2011 | Sarasota, FL
By MADISON PALMER
Happy hours, power lunches, and extravagant sit-down dinners have long been the fast-paced standards for business meetings and social gatherings, but in today's market, such choices are often not economically feasible. As a less-expensive, low-key option, Chef Larry Barrett of Simply Gourmet Caterers offers his offsite Royal Tea, a version of British High Tea, a service he says is the most called for by his clients in Sarasota, Florida. But what separates Barrett's high tea from others is his approach, involving a little bit of theater.
"It's a civilized luxury everyone can afford, and it's totally flexible," he says. "You can come dressed up to the nines, or you can wear a t-shirt and shorts."
The experience offers flexibility in terms of what is served, but Barrett suggests choosing the type of tea being served up front, just as with a wine tasting. The type of tea will determine the menu, which can include everything from tarragon chicken salad sandwiches, Stilton tarts, grilled veggies with avocado scallion cream, smoked trout, petit fours, canap�s, pecan walnut loaves, and miniature parfaits.
Barrett sets tables with linen, tea cups, napkins, spoons, sugar cubes, creamers, and other staples, and special touches can always be added, such as flower arrangements and fine crystal. The food is prepared about two hours ahead of time, and very few items require heating. "If it's hot food, people have to hurry and eat it," Barrett says. "With our menu, they can savor their food and relax."
It takes about an hour to set up a sit-down tea, and buffet teas, which can be more elaborate with special garnishes, take about an hour and a half.
Click to download the Simply Gourmet Royal Tea Menu [PDF]
Chef Barrett has an Australian and an English server, who are experts at making a "proper" cup of tea and who are well equipped to turn up their accents to add theatrical flair to the event. They have even been known to wear aprons, as well as tuxedo tails, to emulate British butlers. If more than two authentic servers are requested, Barrett calls on a local employment agency specializing in banquet services. As a rule, the afternoon teas require one server for every 20 guests and a back server to prepare tea and replenish the food.
The afternoon tea, which usually accommodates 15 to 30 people, costs about $15 to $20 a head, compared to a buffet dinner, which can cost $30 to $35. Depending on the type of tea, the menu may include tarragon chicken salad sandwiches, Stilton tarts, grilled veggies with avocado scallion cream, smoked trout, petit fours, canap�s, pecan walnut loaves, or miniature parfaits."I believe this will become a nationwide catering trend. The economy is down, people want to treat themselves, and this is a reasonably priced alternative," says Barrett. "It's also fun."
Yonilee Miller recently hosted an afternoon tea at her house to celebrate a housewarming/birthday. She and Barrett came up with the idea of a "British Invasion" theme, complete with Beatles music and servers wearing white, frilly aprons.
"The event didn't feel like a formal tea party," Miller says. "Instead, it was a hip, cool experience, and I was able to enjoy my own party without having to run all over the place."
A "Ladies' English Tea" was the order of the day for client Stephanie Gill, to promote Mothers Helping Mothers, a non-profit support group. "It was a great spread, and the event gave everyone the excuse to dress up and be feminine," says Gill. "The tea was a fun way to get the ladies together and expose them to something different, and I will definitely host one again."
Barrett chooses his food items from a standard menu of more than 25 savories (sandwiches, spreads, and canap�s) and about 30 sweets (cookies, parfaits, and cakes), but he always goes to the clients first to determine their tastes.
Madison Palmer is a freelance writer and editor based in the Atlanta area.