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As the holiday party season begins, we take a look at some of the region's top caterers.
The idea of throwing a party fills many a would-be host with dread. It’s just so much work. Planning a menu. Shopping for groceries. Gathering the linens and tableware. Ordering flowers. Cooking. Serving. Cleaning up afterward. Here’s a thought: Hire someone to do the work for you. A good caterer can help you pull off anything from an intimate dinner party for two to a big blowout for hundreds of your best friends. All you have to do is show up and enjoy. We scoured the region to bring you some of the best party givers in the business.
Vendage & Co. (Photography by Dee & Kris Photography)
ALL SEASONS ALL REASONS
Known for: Polished, professional food and service
Price range: $40–$60 for buffet, $60–$200 for sit-down*
Service: Full service; event design
Signature dish: Wood-fired beef tenderloin with cabernet reduction
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Grilled peach bruschetta
This chef-owned catering company, in business for 28 years, does 160 to 175 events per year, including weddings and corporate parties for up to 1,000 guests. The company’s cooks can prepare just about any cultural or regional food: Indian, Mediterranean, German, Latin, even Afghani. They can supply linens, china, flatware, glassware, flowers, crowd control, an in-house baker and event design. A mobile food unit allows them to set up a full kitchen at a winery or other outdoor venue. Tastings are complimentary. (916) 925-1905; allseasonsallreasons.net
JACKSON CATERING & EVENTS
Known for: Classic American food
Price range: $25–$45 for cocktail party, $25–$60 for buffet, $45–$85 for sit-down
Service: Full service; full liquor license
Signature dish: Braised short rib with barbecue glaze
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Lobster profiteroles with lobster mousse and creme fraiche
Co-owners Chris Jackson and Branden Rodgers worked together at several local catering companies, including A Shot of Class, before starting their own firm about six years ago. While they can handle parties of up to 700, their sweet spot is the medium-sized wedding (100 to 120 guests). Venues where they do a lot of work include Old Sugar Mill, Newcastle Wedding Gardens, Scribner Bend and Wilson vineyards, and Beatnik Studios in downtown Sac. They can handle anything from Indian fusion to elevated backyard barbecue fare such as fried chicken and ribs. The pair provide free tastings at their Fulton Avenue restaurant, which is also available for private parties. Theirs is a one-stop shop, offering everything from glassware, plates and linens to bartending services, and unlike most caterers, they have a full liquor license.
(916) 483-7300; jacksoncateringevents.com
Known for: New American cuisine from a notable chef
Price range: $12–$15 for lunch, $40–$65 for dinner
Service: Drop-off, off-site and in-restaurant events
Signature dish: Whiskey burger slider
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Medjool dates stuffed with goat cheese
This popular East Sac eatery recently expanded into catering, oering everything from drop-o sandwiches to custom menus for both o-site and in-house events. For one recent party, chef/owner Aimal Formoli served multiple variations on lamb: lamb tartare, lamb pancetta salad and lamb lollipops with seared gs. He also oers dishes familiar to Formoli Bistro regulars, including an hors d’oeuvre version of the restaurant’s vaunted whiskey burger. A group of 45 or more can rent out the entire restaurant for $5,000 to $9,000, with the money applied to the food-and-drink bill. Smaller groups can take over a portion of the restaurant and order from a prix fixe menu. (916) 448-5699; formolisbistro.com
VENDAGE & CO.
Known for: Custom menus, restaurant-quality food
Price range: $40–$65 for buffet, $45–$75 for family style, $85–$125 for sit-down
Service: Full service; hands-on dinner parties and cooking classes
Signature dish: Rolled lasagna with bechamel and tiny meatballs
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Pork belly bao with sriracha honey and cucumber
(Above) Photography courtesy of Chef and Baker
The dynamo behind this catering business is Carolyn Kumpe, a former restaurant chef and cooking instructor from the Bay Area. Bubbly and energetic, she’s known for her creative, restaurant-caliber food. From her home base in Amador, Kumpe caters weddings and winery events, holding tastings at her picturesque goat farm. She doesn’t offer set menus; everything is custom. For one midday wedding, she served brunchy fare: strawberry crepes with lavender-buttermilk panna cotta, whipped cream biscuits with smoked trout and a coffee-and-pastry bar. At another wedding, she rolled in a humongous barbecue and prepared an Argentine mixed grill of prawns, chicken, steak and vegetables with chimichurri. Beforehand, guests feasted on appetizers of brie with prickly pear jelly, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and bacon, manchego and cherry tomato skewers drizzled with star-thistle honey, and they ended the evening with s’mores and shots of chocolate milk. Kumpe doesn’t shrink from the physical demands of the job: On one 105-degree day, she hauled a five-course meal down the American River bluffs. While she can do events for up to 2,000 guests, she really loves catering small dinner parties where hosts and guests can participate. Her dream catering gig: helping a client create a pop-up restaurant at home for friends. (530) 903-6974; email@example.com
Known for: Refined but rustic food
Price range: Starts at $18 for drop-off, $60 for sit-down or family-style
Service: Full service
Signature dish: Zinfandel- marinated grilled tri-tip
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Bacon-wrapped shrimp with orange whiskey glaze
Owner Francie Cruz-Woessner was a self-taught private chef, cooking in people’s homes, when she decided to become a full-time caterer in 2004. She specializes in events such as weddings, birthdays and anniversary parties for groups up to 300. Based in the foothills, she caters a lot of winery weddings, primarily in Amador and El Dorado counties. (She’s on the preferred vendor list at David Girard and Helwig wineries.) Her food is rustic and designed to pair well with wines. While she can do just about any kind of cuisine, from Mediterranean to Thai, she’s known for her delicious American fare, such as stuffed pork loin, buttermilk mashed potatoes and crab cakes with avocado aioli. (916) 834-3554; boccacatering.com
At Your Service
Once a restaurant owner herself, Claudine Ehrhart now works as a top server for local catering companies, including Vendage & Co. Here, she reflects on life as a cater waiter.
Why did you become a cater waiter?
I’ve been in the food business for more than 15 years. I’m passionate about it. I just want to make people happy and give them the best service I can.
How is it different from working as a restaurant server?
It’s more personable. We get up close to the customer and get to know them better. It’s always an adventure working at different venues. I like it. You always learn something.
How are the customers?
From my experience, they are more relaxed because they’re in a different environment. Usually it’s at a vineyard or a special place.
What does it take to be a good cater waiter?
Be very personable, confident, smile a lot and give proper service. I like to do things right. Just keep the customer happy and meet their needs.
What’s your favorite type of event to work?
Weddings. Everybody is happy. It’s a special day. I really enjoy that a lot.
How do you feel about the term cater waiter?
I’ve never heard it before you said it. I like it. It’s an upgrade. You’re adding another word to waiter.
WOOD FIRE SMOKE BBQ
Known for: Open-fire wood cooking
Price range: $30–$125
Service: Grills on-site
Signature dish: 4-pound tomahawk steak with maitre d’ hotel butter
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Pork belly with avocado cilantro aioli
A retired corporate fraud investigator, Richard Lee began catering professionally six years ago. He prepares a wide array of meats over open fire, using hardwoods such as almond, oak and walnut for heat, fruitwoods like peach, apple and pecan for aroma and sweetness. Lee arrives at events with an 8-foot-long custom-built rotisserie and a trailer with two smokers that can handle up to 700 pounds of protein at a time, working with whole animals (goats, pigs and lambs) and primal cuts. This isn’t your basic ribs-and-brisket barbecue: In the beef category alone, Lee offers 12 different cuts, including porterhouse steaks, whole tenderloins and standing prime rib roasts, as well as smoked meatloaf made from an old family recipe. To accompany the meats, he serves fire-charred vegetables, prepared Argentine-style on big metal plates called chapas. The scent of smoke and the drama of fire are big draws at Lee’s events. “People love fire,” he says. “They’re drawn to the trailer.” He picks his clients carefully, doing only 16 to 18 events per year, catering everything from high-end winemaker dinners in Napa to a simple meal of burgers. “It’s not always about money. It’s about fun,” says Lee, who unapologetically charges more for weddings because “they’re such a pain.” (916) 834-2876; woodfiresmoke.com
Known for: Seasonal, local, organic food
Price range: $15 for boxed lunch, $19 for deli salad (feeds 6), $72 for sandwiches (feeds 8–10)
Service: Drop-off and pickup only
Signature dish: Central Valley black rice salad
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Grilled seasonal vegetables
Once full-service caterers, Magpie owners Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr recently cut back on catering to concentrate on their hugely successful midtown restaurant, Magpie Cafe. Now they offer a tightly edited menu of sandwiches, salads, starters, breakfast pastries and sweets for pickup and drop-off. Box lunches—sandwich, salad and cookie—are a specialty. (Most popular sandwich: The Italian, made with artisanal cured meats and provolone. Most popular cookie: chocolate chunk.) “People take them to Napa when they go wine tasting,” Inouye says. “The food is consistent with what we do in the restaurant.” Desserts and pastries are prepared at Nido, the couple’s R Street bakery/cafe, Magpie’s former home before it moved to new digs on 16th Street. Edible Pedal delivers orders (for up to 40) in the downtown core. Cost: 20 percent of the food bill or $20, whichever is less. (916) 452-7594; magpiecafe.com
BETH SOGAARD CATERING
Known for: Beautifully presented wine-country cuisine
Price range: $30–$45 for buffet, $40–$55 for stations, $40–$65 for family style, $55 and up for table service
Service: Full service, plus drop-off and pickup
Signature dish: Filet mignon stuffed with truffled cheese and Italian greens
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Chipotle shredded beef on sweet potato coins
After graduating from culinary school, Beth Sogaard worked for renowned restaurateur Julie Virga at her downtown restaurant and catering company before starting her own business 16 years ago. A modern chef with a global palate, Sogaard can do Spanish tapas or Brazilian barbecued meats on swords, but she’s primarily known for her California cuisine. She runs her catering business out of her retail store, Amador Vintage Market in Plymouth, which also offers box lunches and party platters for pickup. In addition to weddings and winemaker dinners, she does high-profile events such as the Folsom Symphony Gala. Menus are tailored to the client and the event. For a sophisticated backyard wedding, she created dinner stations, serving herb-crusted beef tenderloin and jazzed-up macaroni and cheese at one, carnitas street tacos at another, seared ahi tuna with mango salsa and duck spring rolls at a third. Sogaard will do “anything people can come up with,” she says. “We like to have fun.” (209) 245-3968; chefbethcatering.com
(Above: Empress Catering)
Event planner Kate Whelan on how to hire and work with a caterer:
What should you look for when hiring a caterer?
Having a good rapport with your caterer is extremely important. There are so many details involved in these events. You want to make sure you can communicate with your caterer so nothing falls through the cracks.
How can a client get the most realistic price?
Come up with your guest count and have the caterer do an estimate or proposal for you based on your chosen menu. Let them know you want all charges included. If the caterer’s not willing to do that, I wouldn’t work with them.
What are the pitfalls to look out for?
There’s an industry term that not many people know: plus plus. You’ll often see an item price or per-person price followed by a ++, which means that the price is subject to both sales tax and service. Service ranges from 18 to 22 percent in the Sacramento area; in other areas, it can go well above that. And that service charge doesn’t necessarily include your servers, bartenders, chefs and sous chefs. All the staff could be itemized and billed separately. So that could add an additional hidden cost.
What’s hot right now?
Comfort food still reigns supreme. Also, a lot of my clients are opting for world influences, combining different culinary themes into one menu. I recently had a wedding with Mexican, Japanese and American food.
What do you think about using a food truck to cater an event?
People don’t realize there are typically minimums. For a commercial truck like In-N-Out Burger, the minimum might be $1,600 to $2,500, depending on the day and time. It might be cheaper to have a caterer prepare sliders and fries.
• Whole-animal cookery
• Global cuisine
• Stations and “bars” (cookie and chocolate milk bar, macaroni bar)
• Craft beer
• Lighter, healthier menus
• Unfrosted cakes (aka naked cakes)
• Farm-to-fork fare
(Cake by Ingrid Fraser of Elegant Cakes, who creates desserts for Beth Sogaard Catering.)
CHEF AND BAKER
Known for: Local, hyperseasonal, restaurant-style food
Price range: Starts at $100 for sit-down dinner
Service: Full service
Signature dish: Pistachio-crusted Skuna Bay salmon with dandelion green and artichoke ragu
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Chorizo, potato and kale empanadas with smoked tomato aioli
The chef in Chef and Baker is Gabriel Glasier; the baker is his fiancee, Kristel Flores. The pair—who also own Cask & Barrel, a modernist barbecue restaurant in the old Enotria space on Del Paso Boulevard—create high-end events at clients’ homes and other venues. They can do anything from a seven-course dinner for 20 to a wedding for 300. They’re also the in-house caterers at Inn at Park Winters, where they oversee about 60 weddings a year, along with prenup rehearsal dinners and postnup brunches. The pair embrace a farm-to-fork ethos, sourcing products locally, such as salad greens from Del Rio Botanical and stone fruits from Twin Peaks Orchard.
(Left: Bocca Catering - Right: Supper Club Catering)
The food is cooked on-site by a brigade of professional cooks. For help in selecting special wines, they turn to certified sommelier Matthew Lewis, who built Enotria’s impressive wine list. (916) 588-7885; chefandbakercatering.com
KATHI RILEY SMITH
Known for: Small, high-end dinner parties in clients’ homes
Price range: $85–$150 for multicourse meal
Service: In-home catering
Signature dish: Roast fillet of beef with lavender and fennel seed
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Belgian endive spear with fromage blanc, apricot and lemon verbena drizzle and chopped pistachios
This former restaurant chef is more like a personal chef than a caterer, producing intimate dinner parties for groups of 30 or fewer in clients’ homes. Riley Smith has an impressive CV: She worked at two renowned Bay Area restaurants (Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe), and she credits Alice Waters with inspiring her rustic, simple, Mediterranean style of cooking. Riley Smith does bespoke catering: one-off menus and food cooked to order in the client’s home kitchen—no “prepping and schlepping,” as she calls it. For a Davis dinner party that included some guests who were vegan, others gluten-free, she served chilled melon soup, wild King salmon and sauteed tofu with chermoula sauce. “Every catering job is different,” she says. “Tell me what you like and I’ll come up with ideas.” Her clients include developer Kyriakos Tsakopoulos and the former wife of Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. (916) 708-9970; firstname.lastname@example.org
SUPPER CLUB CATERING
Known for: Upscale, high-concept, inventive fare
Price range: $50–$70 for buffet, $65–$95 for sit-down
Service: Full service
Signature dish: Rack of rabbit
Must-have hors d’oeuvre: Mushroom “latte” served in a demitasse cup
Owners Matt and Yvette Woolston have been in the catering business for more than 30 years, making them among the most experienced caterers in the region. They handle parties such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, along with large corporate and charity events such as the Lasher Polo Classic and Crocker Ball. A highly regarded chef, Matt is known for his creative treatment of proteins such as lamb, rabbit and duck. For a huntsmen-themed party, he served dishes with names like Three Little Piggies Went on a Hunt (wild boar belly, smoked wild boar loin and wild boar ribs) and Deer in the Headlights (venison sliders and tacos). Some clients rely on the Woolstons to cater both their corporate holiday parties and family Christmas dinner. Holiday party menus include luxurious passed appetizers such as foie gras BLTs, Maine lobster arancini and duck doughnuts. For people who want simpler fare, the Woolstons outsource the job to their casual Carmichael pizzeria, Matteo’s, which offers pizza, salads and entrees like roast chicken for groups of up to 100. (916) 930-0341; supperclubcaterer.com
What Every Client Should Know
A caterer for almost 25 years, Dani Luzzatti now works as a catering consultant. Her tips for would-be clients:
What do you wish all clients knew?
Know your budget. lt’s the first question a caterer asks. It’s like real estate: Once you see the $4 million house, you don’t want to look at the $400,000 house. If a caterer prepares a menu and prices it out, only to have the client say I want that but at half the price, that wastes everybody’s time.
What about tastings?
Tastings are still done, but mostly caterers shy away from them. It’s not realistic. If you want to taste a steak appetizer, it’s not the same at a tasting for two as when I’m putting it out for 500. If you like my food, you like my food.
What’s the best way to find a caterer?
When you attend an event that blows your socks off, get the caterer’s information.
Can I hire someone to cater a dinner party?
That’s harder to find. We all refer each other out. Caterers who don’t do small events will refer you to other caterers. You can get someone to do a romantic dinner for two, but it’s pretty expensive. You’ll pay $250 plus their time.