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Want to get the BEST event catering ever? Michael Mazzocco of Herb Box Catering is with us and we couldn’t be more excited to get his expert advice! What are we eating? Event Catering is an important aspect of functions and Michael is joining us today to answer your questions and tell you everything you need to know to have a successfully catered event. We’ll talk things your caterer wishes you knew, food allergies today and how to handle them, and upcoming trends in catering. Everyone wants to be memorable! If you want them buzzing about your events, you need to see this episode!

..and remember..
“If you see the bandwagon, it’s too late!” ~Michael Mazzocco

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Transcript of this episode:

Will: Aww, yeah. Hey, everybody. It’s Will Curran, excited to be here. Unfortunately, Laura is in New York City planning an epic event for Social Tables, and Sean Holladay couldn’t make it because he has a ton of meetings, growing that Crowd Mics like crazy, so it is just me and our guest today. Just a little bit of one-on-one, which is a little different than usual. Which I’m really excited for, because it means we get to dive deep into this amazing man that I have with us today.
I’m going to jump right on in. This week’s guest is Mr. Michael Mazzocco. Michael is an amazing friend. He actually invited me to be on the ILEA board, and that’s how we officially met, but I’ve been a big fan of his food and Herb Box’s food for a very long time. If you’ve never been to Arizona, there’s a really awesome restaurant called The Herb Box. They opened up a catering arm, which Michael runs, and literally makes the best food you have ever eaten in your entire life. We knew we wanted to do a topic on catering, which as it being a huge line item on your budget we knew we had to have some discussion around it, so super duper exciting.
I’m also really personally fascinated about this one, too, because I don’t know a lot about catering. I literally, when I hire Michael for events I say, “Michael, here’s my budget. Make it good,” and then I trust him so much. He loves that, but obviously we’ve got to be smart planners out there and we got to make sure that we have the best catering possible. We’re going to dive a little bit from beginner stuff to the advanced stuff, learn about trends. I’m really, really excited because Michael’s got an amazing story. He’s an amazing caterer, and I’m so excited to have it. So everyone, please welcome Mr. Michael Mazzocco. Thank you for joining us, Michael.
We’re going to kick off the first question that everyone knows, and everyone’s prepared for. I want to know, because I know how interesting this story is, too … What got you into the events industry?
Michael: That is quite a long story, and I am going to try to get it into a shorter version. I was working in restaurant and hospitality for over 30 years. I’ve worked all over the country. My first big gig in what I would call bistro service, not exactly fine dining, but … was for a restaurant called Sausalito’s in Cleveland with Gary Lucarelli. This man was the restaurateur of Cleveland, really interesting man, and hosted that room like no one’s business. He knew everyone in that room, and would walk around and talk to people and it intrigued me. I really enjoyed restaurants and working for this man, and so I continued down that path. I actually got a degree in dance, modern dance, many pounds ago, and so while I wasn’t performing and studying there I was waiting tables and moved my way up.
Fast forward to 1999. I moved to New York City with very little money in my pocket, to be quite honest, and a contact for a possible job. I ended up getting a job at a phenomenal restaurant, La Madri, owned by Pino Luongo. You’ll read about him in Kitchen Confidential, actually. There’s a whole article, a whole chapter, about him. I had absolutely no right working for this man, or for this restaurant. It was so beyond my knowledge, but I’ve heard a term that I love now, “Fake it ’till you make it,” and that’s exactly what I did. I really tried to learn all I could and take it all in. While I was there, I had the wonderful opportunity of doing the bars for the VH1 Fashion Awards post-party for Anna Wintour. I did the Soprano’s wrap parties. We did the launch party, this was the beginning of all the dot coms. I was able to work on these huge scale events that were brilliant, and boy did that light a fire under me and I started to see all the possibilities of what working with food was really opening up for me.
I continued working in that industry in New York for close to nine years. Right before I left, I woke up one day and realized … I was waking up because I had to pay a vendor and I had deliveries. I was director of operations for three restaurants in Lower Manhattan at this point … I didn’t want to run restaurants. That was never something that I set out to do in life, and so walked down to the restaurant from my apartment on the Upper West Side thinking about what did I want to do, and how did I want to take all this knowledge that I had gained studying wine and food and working for all these phenomenal chefs and parties, and it just dawned on me, “Well, that’s what I enjoy doing.,” I literally went in, called the owner, and quit that day, and said, “You know what? I’m going to dive head first into what I want to do with life,” and that has led to where I am right now.
I threw it all up in the air and hoped the pieces land. My friends said I was absolutely insane for, and I was, for giving up the job that I had, the money that I had coming in, and living in New York City. I said, “You know what? Caution to the wind, I’m gonna follow my heart and do what I want to.” My parents retired out here, and so I moved out here shortly thereafter. There’s nothing I was doing in New York that I couldn’t do out here. I got a wonderful job working a small, little boutique catering company that had a small café that was serving meals for lunch called The Herb Box. What you don’t know, Will, is actually we started as a catering company 22 years ago.
Will: Oh yeah, I didn’t know that.
Michael: Yeah, yeah. It was out of market demand for our food that we opened up a restaurant. We literally moved the wall back, cut a hole in it, and started serving wraps, sandwiches, and salads out of that hole. We have been born out of a hole in the wall. You can honestly tell people that. It’s true. People were sitting out in the parking lots and on the curbs eating these wraps and sandwiches, and so Susan realized that there was a brand here. She ran to Target, bought three tables, six chairs, put them in front and that developed into a restaurant. Our first hot item that we served was our butternut squash enchiladas. In 2008, we opened up a restaurant and the restaurants just started going crazy.
I left the company, actually, when the recession hit. As many of us, we lost our jobs being top level management. They put an offer back on the table for me to come back to the company, buy into the company, join it as a partner and president of the catering division. They were going to run with the restaurants and I was going to run with the catering company. That’s how I came back to The Herb Box, from employee to owner. We have since developed this catering company into a multi-million dollar brand within three years, and there’s no stopping us at this point.
Will: Just so, for people who aren’t from Phoenix, how big are you guys now so everyone can get an idea how fast you guys are expanding?
Michael: We are looking at $3 million right now. When I came back on, we were just under $600 thousand.
Will: Oh, wow, and you guys have not only the restaurant in Scottsdale, the market below it, the little small like …
Michael: We have three restaurants and the market, and then of course our catering division.
Will: Very cool. Very cool. If you are in Phoenix, you definitely have to make a stand and stop by Herb Box. I think one of the interesting things about your guys’ concept is it’s not like other … You guys were fresh and easy food before fresh and easy was huge, right? Can you talk to me a little bit about what type of food you guys make and the process that you guys put into your catering?
Michael: Well, I don’t know why you’re calling me fresh and easy, first. We take what we say is “tried and true” recipes and give them a twist. While someone might be serving bacon wrapped shrimp, we have a prosciutto wrapped shrimp with blackberry glaze and spicy soy mustard. It’s a basic dish that we really make our own and we give it these crazy good flavors that are still clean, elegant, and pedestrian. Something you will never see, or you haven’t seen up to this point, at The Herb Box is foie gras or caviar. Not that we couldn’t do it for you, or that we wouldn’t, but it’s just not who we are at the root of our brand. We want pedestrian and accessible food for the masses, with a twist. We want to make it interesting.
Will: That is awesome. I think one of my favorite things that I ever had that you made was the Gouda mac and cheese, when you guys did the stations with the Gouda mac and cheese.
Michael: Absolutely, thank you.
Will: I used to say blue box was the best, and it’s hard to beat the blue box, but one day you got to grow up. Michael had these stations at, I think it was, I forget what it was, like an NPI event or something like that. You were doing this Gouda mac and cheese, stations where you build it on your own and choose what goes in it. Oh my god, it was just amazing. To die for.
Michael: Yeah, that’s one of those things that never goes out of style, in my eyes, that’s mac and cheese. I mean, I don’t care how old we get, that and a good grilled cheese sandwich, it’s never going to go wrong.
Will: That’s true. That’s very true. I think that’s a perfect example of what you’re saying though, is it’s not necessarily … Most people are just like, “Mac and cheese, here have it,” but you guys said, “Hey, we’re going to get Gouda, we’re going get really, really good,” and I think you guys had truffles in it, right, a couple other small things and kind of elevated it.
Michael: Right. Short rib, our nitrate-free Diamond Ranch bacon, and there was blue cheese, there was poblano and onion sauteed, there was wild mushrooms saute, there was all kinds of different items that can be thrown in there. There was lobster, there was chicken, there’s, yeah, a million things.
Will: That’s cool. I really apologize to everyone who’s tuned in live or watching this at the end of the day right now, because you guys are probably starving. Especially those on the east coast, it’s getting to the end of the day and you guys are all saying, “Oh, I tuned in to the wrong episode this week. I’m starving now.” All right, cool, because I know we could probably talk about food forever. You know how much of a foodie I am and how much I love food.
I didn’t know that you guys were catering, in terms of division. My question was going to be how did you guys make that transition, but I’m going to instead flip it that a lot of restaurants out there are saying, “You know what? It’s really … We make the food. We have the kitchen already. It’s really easy for us to make big plates of food,” and making that transition to catering, right? You see more restaurants opening up a catering arm, right? What’s your recommendations or thoughts around restaurants who are becoming catering companies? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it hurting you guys? Is it good for you guys? What are your thoughts?
Michael: You know there’s always going to be enough business in the world for everyone. I think where it really starts to hurt is they undercharge or they overcharge. They don’t really know how to enter the market properly. That’s A. B, they overpromise and start to serve the wrong items. I was recently at an event in a bar, where the owner is a chef and cooks, and had made food for everyone to eat, and had capons in a chaffing dish. Now that sounds absolutely delicious, right? I mean, who doesn’t want a nice capon? You’re at a bar, okay? There’s no fork and knife. Capon is not the prettiest thing to eat, so you have to use your fingers. It’s like caveman mentality, and that’s just not thinking through what you’re going to serve. You’re drinking with your hand, and now you have to eat with your hands. Capon is really tactile food. That’s for fine dining or a plate and served meal, it’s not for a bar food. You really have to think it through, what you’re going to be serving, and a lot of people that are entering the market don’t really do that. They just want to serve good food, and that’s part of it, but there is three other steps before you get to that good food.
Will: Awesome. I find, too, that a lot of the restaurants, too, they are used to going from kitchen to the diner, the customer, in five seconds, right? Where catering, you have to design, “Okay, this might be sitting in a kitchen while the CEO’s talking for an extra half an hour,” and you’re listening, waiting, and waiting, and waiting versus being raw, made right there for the person. Right? I find the quality is sometimes not as good, too.
Michael: Right, absolutely. It’s what’s going to travel well. We have a fried dish that we will serve, and it’s a pakora. Pakora’s an Indian dish. We serve ours with kale, corn, onion, vegan yellow pepper aioli, sweet and spicy serrano glaze. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing, but it’s because of the breading that we put on this that it holds up and that we can serve. We also are known, where we started, our wraps and sandwiches, right? Well, those always came with a sweet potato chip that has a little curry sea salt dusting on it. Those chips, I would say four months out of the year we can’t serve them because they get gummy because of the humidity in the air. Yes, it does get humid here in the desert. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re going to serve, how it’s going to hold up. We have Korean fried cauliflower that I will not do at a catering event, because the breading is not conducive. It has to be just right to be fantastic, and those are variables that I don’t want to throw into place when you already a million variables working against you when you’re off-site catering.
Will: Absolutely. Absolutely. Then, I’m going to flip it, because I didn’t know that you guys were the catering arm first. Let’s say there’s caterers out there watching this right now. What would be your recommendation to them if they want to go and make the flip and go brick and mortar and open up a restaurant? You guys obviously made it, super successful now, opening up your third restaurant. I’m sure more are going to come soon, hopefully one right behind my house. What are your recommendations to catering companies that want to make the switch into becoming a restaurant?
Michael: Don’t. You know what? Costs are so crazy with restaurants. With catering, you know what you’ve sold so you buy exactly that amount of food, and you sell that amount of food. You don’t have a lot of overhead. With restaurants, you don’t know who’s coming in when and how much they’re going to be eating, but you still have to have all of that food. The amount of waste that you can go through with, god forbid … I was living in New York City during 9/11, and I was running a, we were a nueva Latino restaurant … Anyway, doesn’t matter … You have to imagine all of that food that we had in our refrigerator, we were taking home to feed our families, because a) we didn’t know if we were going to get off that island, b) we didn’t know when everything was going to open back up, c) we didn’t know what was going on, but we knew we weren’t going to be serving anything in that restaurant. We’re talking thousands of dollars in food costs that went home with our employees.
Stuff like that happens all the time. You can get a crazy storm in that kills your business for three days, but your refrigerator is full and ready to serve people. When you start to think about that sort of cost, cost issues, it’s not a walk in the park. It’s not just, “I’m gonna open my door and people are just gonna flock right in.” There’s so many other variables, just like off-site catering, but things that you have to do. You have no choice but to put that money out there and buy that food so you’re prepared for those people that may or may not come in.
Will: Absolutely. Absolutely. I love it. By the way, totally random question. Alex actually had this question before the show, and I completely forgot to ask it. I’m going to take a 360 degree turn and I want to ask you if you weren’t in catering, what do you think you would be doing?
Michael: Oh, that’s mean. Wow. I really don’t know. I was running restaurants and I know how to do that, but I don’t like to do that anymore.
Will: Yeah, on your advice you’re like, “I don’t want to go into restaurants.” Right? This is so nice to know exactly what I’m going to do.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. I really would be at a loss of what I would be doing. Probably something in show business, but as managing touring companies or something along those lines, which I did think about doing for a little while in New York. But, everything kept bringing me right back to food and wine. I would probably be, if I wasn’t going to be in the food and wine event industry, it would be going that route. Taking my existing knowledge of dance and performance and going, actually really doing something with my original degree.
Will: That’s awesome. I was going to say I think you’re definitely, I mean I knew you were going be really electric being on the show, but I think this like I’m contrasting you with a lot of guests we’ve had. If you’re only listening to audios, you have to see Michael. You’re energy, the way you move around, the way you move your arms is very electric, and when you laugh it’s awesome. I think that’s really, really cool. I think that just goes to show, because you came from the show business and you came from dance and you understand how to body interacts with communication, I think that’s a huge piece of it. Yeah, if you’re not watching the video right now, you got to see the most electrifying person we’ve ever had on the show.
All right, so I’m really … kind of take a step back. Obviously, we have a lot of event planners who might be tuning in who have tons of experience, but then we also have some people who don’t have as much experience hiring catering companies. My question to you is let’s say, for example, I’m hosting my first event, or maybe it’s my second event, and I’ve only been randomly hiring catering companies. I feel like I could do something better, but I don’t know what quite to do. I don’t know what to do when I’m choosing my food. What would you recommend when someone is doing their first event, how to choose what food you’re going to do? Do you let the catering company decide everything, or are you going to say, “No, there’s certain things you should definitely avoid?”
Michael: Right. It just depends on the type of event. It depends on who you’re serving. It depends on the time of day, and the client first and foremost. People will say that they want appetizers, they want a heavy hors d’oeuvres. What does that mean, because heavy hors d’oeuvres to some could just mean literally little canapes and a few dips and cheese. Heavy hors d’oeuvres to others means basically fork and plate food, or what I call small plates. Basically, everything that you would have in a dinner, but just cut small and so you can have a full meal. There are others that, of course, there are all the dietary restrictions and vegan and gluten-free, or vegetarian, or no pork, or no GMOs, no this nor that. Really understanding their needs and their wants, their desires.
One of my favorite questions is, “Where do you like to dine out?” and what do they eat when they’re there, because that’s going to really tell you. When they’re dining out, they’re entertaining, and when they’re entertaining, that’s what they’re hiring me to do. It’s a great way to start that ball rolling, and also you start a little bit of a personal, “Oh, I’ve never been there,” or, “Oh, I love that place. What do you have there?” You really get that ball rolling that way.
Things that I try to stay away from are saucy items, and I’m saying that … I put hummus on almost every menu, I put a squash on almost every menu, because I love those items. They’re both soupy, saucy items, but it’s a matter of then knowing our hummus is a very sturdy, thick hummus. It’s not a runny hummus. The sauce on the enchiladas is, there’s not a ton of it. It’s not swimming in sauce. It’s knowing your food, understanding your food, understanding what’s going on. Then, god forbid, knowing the surroundings that they’re eating it in. I’ve done parties in people’s homes that everything is this white or light beige and the last thing you want to do is bring your red wine into that house. It’s really understanding where you’re serving it, who’s drinking it, because you don’t want to leave a mess. You don’t want a reminder. The only reminder that your client should have is your card, not the red wine stain on their sofa. Even if it wasn’t yours, it was someone else drinking it, you’d still need to be aware of every guest in that house is your guest. You’re hosting that party, including the owner of that house or venue space.
Will: I love that you said the whole, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” I feel like that’s an amazing survey question to send out to your attendees, sending it out to your thousand attendees, and say, “What’s your favorite restaurant? What do you like to eat when you go out?” and boom, that builds your menu right there. Right? If you see these commonalities that people are like, “Burritos, burritos, burritos,” you’re like, “We gotta have burritos, right?” I love that so much. That’s really, really insightful. I thought it was really interesting, too, that you’re mentioning the alcohol portion, too. Do you find that a lot of caterers are, as much as I always consider the caterers separate from the bartender, but do you find that you should design what alcohol menu is going to look like and the drink menu is going to look like, too? Or, do you think that’s completely separate? Leading questions.
Michael: I know. I came back to The Herb Box from designing events, and I loved what I was doing with that company. It was Pacific Events, they’re out of San Diego. They had an office here in Scottsdale, and I was … I loved what I did. I came back here, not only because I love this brand and I wanted to come home, but I wanted to design the whole event. And that was not just the look of the, “Oh, wow,” when people walked in, or the entertainment aspect of it, but when people are eating and drinking, because that all goes into the theme and the entire experience. You can have a great room with mediocre food and it’s still going to be a wonderful event. You can have phenomenal food in an ugly room and it’s still going to be a good event. But, when you have great food, great wine, great drink, great design [crosstalk 00:24:27]. Right?
I really want to have my hand on everything. I want to do it all, and so we do. We offer the beverages. We offer phenomenal food, and we will do your entire design. We don’t have to, of course there’s so many other people out there that are doing beautiful design as well, but we like to do it all. If someone allows us, we will pair their wines, design specialty cocktails. Out at The Open we have people that walk around with coffee and shots of vodka for private parties, to wake everybody up for the Birds Nest. We just like to have fun with it.
Will: Absolutely. By the way, I don’t think that I got a chance to share. Can you talk a little bit about some of the … I mean, I didn’t even get a chance to mention some of the amazing clients that you’ve got to work with. Can you name drop some of the cool clients? I just want people to know you’re not just serving, you’re mentioning homes and things like that, but you’re not just serving dinners at people’s homes. You’re doing these epic events. Can you just give an example of maybe your top three clients that you’re working with?
Michael: That I’m allowed to mention, okay. It’s amazing the gag orders that I have. I would say one of our biggest that we’re working on right now is The Open, so it’s The Phoenix Open. The Thunderbirds have a private tent on the 18th hole and we do the design and menu.
Will: For those who don’t know what The Phoenix Open is, can you describe what it is? We’re hoping to do an episode just on The Phoenix Open because it’s one of the biggest events in the country that no one knows about.
Michael: It’s impossible to describe this thing. It’s a golf tournament. I’ve gone to PGA tournaments all around the country, coming from a family of golfers, and my father always wanted me to golf and offered to buy me a pink golf bag. I told him that wasn’t why I didn’t want to golf, I just didn’t like golfing. It’s a golf tournament. When you go to golf tournaments, traditionally, you pick your favorite golfers and you walk quietly along this course and watch them golf. There might be a couple parties in a clubhouse afterwards, or in surrounding cafes. For The Phoenix Open they have huge triple floor tents, grandstands, there hundreds of thousands of people a day there, and coming up to a million plus by the end of The Open, watching this huge golf game going on. Honestly, I forget that they’re golfing a lot of the time.
In our tent it is not out of the ordinary for us to have a DJ, for us to have live entertainment, for us to be passing hors d’oeuvres and three buffets. I think this past year, I can’t remember the theme, but this coming year it’s a hunting lodge so we have taxidermy on the walls. We have antler chandeliers, and when you walk in it’s not going to feel like you’re at a golf outing at all. We’re bring in sushi chefs, we’re bring in this, we’re bringing in that, and really making it an entire experience that feels like someone’s going to a high-end hunting lodge. Oh yeah, if you look to the east … I’m sorry, if you look to the west, you’re going to see a green. There are some, there’s Tiger Woods and everybody else out … I don’t know if Tiger will be back, but yeah. It’s really cool.
Will: Insane. That’s awesome. You’ve gotten to work with some great sporting clients, too, right? I’m not sure what you’re allowed … I’m not sure what I’m allowed to talk about, so I’m just being vague.
Michael: Yeah, we play with some baseball teams in town that are from the west coast, but I’m not going to tell you who.
Will: Some really big ones.
Michael: We’re very fortunate to have worked with them. I think one of my favorite clients was getting a call to cater a photo shoot, and this is my first time that I was with The Herb Box, so it was 2007, and it was a smaller order. It was only like 20-some lunch boxes, and I walked in and I walk into the garage where there are people, and a woman turns around and says, “Oh, is that lunch?” and I just stood there starstruck because it was Annie Leibovitz. I didn’t know what to do, and nothing glib or polite or correct is going to come out of my mouth.
Will: You’re just like, “Oh. Ooh.”
Michael: I’m not sure that’s all that came out of my mouth, but I was lacking all tact. I wasn’t prepared for that. Come to find out, she had Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Muhammad Ali inside and that was the day that she shot those three together.
Will: Oh, wow. That’s awesome.
Michael: Yeah, right? I mean, really cool stuff. Yeah, I mean Pink has been in the restaurants and at events. There’s many people that have come through, that we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with. Whether you have a big name, or whether your house is next to mine and I happen to be catering in it, you’re going to get the same experience no matter what, because one of our big things is, “Passion lives here.” We really enjoy what we do. This is my happy place, is this little room right here. When I’m at home and I have things to do, I won’t bring my computer home. I like to come into my office and work, and create and design, and talk to people, because I’m in the job … My job is setting the stage for people to make lifelong memories. When you look at like that, and you think about it like that, you realize that what you’re doing is pretty big. It’s not frivolous at all. It’s not, “I just host parties.” I do host parties. I host some of the best parties in the city, as far as I’m concerned. I have the opportunity to go to these parties all the time, and I love what I do because of that.
Will: Very cool. It definitely, I mean again, it shows with your excitement and your energy that you have around everything. Awesome. We’re about at the halfway mark, so I just want to remind everyone who’s tuned in, either off-line or if tuned in live, this is mainly for you guys, to ask questions throughout the entire show. If you’re watching the GoToWebinar right now, all you have to do is hop on and go in the Question pane. It’s over on the right-hand side. Just click Questions. You can submit your questions and Michael is happy to answer any of them about anything catering-related. This is your chance to pick his mind. Or, if you’re not feeling like using the GoToWebinar, hop on your favorite social network and Alex’s favorite social network ever, Twitter, and tweet. Alex is tweeting live during the entire show, answering your guys’ questions as well. We’ll actually answer some of them online and he’ll shoot them on over to me to ask Michael, as well. So hop on Twitter, #EventIcons, or on the GoToWebinar, and happy to answer them.
All right, I’m going to steer around. I want to start talking a little bit about bigger things going on with the catering industry. Obviously, I’m big into A/V, so I don’t know really what’s going on with food and everything like that. I think everyone’s really curious to know what are the big trends going on in the catering industry right now, whether it’s the type of food or a way of business, everything like that? What do you think your biggest trends that you saw I guess from the past year? Then, what do you see as the biggest trends moving into this next year?
Michael: We can go currently, the big trend are stations. When you go to the trendy weddings, it’s cocktail for four or five hours, which is my favorite kind of cocktail, and there’s different stations around the room. There might be action stations, there’s different geographical references with these stations or foods. It’s a lot of fun. I think we’re going to see a huge, huge complete 180 on that and turn it back around to plated experiences. It’s really going to be about the whole culinary experience. People are really starting to think about where their food comes from, and how their food was grown, how their food got to their plate, which is not something that has really been on people’s minds previously. Now about 20 years ago, you started to see on menus the farms, the Niman Ranch pork came in the Blue Sky kale that came with la-la-la, and that’s starting to trickle down now into catering.
Tonight, actually, right after I leave this, I’m going to an event that we’re calling Chef Alex Stratta Experience, who’s our new Culinary Director, James Beard Award, Two Star Michelin chef. We’re doing a plated dinner for 18 people, three hand pass and four courses, and they’re going to sit there and watch the chefs prepare all of this food. It’s a huge experience. That’s what people want to see. We’re serving venison and sea bass as the entrees, and it’s something really special. It’s not your double-entrée with a green salad and a slice of pie at the end. This is a restaurant experience; this is a culinary experience where less is more, I would say. That’s going to be the biggest trend. It’s not about having 25 stations. It’s going to be about having four courses and some phenomenal food.
Will: Awesome. That’s really good to know. I’ve found that, I think, at every single place we’ve, everything’s been stations primarily. I don’t even remember the last plated dinner I actually got at an event. I’m trying to think. I mean, at the Zonie Awards, probably, when you did it, was the last time that I did a plated dinner, other than going to a restaurant, obviously. Very cool. Okay. Do you see there being any cool new foods that are being discovered, too, that no one’s utilizing? For example, kale. It came out of nowhere three, four years ago. I feel like I’m getting … it was probably even further down. I was obviously a laggard on that end, but is there a piece of food that’s becoming really hot that you got to have this thing? Like, buttered squash enchiladas or something like that?
Michael: You know what I think that we’re going to again go back to basics. We’ve been all into this superfood thing, right? Everything’s a superfood right now, whether it’s blueberries, quinoa, or kale, or whatever the latest superfood is. I think that the rise of heirloom items and back to our basics. It’s going to be great food, like I said, just simple, fresh ingredients. We don’t want the tomatoes that look like a perfect little tomato, we want a gorgeous tomato that tastes like a tomato, with just a little salt and pepper. It’s got that wow moment of, “I know what I’m eating,” not just shoving this stuff into my mouth. Let’s face it, tomato is kind of gelatinous and weird, and the tomatoes you buy in most grocery stores there’s not a lot of flavor. It’s actually tasting a tomato that tastes like earth and that sweetness, and it tastes like a bright summer’s day, and having that with maybe some fresh arugula with spice and salt and pepper. I mean, so light, so special, four or five ingredients, not the minestrone effect where there’s 25 things on your plate. It’s simple and fresh and unique, and less is more.
Really, I really honestly believe that that is the direction of our food. I know that’s the direction that we’re going as a company and I’m starting to see it more and more as I dine out. You don’t see these menus that are these 35-page bibles anymore. You’re starting to see, when you go into a fine dining restaurant, there’s seven entrees. Seven. Cool. Okay. This chef is feeling very confident about these seven dishes. Go for it. Eat up. Who am I to say no?
Will: Absolutely. I’m hoping, for one, that pretzels are going to make a comeback and we start seeing more pretzels at events, because you know how much I love pretzels.
Michael: Seriously, how often did you see the pretzel with the cheese fondue? That [crosstalk 00:37:05].
Will: That was everywhere.
Michael: Right, exactly. I’ll be honest, we served it a couple times, as well, at different events. That gastro-pub thing was really hot. Pizza was hot, and pizza will always be hot. Don’t over … Yeah, I will always love pizza. I am not knocking my pizza, but I really think that we’re going to see a return to the etiquette of the dining table and fine dining. No more of the loud, rock and roll fine dining, it’s going to be an experience. Get ready to put coal up your butt and make some diamonds, and pinch it up tight and really get it going, and have some fun with some real uptight, fun dining. I love it.
Will: I love it. I love it. You mentioned something that I wanted to ask a lot of questions about, because now we’re in a day and age where you can’t just have one menu, right? Now, because of all the allergies and restrictions that people have, whether, like you said gluten-free, vegetarian … It used to be vegetarian and meat were the two options, but now there’s 50 million ones. What are your tips for planners with coping with these, because I know it’s … You can’t individually cook a meal for every single person, right? So, what are your thoughts and tips? Is there one that you should totally make sure that you have, and one that’s you should say, “Hey, don’t worry about this, it’s like 1% of people,” or make sure you budget for this? Give us your tips when it comes to these restrictions and everything like that.
Michael: I say always be prepared. As a caterer when we’re hosting events, these people, like I said before, are guest in whether it’s our home or our venue or not, they’re guests at our party. If the client didn’t ask for a vegan, a vegetarian, lactose-free, just be prepared to be able to serve it. I think it’s so important. I’m not vegan or vegetarian at all, and I will sit at a table and realize that everything that I’ve ordered for these seven clients is all vegetarian. We love our herbs and our vegetables at our restaurant, so we serve a lot of it. They don’t have to just be grilled vegetables. It doesn’t have to be a plate of dry quinoa with some strange thing thrown on top. Vegetables can be interesting, so let them sing, let them dance, let them perform on their own. Enjoy what you’re serving. I would say stop worrying about them and just be able to accommodate them.
Will: Awesome. I love that, that you should always be prepared. That’s a great interview question if you’re selecting a vendor say, “Hey, so I know everybody’s prepared to create everything, but what happens if none of our people mark themselves as the vegan, or something like that, and someone shows up. Are you going to be prepared for the one-off chance? Tell me about your backup plan with that.” Almost as important as saying, “Does the A/V company have backup equipment?” Do you have backup catering solutions for these restrictions?
Michael: Absolutely. We’ll serve vegetarian that has a goat cheese crema, but on that plate I guarantee you there will be three that don’t have crema on them just in case there’s someone with a lactose-free need. That person that’s hand-passing will point that out to people. It’s being prepared like that and being able to service everyone who wants to eat.
Will: Awesome. I love it. We actually have a question from the audience. Karen, one of our awesome viewers who tunes in every single week. Shout out to you, Karen, so excited to have you back here. She asked, “Have you ever had an event where food is the central part of the event?” For example, social eating where the event was purely about the food, stops where the food was a part of the break. The break from the event was to actually eat. Have you had events like that? Any cool, sharing tips when it comes to the focus on eating for an event?
Michael: Absolutely. Tonight’s event. I mean that, they’re getting together to have a culinary experience. That is the whole reason that they are gathering. Making it a wow moment for them is of the utmost importance, and doing something that they’re going to remember. We’re actually going a little out of our vein, because we’re highlighting the chef that will be cooking tonight, and so we’re doing things like tuna tartare and green apple gremolata. Chef is doing this phenomenal hot apricot, wrapped around a prosciutto, skewered with a piece of rosemary.
Will: What?
Michael: Exactly. Exactly. When you pull it off, it’ll be pieces of the rosemary. You don’t actually eat the stick of the rosemary, but just the leaves of it with the hot apricot and prosciutto. It’s brilliant. It’s going to be so good, but people will remember it, though. That’s what people are going to really remember. I’m honestly a huge believer that a hand-pass should be a single bite, and as I like to tell my ladies, it doesn’t assault the lipstick. It’s just simple, eat, and huge flavor of food. When you’re doing something that is only based purely for eating, make it a wow moment for them. Don’t give them sliders. Don’t give them something that’s going to be forgettable. Make sure it is … If you do sliders, make sure they’re going to be the best dang sliders they ever had. Do something that’s going to be memorable for them, and they’re going to walk away talking about, as we say, “long past the last bit” talking about that food.
Will: Love it. I love it. I love the try and create memories out of everything that you’re doing, the little small memories that they’re going to remember. I’m curious, doing catering for so long now and being in the restaurant industry, there’s probably a lot of things that you know about huge challenges that are everyday, happen to you and, you’re like, “Man, I wish if Suzie had known how much we went through to make this so that happened,” right? What’s the hardest part about catering, that you wish all of your clients knew about?
Michael: Wow. I don’t think that I would want them to know about all the hard work that we go through. I don’t, because I think that it would make them feel bad. I want them to think I just walk in and flip my wrists and, boom, it’s done. It’s so simple and easy. I don’t want them to experience the sweat, the tears, sometimes the tears, lord knows the tears, the hard work, the running around, the “Oh my gosh, I forgot the sauce. Okay, what time is it? Okay, I can make it back,” or “Oh, we have to go to the grocery store and whip one up.” Whatever the case may be, they don’t need to ever see any of that. What I want my clients to know is the effortlessness that it took us to produce their party for them, so they can sit back and become a guest at their own home. I would never want them to know the hard work that we go through.
Will: Very cool. I love that. Be a guest at your own home. That’s awesome.
Michael: Or, your own whatever.
Will: You should be relaxing, especially if it’s going be so good food I want to eat it.
Michael: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Relax. I’m such a sweaty Betty, and so I have to. Really, I want us all to hurry and get done. I am a happy when we’re set up an hour before guests are going to arrive. I’m so sorry … We’re all set up a half hour before the guests arrive, or an hour before guests arrive, so I can sit and relax. So when they arrive, I’m just effortlessly walking through the room like nothing ever happened, and there’s all this stuff going on [inaudible 00:44:55] have this going on.
Will: I love it. I love it. I’d say I’m the same way, too. I want to have the A/V all set up so then that way they walk in like, “Woah, this is an amazing stage.” I’m like, “Yeah, if you had known how many hours we had just put into building this thing.”
Michael: [crosstalk 00:45:09] for 48 hours. There’s no need for them to know that.
Will: Exactly. Exactly. I know you’ve got done some really cool things. I’m going to steal one of them, and I’m going to share them. We did for our ILEA chapter had our annual Zonie Awards, our Arizona events industry award, and you catered it. You did probably one of the coolest ways of serving salad dressing ever. You put it in a … it’s called a, god, I’m calling it a beaker, but I’m … What was it called?
Michael: Atomizer, little spray pump.
Will: Atomizer. Is that what … Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s right. You put it in an atomizer and had a spray bottle serving with it and no one … Everyone was like, “Wow.” This was the talk of the party, was how you put dressing on a salad, which was amazing. I know you’ve got so many cool ideas and things you’ve seen across events, so I want to know what’s the coolest way you’ve ever seen food served? Sorry for stealing your [crosstalk 00:46:00] one.
Michael: Wow. I think that would have to go to GW Mariott Desert Ridge. I was designing events, so like I said, for a few years with PEP, and I don’t know what food was actually on this station, but they had a full-on beehive, covered one side with Lucite, and the bees were in a little hive hole things-
Will: Honeycombs.
Michael: Yeah, honeycombs. Thank you. Thank you. And, they were working their little butts off. Actually, I think there was like honey granola and granola bars and things like that on the table. I was so blown away, the thought that went into that.
Will: They had to find a bee wrangler, and build the Lucite, the container for them.
Michael: Right, right. Then, to get them in there and to think that. I mean, it’s stuff like that that I put up on a pedestal, and I’m like, “Okay, if I can only do that. If I can think way.” It’s always trying to think how can I serve this outside of a bowl? How can I serve this around what would make it interesting? It was just granola. I’m almost positive, now, that’s what it was, but boy they had live bees producing honey on that table. How frigging cool is that? I thinking out of the box in how you are going to serve something, and you’ll hear me say that all the time. Think outside of the box. I don’t even, I forget the company is The Herb Box. I really want people to have that full experience, not just eating good food, like I said.
If you’re going to have to pre-set a salad, as most caterers will tell you, that is a very difficult thing to do because a salad starts to break down within 10 minutes. That’s a salad, and 20 minutes later it’s kind not good anymore. Is it edible? Yeah, sure, but it’s not special. We put the dressing in an atomizer, and suddenly, wow, that salad could sit there all day. The guests get to control how much dressing is on their plate. It’s a whole experience, and they’re part of the whole making their salad now. That was roasted pear salad, and so we had the pear sliced and cheese in between. They had to mix it all up, and cut it all up, and it suddenly became a moment. And, that was just a salad. It’s really cool to really push yourself. I want to say each one of those atomizers might have been eight cents. Eight cents to make that wow moment for a salad. It’s worth it.
Will: Amazing.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. Easy money.
Will: That’s awesome. Speaking of moments, this is a great question we actually got from Alex. Again, Alex has got, and as the Twitter master who’s live tweeting this during this entire show, he would of course come out with a great social media question. We’re in the day and age where what’s the first thing people do when they get their food? It’s not to ooh and aah it, or anything. They bust out their phones and they take a picture of it, right? Instagramming their food. Gosh, Instagram turned into such a thing. How much of your time is put into making the food look pretty versus making it taste good? Let’s start with that question. Then, I guess, is this even something that people should have to worry about? Or, is it just something that you guys were doing beforehand, and then now people are taking a picture of it?
Michael: No, you know what? I think beforehand we were really into keeping it simple and clean, and so it was, “Yes, we’re going to have this homemade hummus on the table but it’s just going to be hummus in a bowl,” and that’s what it was. Now we’re piping hummus into little palm bowls and putting pita on the palm bowl. It’s people eat with their eyes first, and so every chef will tell you, that works in a restaurant, it’s all about how you plate up the food. You can plate up something without a lot of thought and people aren’t going to remember it. You plate something up, the same tasting food, and stack it all and put this and that, and paint this on it, and throw that around it, and suddenly they are thinking that it’s the best meal they ever had.
It’s the exact same food over here, but it’s how you present it that just wows everybody. It really is presentation is everything. It’s all about the details. We’re in the business of details. Everyone in town has great food. There’s not a single caterer out there that doesn’t have something they’re serving that is not phenomenal. The only thing that’s going to set us apart, beyond service, is the details and how we present our food is one of those details. Always think that way.
Will: A great example, I think, of that, too, is your neighbor. The people right across the street from you, Cowboy Ciao. They have this Original Chopped Salad, which is now famous, it has its own Facebook page. Literally, all it is is a chopped salad. Everyone’s had this before, but the way they it did where, I mean, the ingredients are really good, this is a delicious salad, but the way they did it with they put it in layers and stripes. Then they’re like, “Do you want me to mix it now?” and you’re like, “I just want to keep looking at it, but yes, I … Please mix it together.” Then they chop it and mix it up, and you’re like, “Oh, this is amazing.” I think that that visual view of the layers adds a huge amount to the experience and why people love it so much, probably.
Michael: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s completely true.
Will: Awesome, and by the way, ciao to Cowboy Ciao. After you go to The Herb Box, go to Cowboy Ciao and get that Original Chopped Salad. All right. Awesome. We only got a couple more minutes left, so I want to end this show on the two questions that I end every show on. First, sticking it up with what is your number one tip that you have for event planners? It can be catering-related or not. What’s your one tip for event planners to make their lives easier, and the planning process easier today?
Michael: Wow. Smile. Breathe. Which are things that I have to remember to do myself. I get a little excited, if you can’t tell. Take a moment to step away and look at it with fresh eyes. When you get into the trenches, and you’re going really strong, and there’s these problems and these problems, and you’re looking at your list and, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to solve everything?” Just walking outside, taking two minutes, and then coming back in and suddenly it’s all just, “Boom, boom. Boom, boom. Boom, boom … Okay, great!” And, it’s done. Literally, just taking that moment to breathe and solve everything. Because everyone around you, your staff, your chefs, and especially your clients, know when you’re starting to sweat. Don’t ever let them see you sweat, both figuratively and literally. So take those moments. Take those moments.
Will: Awesome. Awesome. I love it. I love it. By the way, I’m starting to get messages from people saying that we need to stop talking about food because they’re all so hungry, so I appreciate that I think we gave people a break moving from food to breathing. Everyone, take a deep breaths. We’re almost to the end of the show, then you can go enjoy some Herb Box. All right, so last question that I have for you is what cool resources do you have to share with everyone, whether it’s a favorite book you just read, a blog, a podcast, a cool tool that you use, anything like that.
For example, I just got my new MacBook Pro in. Super duper cool, however while it’s a cool resource and tool, don’t recommend people buying it because I don’t even use the touch bar yet. If you’re considering buying a MacBook, maybe you need to wait. That’s my cool new resource and tool that I’m using. Also just got the new Google Pixel, which I’m loving. You guys all know I’m a tech guy, so go check out the Google Pixel phone. But, you guys aren’t here to hear about my cool resources and tech, Michael, share with us what your favorite resources are. What gets you learning, what gets you working well?
Michael: I would say I get excited by creativity and inspiration. I can find inspiration walking down the street, especially going to a museum. I belong to Arizona Costume Institute, that is a fashion section of the Phoenix Art Museum. Going and looking at those fabrics really excites me, and puts ideas for how to design tables, and table scapes, and events in my head. I think reading Vanity Fair, Vogue, New York Times the Food section, to really stay on top of things outside of your city because so often we get stuck in what our city is doing, right? Stuck in our little bubble, and you have to get outside of the bubble.
If I’m not traveling on a daily basis, or a weekly basis, boy is it so much easier to just to read. Read, read, read. Those magazines, all that print, that’s still relevant for me. I read those articles, I look at those pictures, and I rip things out. I have little inspiration box, that I’ll go back and look through when I need to find something. That was David Merrill’s idea, so thank you David, if you’re watching. I really try to stay relevant and ahead of the ball game. I once read a quote that says, “If you see the bandwagon, it’s too late.” If you see a trend, how’s that trend going to evolve and that’s where you want to be.
Will: Awesome. Do you have a certain way that you read, when you’re looking at magazines? Are you using a Kindle or are you literally buying the actual, physical magazines? Is there a place you go? Are you going online?
Michael: Both. I do both. Yeah, some come right to my iPad, some I like to sit back and before I turn on the TV, or anybody, my partner, wakes up in the house, and I’ll just peruse through the magazines as the sun is rising and drink my espresso and I’m a happy, happy man by myself. It’s those moments alone, because this isn’t work for me so I’m not ever turned off. I’m just always looking for the next greatest thing.
Will: Yeah, I mean you’re always on, right?
Michael: Absolutely. I really am always on.
Will: I love the idea that of the inspiration box, by the way. I hadn’t heard it in that standpoint. I’m completely blanking on a famous author’s name, who’s written a ton of famous horror movie books and things like that, but for whatever reason I can only think of R. L. Stine, and I know it’s not R. L. Stine, but anyways … He always had the idea of whenever he’d come up with a book idea he would just write it down on a piece of paper and shove it into this drawer next to his bed or his desk or whatever. Then, whenever he was ready to write his next book, go in, pick it out, and be like, “Oh yeah, cool,” and then he would start working on that, and just constantly dumping them into it. So having a good notebook, and the inspiration box, I think is just awesome. You can always … Right now it might not mean much, but you can come back to it later, which I really love. Especially for a busy person like you and me to be able to go back to that, that’s fantastic.
Michael: Absolutely, because you see something and you know you want to eventually do it, but you don’t have anything to do it on now. Just put it in the box. Put it in the box and if you need an idea, you just … “Oh yeah, I could have done that. I could have done …” It’s great. Absolutely great.
Will: Awesome. Awesome. Well, unfortunately, time has run out. I am so honored. This was such an amazing conversation. I was so … I learned a ton. Thank you so much, Michael, and huge thank you from the audience. I know they are applauding at home. Thank you so much for being on the show today, and sharing with us your knowledge and all your years of experience. Thank you.
Michael: Thank you very much for having me. It was a lot of fun.
Will: Awesome. Well, guys, that’s going to wrap it up for this week’s episode. We’ll catch you guys next week on #EventIcons. Thank you, a huge thank you to all the audience and the people who tuned in live. We’ll see you guys all next week.
Michael: Bye, you guys. Thank you.
Will Curran

Author Will Curran

Information junkie, energetic, and work-a-holic are just some of the words we can use to describe Will Curran. Aside from spending 20 out of 24 hours a day working as the Chief Event Einstein of Endless Events, you can catch Will ordering a chai latte or watching The Flash with his cats. He is also well known for his love of all things pretzels.

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