In the movie “Fantastic Voyage,” Raquel Welch and her crew board a submarine which is miniaturized and injected into a Russian scientist who was shot by his comrades while trying to defect. In the story, both the US and the USSR possess technology that can miniaturize anything - rockets, nuclear bombs - but the American version lasts only for an hour. The defector has figured out how to extend it indefinitely, but is suffering from an inoperable blood clot, and the clock is ticking as Welch and company try to destroy it before they return to full size while still inside of him. What delicious irony.
You’d think Peter Callahan would love this movie, but he hasn’t even seen it. He’s the Philadelphia and New York-based caterer who single-handedly sparked a national trend by miniaturizing comfort food, which people happily inject into their own mouths.
“I didn’t consciously think, ‘I’m going to shrink everything in sight.’ It just happened,” says Callahan of the mini ground sirloin burger hors d’oeuvre with hand-made seeded buns that started it all. He then filled mini-cones with mini frites and turned mac and cheese into bite-size jewels. He went on to shrink the entire canon of breakfast food, even designing mini-bread pans to bake bread for tiny French toast.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Callahan must feel gratified. His Lilliputian labors have been relentlessly copied, and Callahan Catering, which functions as a de facto R and D (Research and Development) wing of the catering community, has defined the look and menus of parties for more than a decade. His kitchen is a culinary Menlo Park that transforms ordinary into edgy and hip: “Spaghetti and Meatballs” become angel hair pasta coiled atop a tiny meatball and “Beef and Beer” is carpaccio on Reggiano served with tiny stein of Guinness.
According to Britannica, creativity is defined as the ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether it’s a new solution to a problem, or a new artistic object or form. Catering is defined as providing food or entertainment in a particularly attentive manner as well as supplying what amuses, is desired or gives pleasure and comfort. Callahan fuses the two by reducing comfort food to the size of a half-dollar coin and intensifying flavor. The food is imaginative, exquisite and labor-intensive.
Callahan had no formal cooking experience when he opened his company in Paoli, Pennsylvania more than 25 years ago. After attending “a few colleges,” standardized tests indicated that he had an “aptitude for creativity” but not much else. Right out of school in the 80s, he traded on the Commodity Exchange. After two years he left to start a food and catering company. Family explained the location but not the abrupt career switch. Callahan says knew he could cook “having helped my mom and grown up with two sisters who couldn’t boil water.” And while he had never thrown a professional party, he entertained in college. A lot.
“I knew the mechanics of making a good party,” he grins. Within ten years he was one of Philadelphia’s top caterers, and in 1997 he married his second wife and catered their own wedding. Talk about unflappable.
Callahan is more impresario than chef, more creative director than saucier. “What I’m best at is creating something new.” Food is simply his medium. He’s about invention, style and joy. There’s “Caviar and Vodka’s” edible spoons topped with caviar and crème fraiche with iced vodka shots. “Pigs in a Blanket Two-Ways” offers traditional puff pastry enrobed franks and smoked salmon and pumpernickel pigs covered with wasabi-flavored flying fish roe “blankets” which hover side-by-side above a flat of wheatgrass secured in a white Lucite tray of Callahan’s own design. “Lobster Rolls” with a hint of truffle and “Tuna Cheese Steaks” with arugula and pecorino come in hand-made inch-long rolls, while “Salmon Tartare” fills translucent plantain cones. Desserts are inch-long Limoncello ice pops, quarter-sized Chipwiches, and freshly spun cotton candy.
Yes, he does do full-size food, though interestingly, the small stuff doesn’t always work in reverse. “The charm of ‘Spaghetti and Meatballs’ is that they’re tiny,” he says. “It still tastes great blown up, but it’s nothing special.” Potential additions to his menu include a barbecue entrée with chicken cut into the letters “b,” “b,” “q” that stand vertically on a plate. “We’re still working on it. So far it looks a little weird, but I still like the idea and think it could be made to work.” He’s also working on a Coca-Cola hors d’oeuvre that will be “all about the sugar, all about the taste, something All-American, iconic, something classic.”
“My best work is not in the kitchen. I’m not a classically trained chef. I make fun, whimsical, interesting food,” says Callahan.
Inventor Charles Kettering, who held 140 patents and headed research at General Motors from 1920 through the 1940s, said that an inventor should be defined as someone who doesn't take his education too seriously. Peter Callahan certainly didn’t. And look where it’s taken him.