Le Petit Chef tea sandwiches



“Upper Crust”

Just when you least expect it, the tea sandwich stages a comeback.

Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, March 26, 2000 by Rick Nichols

Not so long ago, the classic tea sandwich appeared headed for extinction, too impossibly quaint, too insufferably bland, too stiffly British to thrive in the suddenly multicultural landscape.

Caterers still experienced demand into the 70's as aging devotees clung to tradition.  But sightings became rarer as Philadelphia caterers danced to the beat of the Indonesian rice cone, tapas and Turkish smoked eggplant.Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine

Then a year or two ago, a funny thing happened: Frilly Victoriana, loose tea, flowery gardens and old-time tradition began staging a decorous but unapologetic comeback.

Who knows why exactly. When things speed up, perhaps part of us craves a moment to slow back down. When the cocktail hour becomes politically incorrect, perhaps something must arise to fill the vacuum.

Whatever, the time was ripe for teas and garden parties, ripe finally for the demure Victorian tea sandwich to again say: I'm cuke and I'm proud.

Where better, thought Rubel Montgomery, than at the old-line (circa 1936) Main Line caterer Le Petit Chef, which was searching for a specialty to distinguish it from its competitors.

Rubel had recently joined his wife, Diane, in running the business out of their split-level home in Radnor.  For big shindigs - say, a tent picnic at the Radnor Hunt - they use the kitchen space in Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church.

It was at their home that I watched one afternoon as helpers Vivian Angelucci and Jane Klink stuffed tiny sandwiches with fillings they'd made the night before - grilled chicken salad, tuna, bacon and cream cheese, egg salad with a naughty drop of Tabasco.

 Wet ingredients - the cucumber slices with dill, the tomato and watercress - are added at the last minute, though on this day there is no watercress. Rubel, bless his male heart, picked up cilantro by mistake!

Vivian and Jane trim the crusts on Maier's Italian-style white bread, rolling it flat with a rolling pin for some styles. They punch out rounds with a fluted biscuit cutter, dot the tops with prim green olive and pimiento.

The younger crowd orders them now, Diane says - for straight weddings and gay commitment ceremonies, for teas, baby showers and church luncheons.

It's a trend that Paugh's Party People in Amber has noticed. Same for Feast Your Eyes in Philadelphia, though owner Lynne Buono says tea sandwiches are so labor-intensive they rival her caviar service in price. (Le Petit's run $65 per 100. Figure five sandwiches per guest for afternoon tea.)

Peachtree & Ward in Willow Grove served peanut butter and peach-preserve tea sandwiches in the shape of toy soldiers at a current toy store opening, and fancy roast duck and orange chutney ones at a Tiffany event.

But few caterers are hot to stake their future on the intricate, time-consuming little gems. Which is fine by Rubel and Diane, whose offerings, by the way, are quite tasty indeed.

They've set up an illustrated Web site. They're promoting the mini-sandwiches to their tennis partners, among them Haverford's Georges Perrier, the most famous petit chef of them all.

Word is spreading: A tea house in Georgia is ordering hundreds a week. Brides are calling!

Petit is back, ain't it grand.

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