A few years ago, I was at an event on a pier along Manhattan’s west side. Milling around from booth to booth, a server approached me with a tray of what appeared to be miniature grilled cheese sandwiches, carefully presented on a specially designed tray. Surely these one-bite appetizers couldn’t be as delicious as the real, full-size thing, perfectly seasoned with just the right ratio of melted cheese to crisp, buttery bread. Oh no, but they were. I guess you could call it love at first sight — I had become instantly smitten with Peter Callahan’s inventive food, presented in miniature form in the cleverest ways.
If you’ve ever flipped through magazines like Town and Country, House Beautiful, or Martha Stewart Weddings, you’ve seen Callahan’s artistry at work. A former Wall Street trader, Callahan left the financial world in 1985 to start a small, takeout food shop that quickly morphed into Callahan Catering, his Philadelphia- and New York-based business. With more than two decades of experience serving a demanding, well-traveled clientele who dine in the best restaurants and have a keen eye for smart design, it is no wonder that Callahan has become a favorite of prominent names like Tory Burch, Martha Stewart, Kelly Ripa, Hermès, and JPMorgan.
“Food should be the entertainment unto itself,” says Callahan. His whimsical miniature sweet and savory hors’ d’oeuvres have become a trend around the country, and with the new debut of his book Bite by Bite, you don’t need the checking account of a star to be able to serve guests a Callahan signature at your next party.
Leafing through the pages of the book, it's apparent that Callahan is an artist first. From chicken Parmesan “lollipops,” one-bite pies, and shooters of corn soup with a piece of crisp bacon, to one of my favorites — Callahan’s, too — fresh-mixed margaritas in miniature bottles of Patron, complete with a straw through the cork, Callahan offers a fresh approach to common comfort foods. He shrinks them in size (without sacrificing taste), and presents them in an unexpectedly innovative way, combining things we love and know so well, like short ribs and bacon, in ways that we’ve never seen before. He leaves even lifestyle experts like Martha Stewart in awe. “He can think really, really big — hundreds of guests do not frighten him or make him nervous…” yet, “he delivers small, in the sense of finely constructed, inventive, creative, delicious, mind-boggling, tiny, bite-sized, ultra-tasty tidbits”
While in his youth, Callahan was told, after taking aptitude tests, that his creativity was off the charts (he had the creative capabilities of an artist), it was really through his clients that he found his niche. “They always stressed the importance of one-bite hors d’oeuvres for parties,” as would be expected. One day, he decided he wanted to really shrink down a burger — it was an instant success. “After seeing how amazing that looked, and watching how my clients went crazy for it, I started thinking of all my favorite iconic American foods to shrink, like grilled cheese, tacos, lobster rolls, donuts, even pies.”
Callahan seeks to have each of his creations produce an “oh-my-gosh” reaction of fun and surprise in a clever way, without being trendy or too far-fetched. “Once I broke through the traditional barriers of doing ‘typical’ hors d'oeuvres, it was like a drug for me and my clients — they needed more and so did I. He’s always on the hunt for new things to shrink. “I'll get spontaneous visions in my head of new ideas,” usually in fits and spurts. “I wish creativity was on demand, but it’s very random,” Callahan adds. Once he has an idea, he will sketch it out, and then work with artists on staff at the office to bring the concept to fruition, commissioning special serving utensils and pieces, if necessary.
Though Callahan’s food might be served in small portions, there is no sacrificing flavor. His secret? To keep the bland ingredients, like bread or the holder of the main ingredient, to a minimum. “If it’s a cracker spoon or blini, you need to keep it thin; if your item is a burger bun, cut out the middle after slicing so it is less bready, letting the burger and toppings shine.”
While some of the preparations in the book might appear time-consuming, with multiple steps to create each component, others are easy. He uses round cookie cutters to make his watermelon lollipops, dunking each coin in a boozy mixture before serving them on lollipop sticks. And with Trader Joe’s miniature pitas, fresh Caprese tea sandwiches — a favorite of all the “it” girls in the Hamptons — can be easy to assemble at home, too. Can’t resist the mini burgers? Forgo making the buns from scratch and just use the small ones found in many markets, cut mini ones from regular-sized buns, or even use Pillsbury Crescent Rolls shaped to the right size. Others can be made well in advance and kept in the freezer. “I’ve always got a stash of some grilled cheese sandwiches — all you need to do is pop them in the oven and serve.”
Yet even Callahan admits to leaning on ready-to-serve items like individually quick-frozen (IQF) shrimp or smoked salmon, but he’ll always add a creative touch of his own. “If I bought a dip, such as salsa, I might make it jazzier and look homemade by adding some whole cilantro leaves — herbs are the best way to make store-bought items look homemade.” He plays the same close attention to detail when it comes to dressing up even the most plain, boring appetizers, like cheese quesadillas. With a couple of squeeze bottles, Callahan recommends putting “colorful beads of sauce on top, a dot of white sour cream, or a dot of avocado purée.” Simple, yet not expected at all — and it’s all in a day’s work for Callahan, “I’m so lucky to have found an outlet for my creativity.”