Herbert Rose Commentary: The Evolution of New York Catering

Friends, clients and colleagues often ask me how the banquet business has changed over the 45 years I’ve a part of it. My response is that, for the most part, very little has changed. After all, it is a rather basic enterprise. The end result today is not much different from what it was 45 years ago. The process, however, has changed considerably.

1) The Language of Food

Forty-five years ago, all menus (at upscale hotels and clubs) were written in French. To be a catering manager in those days (when we were called Banquet Managers) you had to have at least a working knowledge of the language as menus to the guests and kitchen were rarely submitted in English. This was at the tail end of the age of French dominance of the culinary world, but in hotels it still held sway.

It is worth noting that in that period hotel ballrooms and clubs were the only venues in New York for an upscale event; there were no event spaces such as 583 Park Avenue and Guastavino’s at that time. Menus written in French certainly sounded more exotic to hotel guests, although the food served is more or less exactly what is still being served today. Filet de Boeuf Roti Bouquetière, for example, sounds a lot grander than sliced filet of beef with mixed vegetables.

2) The Fall of The Catering Manager

Once the industry (and New York’s culinary community in general) rebelled against the French dominance, menus began to be presented in English. Once that happened, Catering Managers with food and beverage backgrounds were no longer essential. Form menus replaced individually prepared specials, offering a choice of options that did not require an expert. In truth, the menus served remained very much the same, as there are only a handful of food items that loan themselves to successful quantity preparation. Far less classically trained Catering Managers became the rule and today the vast majority of Catering Managers know and care little about food and wine. They simply process the clients’ selection through the system.

3) The Changing Style of Service

Another significant change in hospitality is in the manner in which the food is served. For the best part of the 20th century food was served from a platter to the plate in front of the guest. Many called this “French Service” but the correct term is “Russian Service.” This requires at least a modicum of skill on the part of servers in that they must transfer the food to the guest’s plate in an appealing manner.

Today, the vast majority of banquets use plated service; the food is plated in the kitchen and the complete plate is placed in front of the guest by the server. The arguments for this method are usually that “the kitchen can arrange the plates more attractively than a waiter can serving it at the table” and “there is less spillage and less intrusion by the waiter at the table.” Both are valid, although the true reason may be that plated service requires very little skill on the server’s part, opening up the pool of employees. Russian (French) Service is faster, the food comes hotter, and the kitchen requires fewer staff for plating.

At 583 Park Avenue and Guastavino’s, we still serve the main course in the traditional manner, unless a guest specifies otherwise.

4) The Rise of The Party Planner

The dumbing down of the process of planning an event and its execution has also given new life to the party planners industry. Guests who sense the lack of depth in Catering Managers’ expertise often turn to planners to provide more sophistication and complexity to their events. Sadly, the majority of event planners know even less than the Catering Manager when it comes to event cuisine.

There are exceptions, of course. One that comes to mind is Harriet Rose Katz of Gourmet Advisories. Harriet has a long and unwavering interest in food and wine is far more knowledgeable than the average Catering Manager. At the top level of catering this additional knowledge can make a great difference in distinguishing an event.

Herbert Rose is Director Emeritus at GUASTAVINO’S and 583 Park Avenue. He has over 40 years of experience as Director of Catering at New York’s finest venues. 

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