6 Culinary Stars
To make your next event stellar.
6 Culinary Stars
To make your next event stellar.
By Diane Weintraub Pohl
Photography by Iko
I’m a decent enough cook, so I haven't gone the catering route too often. My guests might wish I had, though, after reading this article. The talent, the flair, the versatility I encountered was staggering. Equal parts conjurer, diplomat and therapist, a good caterer is the first person you'll call for a party and the last to leave it. Caterers like Abigail Kirsch are institutions in the region—these six are less well known but equally worth considering. After weeks of visiting and tasting, I know I certainly will.
Le Moulin ‑‑‑
75 Main Street Irvington, NY
“You’ve got to keep reinventing yourself,” says Le Moulin owner Josyane Colwell, and, coming from her, that’s no idle credo. The country girl from the lavender fields of Provençe now strides in the corporate pastures of Vera Wang, Wedgewood and NBC. Once content to cook just in Westchester, she now arranges epicurean tours in France and is planning one in South Africa.‑
Her charming Irvington café is still her base, though these days it’s more like a launch pad for her expansion into event planning. Colwell plans menus, but she also finds sites, chooses flowers, suggests wines, designs color schemes and negotiates contracts. Then there’s the unofficial capacities, like going to gown fittings and mediating between stressed-out brides, grooms and in-laws.
“I see the human side of things,” Colwell says. “I can’t just sit back when I know I can help a situation and protect a client.” She credits her international background for her heightened sensitivity to cultural and religious differences, such
as when a groom of Mediterranean heritage was appalled at his bride’s choice of bouquet. She wanted calla lilies, a flower emblematic of death in his—and Colwell’s—culture. Colwell was the one to share this delicate tidbit with the bride and her somewhat dominant mother.‑“I took my United Nations background and became a diplomat,” she says.‑“He was so thankful that he had someone who understood him.”
Her international heritage comes in handy logistically as well; it was the impetus for her intercontinental event-planning ventures at a restored 17th-century inn in Provençe and a golf resort in South Africa, where she will organize culinary, wine, gardening and architectural itineraries. For someone who speaks four languages and who has lived in France, London and Barcelona, this expansion seemed a logical progression.
Colwell’s dishes, rooted in the Provençal bounty of her grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen, now have an international flair as well, with Thai and Vietnamese flavors especially popular. But her holiday menu reverts to continental tradition,
featuring truffle-laced poussin, Champagne-sauced salmon and pork loin with a confit
of Armagnac-soaked prunes and apricots.
Elegance and sophistication are Colwell hallmarks. “I take my responsibility like a sacred vow,” she says. “I love my job, and I’ve arrived at a time in my life where I’m not intimidated, because I’ve found that I know more than the people who are trying to intimidate me.” She pauses. “It’s not arrogance. I just want the job to be perfect, to make people happy.”‑She laughs wistfully. “I want to be Don Quixote.”
544 Milton Road Rye, NY
In his 15 years as a caterer, Gary Stone has seen it all—some for better, like Oktoberfests and Tex-Mex fiestas; some for worse, like an adult bar mitzvah with a giant and a dwarf for entertainment. Though he finds theme parties the most fun, he admits he’s a romantic at heart. “I really enjoy weddings. I get to know the couple’s mom and dad. I witness the ceremony, the first dance. I get emotionally involved,” he says, grinning. “Of course, I don’t know if I can say that for every one; there’s always that 10 percent…” he trails off, laughing.
Stone laughs easily, and often—a good trait for someone in this business. It’s seen him through Sweet Sixteens to soirées for Rockefellers and Bushes, and the expansion of his business to a thriving retail shop complete with cooking-class space, new Port Chester kitchens and catering exclusivity at the imposing Wainwright House on the banks of the Sound. Stone and his wife, Liz, whose ravishing wedding cakes have adorned the pages of Martha Stewart Living and Brides, are Rye residents and Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduates who can grill a mean burger for a backyard barbecue or bone a turkey for a regally classic ballotine.
Several of Corner Stone’s cooks are CIA grads as well, and often they all “bang heads,” says Stone, to brainstorm new dishes. Several of those dishes have gone on to become Corner Stone signatures, like the Peking duck crêpes rolled with black sesame seeds and jicama, which have become de rigeuer at Rye cocktail parties. “I’ll try to sell smoked duck on a blini with raspberry instead, but it always comes back to the Peking duck crêpes,” Stone says with a shrug. Then there’s the Asian pear, wedged and piped with goat cheese, mint and toasted pine nuts. ‑“People like lots of variety and funky presentation,” he says. “We have lots of fun with things like cookies laid over multicolored coffee beans, or grilled ginger and bok choy as garnish with an Asian hors d’oeuvre. And,” he exhorts, “no silver. Well, a little silver, with a lot of other things: bamboo, lacquer, hand-painted trays. We’re always hunting for them.”
They’ll be used this holiday season to showcase Grand Marnier-glazed roasted duck
with a cherry and toasted-pecan bordelaise sauce; shredded vegetable-and-panko-crusted halibut with tomato tarragon sauce; and a Chanukkah turkey with a matzoh/apricot stuffing. Though Stone concedes that people want tradition at the holidays, he welcomes the challenge of the unfamiliar. “New is good,” he says. “Complicated is not good. When food is put out, you want it to be flawless.”
Standing Room Only
1491 Weaver Street Scarsdale, NY
Sharon Snyder, Standing Room Only’s co-owner and off-premises catering director, offered me coffee, and—no surprise here—it was very good. “It had better be,” she says. “I drink a lot of it because I’m always manic.” She must be, to manage the logistics of the 10 parties scheduled for the upcoming weekend. “We’re obsessive,” she admits. “If things don’t go 100 percent the way we want them to, it makes us crazy.”
That obsession has been the catalyst for 14 years of catering success. Snyder, who caught the catering bug entertaining customers of her husband’s clothing shops, and partner Jack Tacconi, a cooking-school grad, will do whatever it takes to deliver their menu exactly as promised, wherever it is promised. They have catered events in a variety of locations—parking facilities, barns—the more unusual, the better. “It excites me to work on something totally new, where I’m pushed to be more creative,” Snyder says. “It’s stimulating to have to dig down and bring up new ideas.”
Those ideas have been applied
to South-of-the-Border- and 1970s-themed benefits for Kids in
Crisis, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that benefits abused children. Snyder also adopted an ethnic focus during an African tasting menu for 700 guests. “My chefs and I spent lots of time researching,” Snyder
recalls. The menu featured authentic
dishes like coconut milk/paprika/chili-marinated Piri Piri shrimp—ethnic, yes, but tempered to American tastes. “You’re not going to get people in Westchester to eat goat,” Snyder says with a shrug.
Goat notwithstanding, Standing Room Only’s food tends toward the innovative. Though Executive Chef Herb Lindstrom is classically trained, Asian flavors dominate in one of his most popular dishes: cracked red pepper salmon marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, lime juice and red pepper flakes. Another bestseller: pencil-thin spring rolls with daikon and bean sprouts sauced with a tangy dried apricot-and-rice-wine-vinegar reduction.
Standing Room Only’s flair extends to presentation as well. Lindstrom arranges the spring rolls in a puffy nest of fried cellophane noodles, the rolls jutting out in a spiky bouquet.‑And forget generic silver trays and tepid beige baskets; thanks to Snyder’s shopping addiction, Lindstrom’s crudités pose
in sculpted geometric platters; his
roasted artichoke spread and‑tomato/ poblano/citrus dip in tiered glass pots take the place of candles in a votive
Details like these elevate a party from standard to special, though
Chef Lindstrom admits that guests occasionally can be overly enthusiastic. “We’ll make a beautifully garnished presentation, and people will eat the garnishes,” he laments. “I’ll decorate an Asian platter with lotus root, sugar cane skewers, baby bok choy and watermelon radish, and people want to try them because they look so great.”
Beauty has its price, but it’s one Standing Room Only is happy to pay.
Gourmet Foods ‑
26 North Greeley Avenue
you wouldn’t expect mark kramer, the owner of one of the county’s toniest caterers, to be a T-shirt-and-blue jeans kind of guy, but there he is, all black cotton crewneck and Relaxed Fit. You wouldn’t expect him to get his inspiration for table design from Vermeer, either, but there he goes, rhapsodizing on the influence of 17th-century Dutch composition.
His educational background as a double major in art history and music may be unexpected, his professional background isn’t. He was trained in some of Chicago’s most lauded restaurants. His clients have relied on his culinary expertise and rapier aesthetic for more than 20 years. Want a Victorian winter garden buffet with topiaries in verdigris baskets and period china? Kramer will truck in the perfect lavender tea-rose pattern from California. An inveterate traveler and self-described eBay fanatic, the Putnam County resident has amassed eclectic collections of decorative furnishings to bolster his events’ designs, and relies on his unerring artist’s eye to complete his vision. And, from menu planning to décor, it is truly his vision. His network of 15 tabletop and floral designers and chefs lend crucial collaborative support, but, Kramer asserts, “It’s my show. I have very strong opinions about food and presentation. The tone I strive for is elegant, tasteful—and comfortable.”
And certainly not run-of-the-mill. “People don’t want things they’ve seen everywhere,” he says. “We’ll use a beautiful bamboo tray for a sashimi tuna hors d’oeuvre, with a lotus cup for the dipping sauce and an orchid laid alongside.”
And that tuna won’t be run-of-the-mill, either, served on wasabi toast with cilantro, a sesame glaze and flecked with sel rouge ‑(French red sea salt).‑“I like food that’s approachable, not masked by a lot of fancy sauces,” Kramer says. “Just fine-quality ingredients, perfectly prepared and beautiful to look at.” He describes his signature style as “casual bistro,” exemplified by a fontina cheese-, pancetta- and basil-stuffed veal chop, lightly breaded and pan-seared, served with a saffron white-truffle risotto. And then there’s the post-dessert signatures: the carved-ice fruit bowl bearing miniscule ice cream pears, plums and berries or the rustic bird’s nest harboring a clutch of speckled chocolate quail eggs.
These, like many of Kramer’s inspirations, originated in his home kitchen as experiments for friends. In fact, that’s where his culinary passion began—cooking for friends in college apartments. Kramer’s come a long way since then. Now he supervises the cooking for artists and celebrities in mansions, even for a certain political couple in a Georgian Colonial down the road.
34 Lake Way Purdys, NY
“A queen of grace under pressure during a torrential downpour in a bog,” was how one particularly grateful bride’s thank-you note described caterer Diane Lovell. And sitting with the Somers resident in the regal solitude of Caramoor’s Spanish courtyard, I can understand why. She’s serene and polished in her chef’s jacket and sleek ponytail, offering ethereal cinnamon twists still warm from the oven and coffee in porcelain cups. In less than three hours, she’ll be serving lunch for 50 people.
Not surprisingly, she considers her sense of calm her greatest asset. It sees her through a gala for 500, or a Manhattan supper staged from “a kitchen the size of this table.” Though she caters a lot of large-scale events at Caramoor, her preference is an intimate dinner party where she has “more control to make sure that each piece of the filet is perfect.”
But calm and control can go only so far. Lovell recalls an elegant pool party that was
a consummate challenge. “Forty-mile-an-hour winds were picking up the umbrella tables and breaking all the china,” she says. “And then there was that outdoor wedding in a vineyard with lovely cocktail tables and torchiers everywhere. But there was torrential rain that day and guests were traipsing past our staging area in the basement because it was the quickest route to the bathrooms.”
Despite the rain, the Cornish hens she grilled that night turned out beautifully, as does all her food. Her filet mignon is served with a horseradish sauce, but, spiked with Granny Smith apples and mustard, it's anything but conventional. Neither is her holiday season roasted duck with an Asian-inspired hoisin lime sauce, or her jumbo shrimp stuffed with crab or wrapped with pancetta.
Often, all of these will be placed on her own platters and fabrics. Old copper is a particular favorite, and a massive gold-leaf footed bowl is often pressed into service as a centerpiece, cradling fruits, ornaments or candles. “I love designing about as much as I love cooking,” Lovell says. Which is good, since she’s been asked to recreate everything from a ’50s diner to an upcoming dragon-and-lantern-themed Chinese wedding. “I’m thinking of decorating with lots of vegetable carvings,” she muses. “They’re very exotic. I’ve taken a vegetable carving class, but it takes a lot of practice.” She adds, laughing, “I’ll be going through a lot of carrots and cucumbers. It’s so much fun.” Yes, and so calming. ‑
Two Good Cooks ‑
251 Main Street Mt. Kisco, NY
Most caterers love their work, but not too many get teary over gefilte fish. “I can’t help it,” says Debra Altschuler, “it’s my roots.”‑Jewish dishes are her passion, but she gets excited about Spanish cheeses, Venetian fish and English scones, too, even‑American pigs-in-blankets, which she calls “cows” since hers are all-beef.
Ethnic cuisines are a constant fascination for this Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, and she and partner Judith Neidert travel as often as their demanding business allows. Frequently, their travels spawn signature dishes: corn fritters with chili-lime salsa from a trip to Santa Fe, Cajun shrimp beignets from an eating binge through New Orleans, eggplant torta from the Mediterranean. But their inspirations aren’t always so lofty. Tootsie Roll pops work, too, the muse for their best-selling filet mignon “mini-meatball pops.” (Okay, so they’re meatballs served with a Madeira reduction.)
Add some library research to their travels and the sparks fly.‑“You want authentic Tuscan, you’re going to get it,” Altschuler vows. For a “Night in Arabia” party, she and Neidert draped a tent in fabrics and pillows, and guests in balloon pants and curled-toed shoes nibbled almonds, dates and figs. Lamb was the culturally appropriate entrée, though with certain cross-cultural adjustments. “I didn’t want to do lamb’s eyeballs,” Altschuler says wryly, “but we did research authentic spices and flavors.” Their rack of lamb was rubbed with cinnamon and cardamom, then encrusted with toasted almonds and pistachios. Dessert was rosewater-flavored custard.
She welcomes such creative projects, but spurns large weddings and bar mitzvahs where “lemon chicken and cold poached salmon are churned out.” Two factors make the difference: a client’s mindset and budget. “I like clients to come in saying, ‘Help me, I trust you,’ not, ‘My grandmother makes this, and I want you to make it.’ I tell them, ‘Absolutely not, because it won’t taste like your grandmother’s.’” ‑And while a large budget allows for “extraordinary tables,” an open mind can work wonders. “You can plan delicious, elegant menus with salmon,” she explains. “Someone will say, ‘Oh Debra, that hazelnut-crusted halibut sounds so lovely, but I think it might be a little expensive.’ So I’ll suggest hazelnut-crusted salmon instead, and they’ll wonder, ‘Can you do that?’ Well, absolutely. It’ll be exquisite!”
As are her holiday signatures of a Champagne-sauced sole and salmon braid, and her individual beef Wellingtons: decadent Napoleons of filet, mushroom duxelles and foie gras topped with puff pastry.‑“You have height, the perfectly cooked filet with sauce draped over the duxelles, the crisp puff pastry medallion on top,” she enthuses, her exuberance falling just short of tears. I guess even a deconstructed beef Wellington just isn’t gefilte fish.
Food writer and culinary school graduate Diane Weintraub Pohl profiled the Rivertowns in Westchester’s September issue.