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How to plan fuss-free menus for intimate house parties

Turn to mini meals, grazing platters and flying buffets to welcome back guests  

Grazing platter and charcuterie board by Bengaluru's Indulge Indoors. 
Grazing platter and charcuterie board by Bengaluru's Indulge Indoors. 

Ayesha Katrak craved restaurant-style gourmet dishes through the early months of the pandemic. So she began whipping up fancy food—and thus was born a business idea, of creating bespoke culinary experiences for intimate gatherings. In June 2020, she launched Indulge Indoors.

The Bengaluru-based brand offers customised charcuterie boards and grazing platters with easy-to-eat foods like pint-sized pita pockets, stuffed tacos and mini eclairs for gatherings of 4-30 guests. The operations started from Katrak’s home. This June, she renovated and extended her kitchen, and is now expanding to cities like Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. Within a year, she has tasted sweet success: Starting with two-three boards daily, they now send out 10-12 daily on weekdays and 20-30 on weekends. Prices start from 2,000 for mini boards, going up to 5,500 to boards for four-six people.

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Katrak has no experience in hospitality—she was in the garment industry—but the demand for her platters spotlights a trend: finger-food menus for house parties to minimise contact as we begin to socialise again. Delhi may have a lead of sorts, with its customised meals even in the pre-covid era, but cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai are not far behind.

Katrak, for instance, offers a vegan antipasti platter, a Jain Mediterranean platter and a dessert platter named “Build your own Pavlova”, filled with meringues, chocolate and fresh fruits. Small portions and diversity help assemble meals in accordance with preference; you don’t have to cook—or do the dishes. “I think they got popular because of the variety we offer, which is so much more than a three-course meal at a restaurant,” she says.

Convenience and caution are driving this emerging trend. A year ago, as Mumbai’s matchbox-sized apartments began opening their doors to guests, chef Manpreet Dhody sensed the opportunity and launched a catering service.

It was not part of the plan, says the food consultant, whose brand I’M Wholesome used to sell dips, flavoured cheeses and gift boxes at weekend pop-ups. She would keep snacks like potstickers and pizzas to allow guests to sample the condiments. “(But) as people started to talk about our food, we thought why restrict the experience to just weekends. And we began to create platters and mini meal experiences through the week,” says Dhody, who expanded her product line to include platters like antipasti and mezze for small house parties. She went on to create party menus for celebrities Manish Malhotra, Hrithik Roshan and Shabana Azmi.

Chef Manpreet Dhody, I'M Wholesome
Chef Manpreet Dhody, I'M Wholesome

“I think covid-19 played a big role. People didn’t want to dig into a bowl of guacamole or take slices of a pizza which were shared by others. We offer smaller portions where touch is minimal. This works for parties where you don’t know too many people,” explains Dhody, adding that her revenue doubled during the lockdown this year. I’M Wholesome has mini versions of pizzas, sandwiches, tarts and seasonal vegetables reimagined as snacks—think beetroot fold-over stuffed with goat cheese and za’atar.

Apart from the variety and smaller portions, the personalisation factor adds to the flavour of these menus. “It’s your menu, you get it curated by us,” says Dhody. I’M Wholesome, which began with a team of three, now has a workforce of 30, making it easier to cater to last- minute changes such as an unexpected increase in numbers. Their prices start from 1,500 and can go up to 1 lakh or more depending on the order.

House parties with gourmet food for events like Diwali, baby showers and pre-wedding soirees were already popular in Delhi pre-pandemic. The city has well-established catering businesses which offer canapés filled with decadent cheeses, cookie sandwiches and flying buffets—the main course plated in small portions, carried in trays and served to guests. “Laying out food in the old-school buffet format is completely out of the window, I believe,” notes Tanya Mehta, co-founder of the six-year-old gourmet catering service HolyBelly Food Boutique.

But the pandemic has ushered in some changes here too. Till the covid-19 outbreak, their chefs would go to homes to prepare lavish meals. Over the last one-and-a-half years, they switched to delivering meals in mini boxes, though chefs are once again beginning to visit homes for small gatherings. On the menu are mini portions of lamb cigars with truffle-cauliflower purée, custard apple pannacotta and fried brioche served with caramelised sugar rabdi.

CAARA, another Delhi-based brand, made a mark with its flying buffets when it launched seven years ago. Its business expanded to cafés, a culinary school and a delivery segment, Easy Dining, that offers ready-to-eat canapés and desserts, a high tea menu, dips and sauces. During the pandemic, it closed two of its four cafés and the culinary school went virtual.

Mini gluten-free orange and almond cakes from CAARA's high-tea menu. 
Mini gluten-free orange and almond cakes from CAARA's high-tea menu. 

The Easy Dining segment, not as much in focus in the pre-covid era, kept the company afloat. Its high tea menu has bite-sized snacks like spinach and feta filo rolls, farm kale and mushroom sliders and mini sausage rolls. “We noticed people started to order these small bites as they were entertaining at home. They would also add in a few dips and crackers,” says Ambika Seth, CAARA co-founder. The demand for gift boxes increased too. “A lot of people sent food boxes as gesture of care during the lockdown,” adds Seth.

Diwali, they all hope, will fuel their dreams of a return to normalcy. For pan-India shipping, CAARA is focusing on boxes with crackers, dips and sweets; for house parties, it has a lavish grazing platter, complete with focaccia crostini, marinated olives and ragi-macadamia laddoos. Indulge Indoors is readying mithai platters and “Build Your Own” chaat boards with papdi, puris, dahi, sev and chutneys you can mix and match. Customisation is here to stay.

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