Sari Brown and the kitchen crew of the Yellow Carrot fed a jubilant crowd of several hundred Womens Resource Center supporters at Fridays annual Girls Night Out auction fundraiser at the Blue Lake Ranch event center.
The seasoned catering staff employed the old duck technique: Glide across the water with calm and elegance. Below the surface, paddle like hell.
Despite threatening weather, the finger food flowed uninterrupted as hungry shoppers meandered under the big top.
More than 1,700 pieces of sushi were displayed on a twinkling, Asian-themed platform, flanked by Panang curry stir-fry vegetables in carry-out cartons decorated with festive toys.
Mexican appetizers included cucumber sombreros stuffed with cheese, mini peppers stuffed with chorizo and black beans and Guadalajara-style potato chips with lime salsa.
Piave-crusted chicken roulade was made with spinach, red peppers and mushrooms.
Basil, goat cheese, rice and beets were well-represented in tapas-style Mediterranean fare.
Desserts included lots of chocolate, coconut, hazelnut mousse and ginger creations displayed among colorful flowers and amusing sculptures.
At nights end, the food was mostly gone, the mess was packed up and the place cleared for the next bash. From the perspective of the guests, it all looked almost effortless.
Brown is one of several Durango caterers with well-developed webbed feet from lots of paddling.
Veterans such as Chuck Norton, Jimmy Nicholson and Michael Lutfy also have swum between the restaurant scene and scores of party locations. They say catering is an orchestrated, all-hands-on-deck adventure, especially in the pre-party planning and set-up, where most of the work is done long before guests arrive.
According to Norton, owner of Nortons Catering, hosts and hostesses who are at home in the kitchen and are accustomed to doing all the heavy lifting occasionally have a tough time letting go once theyve hired a caterer.
The challenge with women who are used to doing all the cooking, preparing all the food for their party, is to get them out of the kitchen, Norton said. I say, Get outta here. Go enjoy your party.
Most first-time catering clients do not necessarily know what they want or how much theyll need to pay, Norton said, but having a budget, and a clear idea of what you want to achieve, is a good start.
Norton is busy with five to six weddings a month and an equal number of private parties, plus 15 to 20 corporate events. Summers are just as busy as holidays.
He said happy party hosts usually have an accurate guest count, know the pros and cons of the venue they select and are prepared for service costs, linens, glassware and occasional transportation costs.
For those on a tight budget, many caterers will prepare food for clients to pick up and serve themselves.
The Yellow Carrots Sari Brown said many elements play into the cost of acquiring a caterer.
When you hire a caterer, you are basically building a mini restaurant for a day. It may be costly, but it is so worth it, Brown said of her one-stop-shopping storefront and catering business on North Main Avenue, where clients also can purchase sandwiches, salads, take and bake meals, desserts and beverages.
They can have it all, from the flowers to the glasses and plates that I own, so they do not have to rent elsewhere, she said. I dont turn anyone away. Im extremely flexible.
Brown said she prefers catering over the restaurant business because it allows her to be as creative as I want.
Nothing is ever boring, she said, pointing to dozens of cakes featuring taste combinations that are anything but traditional. I have never followed the rules.
Jimmy Nicholson, owner of Durangourmet, said most of his business is via word of mouth from years of catering popular Durango events such as Music in the Mountains Pops Night, KSUT fundraisers and even three- to five-day bicycling trips, where gourmet, restaurant-style meals are the norm.
Its not beans and rice, Nicholson jokes about the distant and remote locations to which he has transported party fare in hot boxes. Its amazing what you can do with a stove and propane.
Like the others, Nicholson said its all about double-checking everything. Ive catered events where theres no power and no water. You leave nothing to chance.
Chuck Norton refers to hauling good food to challenging locations as the thrill of the kill.
Its like beef Wellington for 60 people gathered in the woods at Forest Lakes in a rainstorm, he jokes.
Nicholson said the use of quality, local and often organic ingredients also appeals to those who travel from out of state for family weddings. They dont usually complain about price because theyre used to paying more, he said, especially if they are from the East Coast.
Still, you have to be competitive, he said, adding that hell often prepare a free sample menu for guests who are finalizing their choices for a wedding.
Nicholson, Brown and Norton all have websites where clients can get menu ideas.
Relatively new to Durangos catering scene is the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Bergita Lutfy, who have catered events for Trails 2000, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Volunteers of America fundraisers such as Chocolate Fantasia.
Before moving to Southwest Colorado from the West Coast in 2007, the Lutfys catered plenty of large-scale corporate events. They also prepared several seasons of demanding, on-the-road meals for the Mario Andretti Racing Team, which required quality and varied choices for its crew members.
The Lutfy catering team showcases Bergitas love of gardening and pastry baking with Michaels grilling and entrée preparation. Their menu features fresh, seasonally available ingredients, as well as hard-to-find specialty selections.
Both Lutfys are employed full time in non-food related careers, but they are increasingly drawn to the challenge of catering.
To ensure a successful event, Michael Lutfy said he always makes it a point to visit with clients well in advance and take a tour of the venues kitchen.
You have to be able to determine what you can and cannot do, he said, noting that some clients have little understanding of how much advance effort goes into food preparation. They think they are paying for what they see happen that day, on site.
Lutfy advises party planners to also budget for extras that might not be anticipated, such as flowers, tablescapes, linens, service charges and bartenders.
Its all integrated, in our view, Lutfy said. Its all part of the ambiance youre paying for.