Counter Culture: Stylish Food Stations

The rise of the interactive food station

Food stations are hitting the big time, but what’s the secret of their appeal? It’s all about creating an interactive experience, discovers Emma J Page

There’s a food cult happening right now and it seems as though everyone’s at it: from Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, whose ‘Sweetie Darling’ food fest went down a storm at the after-party of the Ab-Fab premiere, to the art world’s great and good, who recently feasted on chic picnics at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. It’s all about the food bar and when it comes to getting it right, there’s only one mantra: go big or go home.

It turns out that food stations have been around for a while, but the advent of social media sites such as Instagram, plus the current craze for street food, has reinvented the wheel.

They’re not strictly new, but their rising popularity is linked to our desire to eat more informally at events and to explore different food cultures,’ says By Word of Mouth’s Clare Thompson. ‘And of course the advent of social media calls for plenty of visual impact to sate our appetite for storytelling, interaction and colour. Food bars, from sushi counters to Mediterranean grills, tick all those boxes.’

By Word Of Mouth Autumn Pudding Bar

By Word Of Mouth Strawberry And Cream Duo Bar

(Image: By Word of Mouth Autumn Food Bar and Strawberry and Cream Duo Bar)

Providing a more substantial offering to guests, food stations are a popular addition to birthday celebrations, parties, launches, weddings and events, creating a natural talking point.

‘They act as an ice-breaker, offering guests an immediate shared experience,’ says Samantha Welstead-Wood, Business Development Manager at Bubble Food, which organised the aforementioned food station at the Absolutely Fabulous after-party, including Jaeger bomb gummi bears and ‘cigarettes’ of tobacco-infused chocolate ganache. ‘They are great for events with a high volume of guests that need to be fed efficiently, and equally good at birthday parties with lots of personalisation. For a fortieth last year, the team worked with Tina Nisson Design to create a tongue-in-cheek ‘90s rave station, complete with glow-in-the-dark mentholated mousse in Vicks VapoRub jars and smiley face cookies.’


Bubble Food Food Station

Bubble Food Station

 (Images: Bubble Food Dessert Bar, the Ab-Fab After party cocktails and the Bubble Food Tina Nisson Design Sweet Station, Deli Bar and Dessert Bar)

The key is to build a generous, visually enticing bar, where the food itself takes centre stage. ‘Height is a key styling element,’ explains Zafferano’s Creative Director, Joanna Moody. ‘Placing food flat on a table belongs in the hotel breakfast buffet. Stylish food stations demand to be framed by something fabulous and with lots of different height risers to lead the eye and entice the palate.’

In terms of trends, the more creative you can go, the better, though the emphasis should be on great quality first and foremost. ‘These days, ideas are a little more conceptual, rather than simply ‘Italian’ or ‘Indian’,’ says Joanna. ‘Smoked meat, fish and vegetables are huge right now and so is Scandi. The clean living movement is having a moment, with lots of colourful, vibrant and zingy salads and power juices – although always with a twist: at parties, we’ve been known to sneak a little vodka into the NutriBullet!’

Zafferano Vaults

Zafferano Dessert Garden And Seafood Boat

(Images: Zafferano The Vaults Waterloo and the Edible Garden and Seafood Boat bar) 

Storytelling is a good way to entice guests and with professional input, all kinds of magic can be achieved. London-based catering firm William Norris & Company recently curated a Mad Hatter’s tea party that came complete with giant battenburgs and twelve-inch jammy dodgers, creating a feast that was as visual as it was moreish. ‘We played with the senses,’ explains Senior Events Manager Rebecca Barker. ‘There were flowers to eat and sandwiches to look at; cocktails poured from teapots and wine sipped from teacups.’

William Norris Mad Hatter Bar

(Images: William Norris and Company Mad Hatters Tea Party)

But if you’re going for a theme, a word of warning: be consistent and follow it through. ‘It’s important to think about the whole effect, but it can also be very easy to get carried away acquiring lots of different props,’ says Samantha Welstead-Wood. ‘Be aware that adding too many elements that don’t create one holistic style can just end up looking messy.’ And never forget that it’s all about the food - simplicity can be striking too. ‘Sometimes the drama is in the natural beauty of the food itself,’ says Clare Thompson. ‘There is nothing more impactful and enticing than a seafood bar featuring plenty of freshly shucked oysters over crushed ice. You don’t always need bells and whistles.’ Rebecca Barker agrees. ‘While more is more when it comes to a theme, the opposite is true when conceiving your menu. Bear in mind that a large collection of a single item can often be as dramatic as a vast array of choices.’

William Norris Seafood Bar

(Images: William Norris and Company Seafood Bar)

Zafferano Dessert Station

(Image: Zafferano Desset Station)

Nonetheless, a little bit of theatre goes a long way. Immersive and multi-sensory elements are headlining right now, whether that includes edible newspaper crisps and salt and vinegar vapour accompanied by the sounds of the seaside at Bubble Foods’ popular Brighton Pier station, or chefs working in situ, carving a leg of Prosciutto, slicing salami, or poaching eggs in front of guests.

‘It’s all about experiences that can’t be created easily in the kitchen or home environment,’ says Ella Caulier-Grice of London-based bespoke caterers E & V. ‘The informality and colour of street food is a big influencer. The key is to make sure that your station is replenished often and always looks full.’

Like the best theatrical productions, it seems that a memorable food station is all a case of smoke and mirrors. Add just the right amount of drama, a generous pinch of behind-the-scenes effort, and a smattering of artistry and your own is sure to be a hit.

Breakast Bar EV

Our Experts Offer Their Top Tips & Tricks To Create The Perfect Food Station 

  • Do consider the staff to guest ratio. It’s likely that you’ll need to replenish the food throughout service, so think about how this will be co-ordinated and by whom. Will you require a chef to be on the station and will the staff need to be styled to reflect the overall theme?
  • Make sure your furniture can support the weight of the equipment – heavyweight trestle tables are best. Do also ensure you have sufficient storage to replenish food easily. Hide any storage boxes underneath the station – but only if they will stay out of sight.
  • Don’t fill the station with too many props or equipment. Remember that food is the ultimate purpose, so your bar shouldn’t be overcrowded by other elements.
  • Do ensure your food station has a story and the selection of food on offer makes sense to the eye and to the palate.
  • Food stations need to look abundant and generous at all times so cold or ambient options work best. A theatrical, chef-led element can look amazing but remember that if you are feeding large numbers, guests shouldn’t spend too long at the station waiting to be served.
  • Your food bar should look as appetising towards the end of your event as at the beginning. Put as much thought into the visual and creative aspect as you do into the menu – the food might be outstanding but if it’s not displayed inventively, then it becomes just food on a table.
  • Keep abreast of trends and notice what street food is new and interesting. For classics, how about a hand-carved steak and chip bar, or a seafood bar laid on shards of ice? Both are surefire hits.

For some great food station accessories to style your station, take a look at TOAST's pick of the best on theEdit. 


Posted in Inspire Me

by Emma J Page
on on 06 October 2016

  food bar, food stations, food theatre

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