Party Planning 101: Call in the Caterers

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

By Marianne Weaver

From intimate at-home dinner parties to extravagant banquets and weddings—and everything in between—Prince William caterers source ingredients locally to create custom menus tailored to the hosts’ personalities and food preferences.

“People often think they can do it all themselves,” said Andrew Schneider, owner of Elegance To Simplicity Catering, Manassas. “But a lot of time goes into a party—planning, shopping, food preparation. My goal is to let the hosts enjoy their guests and enjoy their party.”

Elegance To Simplicity specializes in buffet-style event catering for a wide range of events, including military promotion and retirement ceremonies, celebrations of life, weddings, business meetings and more.

Schneider is more than just the owner; he’s the chef. He honed his skills during his 26 years of service in the Marine Corps, preparing meals for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Bob Hope, John Glenn, and Marine Corps Generals Joseph Francis Dunford Jr., 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commandant of the Marine Corps, and James Norman Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense.

“I love what I do,” he said. “We have more than 50 items on our menu, but if someone wants something special, we’ll research it and do it.”

He said they offer options for special diets, including vegetarian and gluten-free. But, he said, his favorite dish is the bacon bourbon meatballs. The most popular item on the menu, he said, is the signature chili lime chicken, which is grilled marinated chicken served with serrano chilies, Mexican seasoning and slices of lime.

“We love barbeque,” he added. “Three weekends a month we are at Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run, where we serve pulled pork, coleslaw, hot and sweet Italian sausage with peppers and onions, barbeque chicken thighs, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and a specialty item.”

Schneider said he focuses on the main dishes and outsources dessert orders.

From Dessert to Appetizer
Cakes by Happy Eatery, Manassas, began as a bakery. “We are a second-generation business that was started in 1984 by my parents,” said owner Victoria Wu. “We are a full-service bakery, and our forte is the cakes. But as people started having more parties, they needed assistance on the savory side. So that’s how our catering business came about.” Unlike other caterers who might stay onsite to set up and serve, Wu said her catering service is geared more toward supplementing the host’s menu.

“What makes us unique is that we can use our customers’ nice dishware,” said Wu. She said customers drop off their serving platters, and she prepares the food and presentation. “No one wants to put out a pan of lasagna in an aluminum platter. So they bring me their beautiful ovenproof casserole dishes.
When they pick up, food is ready to be served or can be easily reheated.”

Usually, she said, her customers pick up, but delivery is available. Wu said the minimum order generally serves 10 to 12 people, and heated stainless-steel chafing units are available for rent. Although she said she customizes each order, a few dishes are always the top picks.

“The most popular dishes are the hot crab dip and buffalo chicken dip,” she said. “When it comes to entrees, people love Norwegian meatballs and chicken marsala.”

On the sweet side, she said, the most popular desserts are the red velvet cake and the cookies-and-cream cupcakes. She said fresh fruit tarts are always popular, as are the warm apple crumb pies.

“Cakes are how it all started,” she said, noting that there are 30-plus cakes and pastries to choose from in the bakery’s café on Liberia Avenue. “If you don’t see something you want, tell us. If we have the ingredients, we’ll create it.”

A La Carte Caterine + Event Design logo

Beyond the Family Business
Karen Baker, president of À la Carte Catering + Event Design in Haymarket, said she’s always known that her talents and passion lie in the hospitality business.

“I come from a restaurant family on my mother’s side,” she said. “My grandmother was a single mom and a strong and industrious woman. To support herself, she started a hotdog stand on the Wildwood boardwalk during WWII, and when her sons returned from war, they took it over and eventually opened large destination restaurants on the Jersey shore, called Zaberer’s, which became a place to go for most Philadelphians and New Jersey residents until they closed in the ’80s.” She worked there one summer.

“But my uncle was so strict, I didn’t last long,” she said. “I continued to support myself through college working in food and hospitality. It was a great experience that taught me so many life skills. I think everyone should work in hospitality early in their career.”

Growing up, Baker said her mother was the chef, cooking three meals a day and always from scratch. She was tasked with setting the table, and Sundays were something special, complete with silver, fine china and starched linens. Her grandmother, who she also lived with, taught her how to bake. She said he was hooked.

After college, she found her way south and worked for Ridgewell’s Caterer in Bethesda, where she said she was exposed to over-the-top events catering to D.C. elite, from social galas to Presidential inaugurations. After moving to Prince William in 2000, she founded À la Carte Catering + Event Design. She said they pretty much do it all: corporate meetings, grand openings, anniversaries, picnics, cocktail receptions, house parties, graduations, birthdays and milestones, fundraisers … and lots of weddings, ranging from two to 5,000 guests, from simple drop-offs and set-ups to fully catered.

“We bring everything to the table…literally,” she said. “Entertaining is fun, but stressful. The reason most plan events is to celebrate a milestone and to create memories. Without having a professional caterer, the host cannot enjoy the fun part because they can’t get out of the kitchen. They don’t get to visit with their invited guests and miss most of the party and the reason for the celebration in the first place.”

Due to the diversity of the region, Baker said her four chefs and other staff strive to stay one step ahead of ever-changing trends.

“Living in a very international area, we cater a lot of multicultural weddings and events, which are some of my favorites,” she said. “We get to experiment with different cuisines, traditions and rituals from a Chinese tea ceremony to an Indian saptapadi to a Middle-eastern belly dance to a Nigerian camel dance. We have seen it all!”

Argentinian Flare
Lucia Bruno, owner of Pampa’s Fox Catering in Nokesville, also draws from her family background for her full-service catering business.

“My twin sister has a catering business in Argentina, which is where I come from,” she said. “I have a love for food and service.”

She said she works with clients to determine how many services they need and has catered events ranging from 15 people for a private party to 500 people for a wedding.

“We can do the whole thing—we have bartenders and servers,” she said. “But if they have their own team, we can just bring the food. It all depends on the client.”

Although she caters most all events—weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties, graduation parties, first communions and more—she frequently caters events at the Embassy of Argentina in Washington, D.C.

She said her business differentiates itself by serving traditional Argentinian food.

“We offer Argentinian asado,” she said. “It is very different than the way people barbeque here.”

Asado is a family- and friend-oriented experience focused on grilled meat cooked slowly over an open wood fire. As the meat grills, the Pampa’s Fox asador begins the dining experience with a wide variety of flavorful appetizers cooked over the hot grill, such as sausages (including Argentine chorizo), provoleta (grilled provolone cheese), ribs and sweetbreads. For the main course, the asador serves different cuts of beef, chicken and pork. Side dishes include roasted potatoes and a variety of traditional salads.
Following the Argentine tradition, there is always chimichurri sauce at the table.

Bruno said empanadas are one of the most popular items on the menu. Sold by the dozen, they are filled with beef, chicken, ham and cheese, mozzarella and onions, tuna, corn, swiss chard or caprese. For dessert, she said most of her customers opt for rogel, which is 11 thin layers of flaky dough covered in dulce de leche and topped with Italian merengue.

“Presentation is huge for us,” said Bruno. “We source locally and use the freshest ingredients possible. We cook everything fresh and from scratch. I don’t open cans in my kitchen.”

Marianne E. Weaver ( is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University.


Comments are closed.