The little hors d’oeuvre that could

by Jonathan Everitt

If you’ve ever had a gourmet burger the size of quarter, a stack of pancakes that could fit in a teaspoon, or a bottle of Coke just right for a Smurf, you can thank Peter Callahan ’81. The New York City-based caterer is the recognized father of the mini-food craze that has cascaded into bite-sized, shrunk-down treats from Manhattan to Madras.

One of the hottest caterers in the U.S., Callahan and his team work from a Chelsea kitchen where little things are big business. They routinely feed star-studded parties around the country—and around the world.

Callahan founded his catering business in 1985, and in 2011 co-authored the bestseller Bite By Bite: 100 Stylish Little Plates You Can Make for Any Party, whose forward was penned by none other than Martha Stewart—one of his biggest fans. (Callahan is a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Weddings magazine.)

Born and raised in Greenwich, Conn., the master of the mini found a passion for food while at Hobart.

“I had a roommate who came from the Midwest, and we had in our freezer a butchered cow,” he says. “We had a big setup down in a house on the lake; all sorts of stuff from the farm and every imaginable ingredient for cooking. We’d do unbelievable meals and have these spectacular parties. We took it to an extreme, and it was showing where my interests lie.”

But after he finished his studies, he followed his father’s example, taking a job in the financial sector.

“That’s where I started off,” Callahan says. “I worked on the floor of the COMEX, the largest floor trader of precious metals in the world. An HWS connection helped me land the job.”

Not a bad gig, but finance turned out not to be his true passion. After a brief stint on Wall Street, Callahan packed his bags and headed to Philadelphia to pursue a career in food.

“It was a very spontaneous move,” he says. “I’d never worked a day in food professionally. I jumped into it and also näively. I was just imitating the best takeout foods in New York City.”

He started with a takeout food shop on the outskirts of Philly—“out in fox-hunting country,” but the shop morphed into a catering company as his reputation grew.

He was enjoying success, but still longed to stand out from the crowd.

“I had this mid-30s career crisis: this is not what I want to do. I want to do something more fun. I was just one more fish in the sea of caterers in Philadelphia and it was not what I signed up for in my romantic, näive approach.” So Callahan once again set out to reinvent himself. He headed back to Manhattan with his eye on becoming the best caterer in New York. No small task.

“I was able to recreate myself in a huge way,” he says.

It wasn’t long after he’d relocated that he faced a chorus of naysayers. Tiny grilled cheese made with tiny bread baked in tiny loaf pans? Impractical.

“When I first started in New York, all the experts told me, ‘You don’t do it this way. It’s too much of a production.’ That’s always been the way I’ve done things.”

How else can one stand out in a crowd— especially in a town teeming with caterers? Breaking the rules and imagining new ways of doing things has clearly led to success. And Callahan is never standing still for long. He reinvents food every time he’s hired.

“The intent is to do something with every party that you can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “To do something with every party that has never been done before.”

That takes a lot of daydreaming— something baked into his company philosophy. “When we let our minds dream, the creativity thing clicks in,” says Callahan, who now employs 14 in his kitchen staff along with hundreds of coordination and service staff for events. “I write ideas down, I sketch them, and then I torture everyone in my company to bring them to life.”

Without a tiny supply store stocked with elfin kitchen supplies, much of the miniature treats he makes require custom tools, too. “I have artists who work with me on things like a cookie cutter made in the shape of a little musical note,” he says. “Because it doesn’t exist.”

It does now.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.