of sandwiches. There are elements of styling that are elevating the whole experience.

"We started as caterers and we've grown more into the styling and the creative," says Stewart. "Styling ties in with that – how your staff are going to look, how the bar's going to look – it's almost expected now.

 "Ten years ago, you probably weren't talking to your caterers about what kind of platters were going to be used or what kind of cutlery. Those options weren't really there but now, that detail has become a big part of it." 

One way to style up your space is to make the food do it for you. "A gorgeous feature table, whether it be seafood, antipasto, cheeses or sweets, can help to fill a space and style a space," suggests Stewart.

"Instead of paying for a huge floral feature, style it with the food. These kinds of tables have become a lot more refined as they've gone along."

Top 10 Melbourne caterers

1. ASRC Catering Employing asylum seekers and reinvesting profits into other excellent programs, this company dishes up flavour-packed international dishes. catering.asrc.org.au

2. Smokin' Barrys In a city obsessed with barbecue and food trucks, Smokin' Barrys can bring the low, slow and smoky meats straight to your backyard.smokinbarrys.com.au

3. Lentil as Anything This renowned NFP that "addresses social isolation through food, culture and community" can bring everything from Tibetan momos to Japanese pancakes to your next party. catering.lentilasanything.com

4. Milk the Cow For those who like to funk, Milk the Cow can bring a whole mess of it to your place, plate it up on beautiful boards and let the ooze and the ooh's begin. milkthecow.com.au/your-place

5. Damm Fine Food Offering catering, including whole kosher menus, design and styling, plus exclusive venues, Damm can have you dining on seared Canadian scallops or candied butternut pumpkin pearls. dammfinefood.com.au

6. Fred & Ginger Inspired by familiar flavours and motivated by the environment, this passionate bunch brings everything from smoky tomatina spiced blue-eye tacos to honeycomb and toffee popcorn. fredandginger.com.au

7. Bright Young Things These dynamite culinary event-makers bust out whisky-cured kingfish, peas and feta in a cone and black olive gougeres​ sprayed with edible gold. brightyoungthings.net.au

8. HealthyBYTe The BYTe offshoot with health at the forefront, it offers dishes such as organic turkey, dill and almond sliders with sour cherry relish, so even the hardiest grease fan will convert. healthybyte.net.au

9. Yarra Valley Catering Offering a range of catering options, from barbecues to canapes, its Indigenous Creations menu, which includes lemon myrtle cheesecake and lamb cutlets encrusted in native seeds and spices, is a bush tucker knockout. yarravalleycatering.com.au

10. The Sweet Society For those who leapfrog entree and main just to get to dessert, this one's for you. Specialising in luxury sweet buffets, the Sweet Society can customise a colourful candied wonderland for children and adults. thesweetsociety.com.au

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