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Daily Gullet Staff

The Horror in Hors D'oeuvres

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1200976960/gallery_29805_1195_50863.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Ivy Knight

Everyone loves hors d'oeuvres. They're adorable: tiny tidbits so pretty on a platter, they make you feel like a duchess at a tea party. And regardless of how they taste they've got the number one thing going for them where food is concerned -- they're free. For the most part, a canapé is a complimentary 'thank you for coming to my shindig'. They're fun to eat, and for chefs they're fun to make -- little flights of fancy taking wing from the kitchen and heading straight for your décolletage.

I want to take you through some of my experiences with these little bastards -- what my colleagues and I like and don't like about them. What ingredients are most suited to this wacky food category and most importantly, what goes on behind the scenes when your food is in the hands of an unsupervised server. I canvassed my friends in the industry about what hors they most disliked, then I asked people who regularly go to catered events which hors they most disliked. The winner from both groups? The mini hamburger.

It's unwieldy, messy, requires two hands and has been de rigeur at parties for far too long. At a fundraiser for the Art Gallery of Ontario where I was a guest -- not working behind the scenes in the kitchen -- these little burgers came out and I stood back and watched people try to deal with them. They were too big to eat in one bite and had so many components you couldn't set them down or they'd collapse all over the place. The potted plants got some protein-based fertilizer that night.

Horror stories about hors abound in the industry. Adam Colquhon, owner of Oyster Boy has been shucking for party-goers for years and has watched enough oysters go flying to know not to look when he hands a freshly shucked one to a customer. "There's something about the the red wine vinegar in the mignonette that makes some people sneeze. I've seen oysters hit the wall or hit another guest. I can't look anymore, I just hand over the oyster and turn my head. I don't want to watch them embarrass themselves."

Scott Pennock, a former head chef of mine remembers going to Taste of Toronto a few years back, "We were offering a miniature papillote which you were supposed to pick up and tear open before eating the fish inside. Instead, people were picking it up and biting right into the parchment paper."

Fenwick Bonnell runs Powell and Bonnell (look for them in the January issue of Architectural Digest), an interior design firm that throws many cocktail parties for its clients. Fenwick has been disappointed time after time by caterers serving hors d'oeuvres that make people schmoozing at a cocktail party look like idiots.

"It can't be crumbly, it has to be one bite and it shouldn't require cleanup afterwards with a stack of napkins or leave you holding a bone all night."

There you are trying to network in your Armani suit, cocktail in one hand, lamb chop in the other and your business card between your teeth? It doesn't work.

Fenwick was recently at an event catered in his offices where he was offered a bread-crumb-coated ball of mushroom duxelles. It was small enough to pop in the mouth, which he did, not knowing the innocent looking mushroom ball was insanely hot and one bite set him on fire. I had a similar experience at the opening of a snazzy restaurant while talking to some of the industry's movers and shakers. I was offered the chef's signature dish in miniature -- a deep-fried square of breadcrumb-coated foie gras that turned to molten lava in my mouth. It took a wealth of willpower not to spit it out all over the woman speaking to me. I took a sip of cava to quell the flames, which it did, but it also left me with a mouthful of cooled foie fat. Gross -- an ill-conceived disaster.

Fenwick tells me that his firm finally started buying party sandwiches. A local Toronto bakery sells these 1970's era sandwiches that were probably a big hit at Canasta parties back in the day. They are multiple layers of white and beige squishy bread with either tuna salad or egg salad spread between. They are cut in little multi-coloured rectangles that are easy to grab, don't gloop and glop all over the place, and are addictive in the way that only food injected with petroleum products can be.

When I lived in Austin, Texas I met restauranteurs Roy and Peggy Weiss, the owners of Jeffrey's, Cipollina and the Shoreline Grill. Their Executive Chef at the time was David Garrido. David had apprenticed under Stephen Pyles (often referred to as 'the founding father of Southwestern cuisine') and later collaborated with him on a book of Nuevo Tex-Mex recipes. I got to tag along with David to one of the many events Jeffrey's catered, my first chance to be behind the scenes at a very exclusive soiree where the men all wore tuxedoes and the women were in ballgowns. This party was for the not very famous but very, very rich and they all wanted David's signature hors d'oeuvre -- a deep fried oyster on yucca chip with pico de gallo and habanero-honey aioli. These were delicious, one was never enough. They were delectable bites for party-goers except for one thing -- they were disastrously messy. Despite all this they were the favourites of Roy and Peggy's buddy, the governor of Texas at the time, George W. Bush. The wealthy socialites of Austin knew Bush was hot for these oysters so they had to have them at all their parties just so they could say, "Oh you must try the oysters, these are the Governor's favorite." And with one bite, the chip crumbled, the oyster squirted, the pico de gallo sprayed and the aioli dripped.

Where was I? Oh yes . . .

"Stop making chicken skewers with peanut dipping sauce," says Camille Allman, a fifteen-year veteran of the food industry and current GM at the Carlu, a huge events space in downtown Toronto. "I am so tired of goat cheese. I like to see non-traditional proteins used in hors d'oeuvres, such as duck or kangaroo."

Sake consultant and chef Michael Pataran has been cooking professionally since 1991 -- he's currently working on opening a restaurant in the Bahamas that will focus on Japanese cuisine. During his globe-trotting career Michael has seen lots of food trends come and go. "Pork belly and foie gras, the bandwagon is definitely crowded on this one. The amount of times I've seen the same two used in one item! I like when octopus or squab, less common hors d'oeuvres. ingredients are used. To me the h.d. is all about texture. You want hard, soft, crunchy, creamy, spongy, crisp, gelatinous, etc. all happening in that one bite to give you maximum mouth feel and flavour impact." He continues, "I think the most poorly conceived h'ors d'oeuvre I've ever come across was at an event in New York where they were serving a five spice foie gras 'jello' that was pretty scary. It was kind of like mucous on a porcelain spoon. Yum!"

Some things have been used in the world of hors d'oeuvres since the first Caveman Key Party. Things like prosciutto, melon balls, quail eggs, Melba toast and pate, but I would argue that smoked salmon is the king of the canapé table. I think smoked salmon has been served at every catering function I have ever done that offered hors d'oeuvres. It got to the point where I couldn't eat the stuff -- I'd been around it for so long it just made me sick. Until I tasted the Christoph Stadtländer's smoked salmon.

"Our salmon is shipped fresh from Tofino, British Columbia and processed in a small-scale facility off the shores of Georgian Bay, Ontario. We use the Stadtländer family recipe, which is a five day process. The salmon are individually cured using organic sugar and sea salt, they are then cold-smoked with maple wood in a traditional German smokehouse," he tells me.

If every cocktail party offered his smoked salmon he'd be rich and we'd be fat and happy. The key is using the best ingredients you can find rather than re-inventing the wheel, or in this case smoked salmon on a blini. Sacha Gatien-Douglas, Chef/Proprietor of Coupe Space Event Gallery, agrees.

When it comes to being a relaxed and stylin' host, you're way better off sticking with hors d'oeuvres and grazing food that features 1 or 2 'star' ingredients of exceptional quality, instead of time-consuming recipes with annoyingly trendy ingredients and complicated methods that require your undivided attention before and during your soirée.

Shopping is more than half the battle -- once you line yourself up with some primo artisanal ingredients and think of some harmonious flavour combinations- you are well on your way to becoming the 'hostess with the mostest.'

Of course, during catered parties and Tasting Club events at Coupe Space I go more 'all out,' but when entertaining at home on my own time, I like to serve rustic, unfussy, make-ahead hors d'oeuvres with an 'old school' vibe like sea scallops wrapped in crispy double-smoked bacon; classic shrimp cocktail; breadsticks wrapped with prosciutto di Parma; grilled cheese wedges with pear, cave-aged gruyère and mostarda; crostini with membrillo, manchego, Serrano ham and fresh fig; along with bar nibbles like Spanish olives, warm Marcona almonds with sea salt, and puckery gherkins.

These are all ingredient-driven bites with minimal preparation -- just assembly really -- so that I can enjoy the party as well, instead of being cloistered away in the kitchen all night . . . frazzled, lonely and sober. After all, my friends are really there to see me, not for my food. Er, at least, I hope they are!

I promised to tell you a bit about what goes on behind the scenes. Picture a beautiful mansion in the most exclusive part of the city, soon to host a catered cocktail party to raise funds for underprivileged children somewhere. Our team consisted of two cooks and one server. The client had introduced us to her fourteen year-old son and some of his private school pals and said that they'd be available to hand out napkins and pick up empty platters during the party if needed. Our server, let's call him Charcuterie, saw a chance to slack off and opted not to serve, but rather to supervise. We were soon in full swing, filling platters with beautifully presented bites that needed to go out quickly. Instead, everything slowed down as the shanghaied teenagers tried to get their tongues around words they'd never heard or said before, like 'arugula' and 'caramelized.' Meanwhile Charcuterie stood there eating a lamb chop from a platter due to go out, while telling the visibly pissed-off cooks what a great job we were doing and how he'd definitely want to work with us again. He proceeded to nosh non-stop through the whole event. He ate miniature Caprese salad on a stick, miniature steak sandwiches and papaya slaw on endive spears as he stood in front of floor to ceiling windows gazing out at the well-heeled guests only a foot away. When the client's husband brought a friend through the kitchen to show him some of the finer aspects of their recent renovation he was greeted by the vision of Charcuterie shoving tuna tartare on crostini into his mouth while telling a story involving a dog and a used maxi pad. It was horrendous and incredibly embarrassing to even be associated with this guy. Our client paid this moron $25/hr to hang out in her kitchen and eat her food!

This is not typical of all servers of course, but there are bad apples in every bushel. I think it may be attributed to their being constantly shuffled between two worlds, one in the presence of rich people who treat them like invisible slaves and the other in the kitchen where sweating, stinking, screaming chefs treat them like very visible garbage. At some point they get some sort of post-traumatic stress thing happening and they turn into weasel-y, ferret-y, garbage-picking rats slinking around chugging half empty glasses of wine and ingesting any food they can get their hands on.

One of the best hors d'oeuvres I've had was a miniature merguez sausage on a pate a choux "hot dog bun" made by Chef Mark Cutrara and the crew at Cowbell Restaurant where I've been doing an extended stage since they opened a few months ago. The organic lamb was bought from a Mennonite farmer and the sausage was made in-house. The crew piped over one thousand identical miniature hot dog buns, a few condiments to accompany and they were set. This particular hors d'oeuvre was for a Slow Food Event, a "picnic" at the old brickworks on the outskirts of the city, planned by Paul DeCampo, the leader of Slow Food Toronto. The event was sold out and over nine hundred people expected. Would Cowbell's spin on the old hot dog on a bun be a hit?

It was, because it tasted great and it was tiny and compact without being crumby or saucy. You could choose to have the juicy "hot dog" naked or spoon a little sauce onto it from their selection of condiments. A home run for sure.

Fenwick has invited me to his firm's next cocktail party, I plan to wear a white satin dress on loan from Vera Wang's bridal collection and carry a strapless purse and a full martini glass the whole time. Wish me luck!

<div align="center">* * *</div>

When not writing about food for the eGullet Society and Gremolata, Ivy Knight works for a living as a cook in Toronto.

Her Daily Gullet article The Greatest Restaurant on Earth was selected for publication in Best Food Writing 2007.

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Fenwick has invited me to his firm's next cocktail party, I plan to wear a white satin dress on loan from Vera Wang's bridal collection and carry a strapless purse and a full martini glass the whole time. Wish me luck!

Whoa!

Great story, Ivy!


"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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Yes. Ten million served, and not a mini-burger amongst 'em. Now, a one-biter of pulled pork on a snuffcan bun, that's another story.

Lots of memory kindling here---from garden clubs, gallery openings, 100th birthdays to Ducks Unlimited cocktail parties (a notably creditable job of using duck-as-food, both mallard and domestic).

Also blessedly brief TS flashbacks to a Mississippi Summer afternoon when endless yellow Tupperwares of marinated chicken livers and water chestnuts lurked in wait for us to take those chilly slithers between our fingers and impale them for broiling. Unforgettable. :sad:

Thanks, Ivy.


Edited by racheld (log)

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A delightful read. The best h.d.s I've eaten have been at parties catered by Bay Area food genius Paula LeDuc. Her cocktail fare is not only creative and delicious, but each piece is *always* tiny enough to consume in one bite.

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Fun reading.. I've been on both sides of the hors d'oeuvre disaster, seeing a creation that seemed like a great idea in the kitchen become impossible in the cocktail scenario, and I've dribbled crumbs and sauce all over many a fancy outfit. In any case, your vivid descriptions of the hits and misses above bring it all back, and will serve to remind me to steer clear of the messy things. Although images of molten foie gras, gooey projectiles and prissy guests fumbling with their food can be amusing here, they don't really make for good business. Thanks..

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Excellent read. I was particularly entertained by "Charcuterie." Your voice in the writing makes the details come alive.


At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since. ‐ Salvador Dali

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Excellent read. I was particularly entertained by "Charcuterie." Your voice in the writing makes the details come alive.

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. My brief time with "Charcuterie" was an experience I hope to never repeat.

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Nice stories. When I teach cocktail party classes, I always tell my students, "Don't serve anything to eat that requires your guests to put down their cocktails." Everyone laughs, but it's a good rule to follow.

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