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When it comes to catering, there’s a lot of the same ole, same ole: Static dishes and menus, boring presentations, warmed-over food, and absent chefs who send their employees to work at functions in their place. That’s why Amesbury–based Essential Chefs Catering was eager to shake up the industry a little when it launched in January.

“We don’t show up with a bunch of foil pans of stuff and say, ‘Here you go,’” says chef John Martin, who co-owns the business with his brother and fellow chef Dan Martin. Unless, of course, that’s what the client wants them to do.

And that’s the difference, the element that John says sets Essential Chefs apart from much of the rest of the catering industry: A complete willingness to customize menus and truly cater to what the client is looking for.

In addition, some larger catering companies are hesitant to take on smaller events. Although they’ve done big parties—weddings, showers, corporate functions—Essential Chefs Catering seems to thrive on smaller affairs that are often hosted in a client’s home.
“We can do the big parties,” says Dan. “We’ve done it thousands of times over. But what we really like to do are the more intimate kinds of dinners.”

Dan and John, both graduates of Johnson & Wales Culinary School, have a combined 50-plus years of food service experience under their belts, working for the area’s top restaurants, hotels, and catering companies, and even co-founding the catering company A Hot Dish! before launching their new business.

John’s executive chef experiences include stints at the Colonial Hilton Resort in Wakefield, the Colonial Inn in Concord, and the Boston Andover Wyndham Resort Hotel. He also co-founded Brew Moon Enterprises in Boston. Dan’s experience has taken him from executive chef roles at The White Elephant on Nantucket and the Brookside Resort and Golf Club on Cape Cod to his current role as executive catering chef at the Boston Public Library as part at The Catered Affair.

With their new venture, John and Dan have a few cardinal rules. First, every customer and dish gets their personal touch. When a client wants to host an event in their home, for instance, they’ll meet with John not only to discuss the menu and theme of the party but also to take into consideration other factors, such as the flow of the house.

“I personally go over every single detail with the customer,” John says. “I’m at each event from start to finish…that’s really what sets us apart.”

Dan agrees, adding, “When you hire us, you get at least one of us, if not both of us, on the job.”

That attention to detail extends to the menu planning, too. Essential Chefs Catering offers sample theme menus on its website, with countless dishes to mix and match. For instance, the backyard BBQ includes 10 different meat possibilities, such as a whole spit-roasted pig or pulled pork sliders; 12 salad and side ideas, such as Southern-style collard greens and hush puppies; and six dessert suggestions, including homemade whoopie pies and blueberry crisp. Other theme menus, like the tapas and small plates (with possibilities that range from lobster arancini with saffron aioli and pea shoots to a Vermont chèvre tart with artichoke barigoule), New England clambake, and brunch buffet, are similarly inspired.  

Those menus are really just a jumping-off point for ideas and discussions, though. “We can make it work any way the customer wants,” John says. “We work closely with the client to develop the menu and the whole flow of the night.” For instance, John recalls one dinner for 12 in the home of a CEO in Newburyport who wanted a casually elegant, interactive evening for the guests. “They didn’t want it to be too stuffy,” John says.

So they opted for a 10-course small-plate dinner that started with a raw bar and featured dishes like pan-seared line-caught halibut with lobster, asparagus, and spring pea risotto; crab claws; baby beet and arugula salad; and braised short ribs with parsnip purée. Essential Chefs Catering also paired the dinner with wines during the three-hour event.

In addition to enjoying the wonderful food, guests mingled in and out of the kitchen, talking with the chefs and asking questions. John and Dan both say they love interacting with the guests.

“I like when they come in the kitchen and ask questions, and they kind of pick your brain a little bit,” Dan says. “That’s fun…it’s like a little cooking class.”

John echoes that, saying that all his years working in restaurants didn’t really allow him to see and talk with guests. “Working in a hotel and restaurant, you’re stuck back in the kitchen, and you don’t get to see people enjoying your food,” he says. “Hearing feedback right away from the client or guests is great for us.”

That interaction and intimacy are important to John and Dan, even as they grow their business. They deeply value creating customized menus, and choosing and shopping for the freshest, most seasonal ingredients they can find from local farms and fishmongers.

“That’s kind of why John and I want to keep it on a smaller scale,” Dan says. John agrees, saying, “We have to touch each plate to make sure that everything is perfect.”