When Neal Balkowitsch relocated in 1989 from Minneapolis to manage Pine Brook Country Club in Weston, he met Dan Mathieu through mutual clients. Over the years, the pair occasionally collaborated on events before finally teaming up to launch the catering company MAX Ultimate Food in 2001. “We had quite a varied background,” Balkowitsch says. “Food and beverage is obviously part of it, but we’d had to run organizations where we played a role in creating events and defining events and thinking about every aspect of what an event is. And I think that’s a great strength in our company.” Over the past decade-plus, MAX Ultimate Food has catered many Super Bowl parties and with football season in full swing, Balkowitsch offers suggestions for tailgating snacks.
Q. What are you serving this season?
A. In terms of what [clients] are asking for, there’s always a broad range, but people keep talking about comfort food. They are eating more globally so even when we think of comfort food this time of year, it’s not necessarily classic. It’s done with a twist. For instance, if we were going to do tailgating, maybe instead of classic barbecue, we’d do something like sticky Asian barbecue with root vegetable slaw. We do try to present things in a unique, special way. That’s our strength, people lean on us for that.
Q. What small bites do hosts want?
A. You know what people are asking for and you see it in every restaurant and we’re putting on our menus more now than we ever have? Cured meats, charcuterie, bacon. Any easy, delicious, simple foods people love. Snacky things should have distinctive flavors, whether they’re sweet and salty or tart or spicy; [people] want things that wake up our taste buds.
Q. If you were tailgating, what would you prepare?
A. I maybe would do delicious, meaty sandwiches and serve quick pickles or pickled veggies. Something like a muffuletta sandwich that could be made in advance. That’s just a big, rustic loaf of bread that you pile with meat and cheese and roasted peppers and things, wrap it up, and that’s it for a few hours. I would definitely go to the market and just get lots of fresh veggies and do really simple, light pickles using rice wine vinegar instead of a heavy pickle that needs to be cured. That’s a perfect counterpoint for fatty foods like sandwiches. Another really satisfying thing that we’re serving this time of year — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a party or tailgating or even with the holidays coming up — our chef is taking small new potatoes, cutting them in half, and doing a miniature stuffed potato, wrapping it in bacon, and popping it in the oven. Those are even good at room temperature. Spiced nuts are easy and delicious and satisfying. Popcorn with herbs on it is easy and satisfying. Another thing that people are requesting constantly is healthy, non-gluten stuff. So if I did the sandwich and veggies, maybe instead of pasta we would do potato crisps or veggie crisps. And obviously soup. But if we’re doing soup at a tailgate, I wouldn’t do something normal, I’d do maybe West Indian spiced squash soup. I think people are intrigued and used to getting a broader range of flavors now.
Q. What advice do you have for tailgaters that you’ve gained from the catering business?
A. We’re used to having to do parties, off-site catering, and that’s all about being organized. So [for tailgating], we would put together a menu trying to be as organized as possible, do food that’s portable and transferable. That means creating foods that can go in canning jars or thermoses. Things that are easy to organize at home and then transfer and then, boom, there you are. Things with bright, distinctive flavors. If the food’s kept simple, you don’t need a lot of it.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at