Catering to the Coast
When I was a child, my grandparents’ kitchen was occasionally full of penguins. Okay, maybe they weren’t exactly penguins—but they certainly did resemble those aquatic, flightless birds. My grandparents’ house was, and still is, notorious for social gatherings. Maybe it’s the plush, taupe sectional that wraps around the spacious living room—which is cloaked with at least two hundred family photos. Maybe it’s the generous dining room table, or the centuries of antique China occupying the beautiful vintage armoire. Maybe it’s the candy drawer bursting with peanut M&Ms.
All I know is that no matter the occasion, familiar faces would trickle through the front door of their cozy, family-infused New Jersey home. One particular event stands out in my mind. I was six and carried no obligations other than refraining from pulling the dress over my head that my grandmother’s longtime housekeeper, Celia had remarkably wriggled me into. As everyone’s focus turned towards the newest baby in the room, I tiptoed towards the kitchen. I pulled back the sliding door to reveal a flock of boisterous adults sporting matching black and white costumes. Some were garnishing brisket with oversized tufts of parsley. Some were emptying half-eaten plates of latkes into the trashcan. I had no idea why these swift-moving penguins had invaded my grandparents’ kitchen, but I was captivated. Twenty years later, I grew up to be a caterer– a Julia-Child-quoting, fig jam-making, balsamic-reducing foodie. Yesterday was my dad’s 60th birthday, and I catered a twenty-person, seven-dish, epicurean feast in that very same New Jersey house. As you can imagine, my respect for this profession is truly unbounded.
So when I was told I would be interviewing an elite handful of Wilmington’s illustrious caterers, I was elated to swap tales of treats, and indulge in their every thought.
If I didn’t hear the Pine Valley Market truck humming along my downtown street each day, I would assume the apocalypse finally hit. Through their ardent attention to detail and exceptional commitment to quality, owners Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb have crafted one of Wilmington’s most celebrated catering companies. But the two’s lucrative intellectual synergy doesn’t stop there. Their South College Road location boasts convenient scratch-made prepared foods, as well as a sit-down café and handpicked wine collection. In true entrepreneurial fashion—Christi’s number one event-planning tip: “Call Pine Valley to see if they’re available!” Well played, Christi. It’s no surprise that Pine Valley has pioneered themselves as leaders in the event industry—as their priority is to provide service that is as equally harmonious as the food. “Everyone here rolls in the same circles,” says Christi, “so it’s often that I show up at an event to find that all of the guests are already customers.” Between their freshly prepared cuisine and devoted client base, Pine Valley has been fortunate to engage the masses even through the economy’s downfall. Christi’s true advice for entertaining? The brilliant, yet simplistic strategy of “less is more.” She encourages hosts to hone in on the food itself by offering fewer outstanding items rather than twelve average dishes. By integrating that individually-focused concept into her own business, Pine Valley is able to deliver consistently personalized service. As for which menu items are in high demand—their Carolina Bison Sliders topped with smoky homemade Bacon Jam fall right into place with what Christi says is currently trending; farm-to-table eats with an emphasis on local vegetables, as well as local proteins.
And who doesn’t love Bacon Jam?Pine Valley Market Carolina Bison Burgers with Bacon Jam Bacon Jam Makes approximately 30 servings Ingredients: 3.5 lbs applewood smoked bacon (thick cut works best) 4 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced 8 cloves garlic, smashed (with the flat side of a knife or pan) 1 Cup cider vinegar 1 ½ Cups packed light-brown sugar 3/4 Cup pure maple syrup 1 ½ Cups very strong brewed black coffee 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Directions: Cut the bacon slices into one inch strips. Add the bacon to a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook the bacon, stirring frequently until the bacon is browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to a paper-towel lined plate. *Drain all but 2 Tablespoons of the bacon drippings into a heat-proof jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place the Dutch oven back over the medium-high heat and add the onions and garlic. Stir well and reduce heat to medium. Continue to cook for about 8 minutes, or until the onions are mostly translucent. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well and drop heat again to low. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and boil hard for 2 minutes, then stir the browned bacon into the onions and liquid. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally to make sure things aren’t sticking, adding ¼ cup of water if it seems to be drying out. When the onions are meltingly soft and the liquid is thick and syrupy, remove the Dutch oven from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Transfer the contents to the work bowl of a food processor that has been fitted with a blade. Fit the lid in place and pulse several times or until the Bacon Jam is a spreadable consistency. *Save the bacon drippings in the refrigerator. That’s too much flavor to trash!Bison Patties Using Carolina Bison brand ground bison, lightly work and form patties into 1 oz. portions by hand, and season well with kosher salt and pepper. Sear quickly on a flat top until medium. Pine Valley’s slider buns are fresh baked to order from Sam Smith of Sugar Island bakery. Assembly: Top the bottom half of each bun with bison patty. Smear a generous amount of Bacon Jam on the top bun and assemble.
As I uncovered a shared affinity for Julia Child with A Thyme Savor’s Danielle Cousler—I thought that would be the most exhilarating revelation of our dialogue. When I learned that her boutique style catering company bears just one single-door freezer, I was in pure foodie bliss. What a gift it is that Wilmington houses a catering company that truly manifests every dish from scratch. A player in the industry since she was 13, Danielle has mastered each facet of the kitchen from dishwashing to line cooking. Thanks to that broad scope of experience, she embodies the raw talent and genuine understanding that it takes to custom design menus for any and every possible request.
With a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef in-house, A Thyme Savor is known for composing artistic spreads, which can be modified to meet any dietary need, that serve as the focal point of each event. There are two things you are certain to find at a southern-style wedding: a vodka-stuffed debutante and a messy platter of shrimp and grits. Just when you thought you had enough of both, A Thyme Savor magically recasts this nostalgic dish, updating it with elevated flare. They swap out the traditionally cluttered plate for a compact, two-bite, savory cheddar grit cake topped with succulent shrimp. As for the debutante, well, I’ll consult Julia Child on that one. For another great appetizer idea, try their herbaceous grilled lamb skewers topped with a homemade relish made of salty feta and crisp cucumbers.A Thyme Savor Grilled Lamb Souvlaki Satay and Cucumber, Mint and Feta Relish Ingredients: Marinade 1/2 Cup extra virgin olive oil 2 1/2 cloves of garlic minced 2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary minced 2 Tablespoons fresh oregano minced 1 Tablespoons lemon juice 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 teaspoon salt and pepper Cucumber-Feta Mint Relish 2 English cucumbers, peeled, seeded, finely diced 1/4 Cup red onion, minced 1/4 Cup red bell pepper, small dice 3 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1/4 lb crumbled feta 1/4 Cup fresh mint, minced 1 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 Serrano chili pepper, seeded & minced
Directions: For the relish: combine all ingredients in a small bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour. Slice lamb into ¼-inch thick strips, keeping them all about 3 inches long. Mix marinade in a large bowl. Add sliced lamb to marinade and let sit for 1-2 hours. Soak bamboo skewers in water and then weave lamb onto skewers. Cook on a flat grill at medium temperature—about 2 ½ minutes per side for medium rare. Present in a crisscrossed fashion on a large platter and top with Cucumber Feta Mint Relish.
When I asked Danielle for her take on contemporary catering, she told me that the era of the formal dinner party is fading. Modern day celebrations embrace fresher, healthier food and a casual cocktail motif. From Venetian-style dessert displays to chocolate covered s’mores bars (thanks, Pinterest), partygoers are seeking a relaxed atmosphere and inspired menus. Danielle’s tips for entertaining at home: “Don’t just lay your food out on the table—make it sophisticated and professional. Separate your hot and cold dishes for variety, and use risers for dimension and elegance.”
There are dozens of reasons why Chef Keith Rhodes is a Port City icon. However, his humble demeanor and polite disposition may veil his celebrity status. Yes, he has been on Top Chef. Yes, he has two of the most successful restaurants in town, but what stood out to me when I strolled into Catch––other than his clementine-colored Mario Batali-esque clogs––was his charm and divinely authentic passion for food. Those of us with culinary colored souls know how important it is to respect every variety of cuisine. When I asked for the motivation behind his unique menu, he shared with me the two avenues from which he draws inspiration. “First and foremost, I enjoy being a diner and frequenting other people’s establishments and sampling different types of ethnic fare. Second, I grew up eating the food native to this area. Now that my palate has changed, I take pleasure in modifying and presenting those simplistic dishes with my own modern twist.” Keith’s vision was to create a brand that provoked a lasting memory so powerful that diners craved the experience of his food inside and outside of the restaurant. And thus, Catch the Food Truck was born. While most restaurateurs are satisfied bringing the customers in, Keith had the extraordinary notion to share his food in a less expensive, external setting. “My ideology revolves around taking my product to people that might not come through the door because of monetary reasons.” Keith’s integrity for his cuisine propelled him to embrace this alternative venue for turning people onto good food that’s universally accessible. Another benefit of the catering truck: it takes the same quality of artisanal eats you would find in the restaurant and puts them through a fresh California Mexican street food filter. If you ever feared vegetables as a kid, Keith’s signature Fried Brussels Sprouts will encourage you to travel into the past and put your childhood self in time-out. These crispy, leafy green bulbs are coated in a salty bath of Parmesan and earthy, pungent truffle oil.Catch the Food Truck Fried Brussels Sprouts with Parmesan and Truffle Oil Ingredients: 2 Cups of trimmed Brussels sprouts, halved 2 teaspoons black truffle oil 1 teaspoon smoked sea salt 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan 1 teaspoon salt and pepper
Directions: Toss sprouts in oil and roast under broiler on middle rack until crisp and caramelized. Sprinkle with salt and Parmesan.
In regards to today’s catering trends, Keith believes that individuals are more conscious and aware of what’s going into their bodies. As for the newfound “craze” of eating organic—Keith says, “We’re not riding the wave. We were already on the beach.”