Chefs are looking to serve food creatively, such as this tequila-infused watermelon, which is a popular appetizer at Infinity Hospitality Group. Photo courtesy of Details Nashville
When it comes time to evaluate F&B options for meetings and incentive trips, flavor and price may be at the top of your list of priorities. But, for attendees, perhaps no component is more important than the experience of eating and drinking items that have an engaging story to go along with them.
“That was the biggest takeaway from our annual look at F&B trends for corporate meetings. As attendees travel more, try different types of cuisines and learn about food, they care more about both what they eat and how they eat it,” says Aron Schwartz, executive chef at the Marina Kitchen at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina. “Especially in a reception setting, attendees don’t want the chafing dish anymore. They don’t want a huge mound of cheese on a plate. They want individual cheeses and a story about each of them. They want to see a chef cooking and talking to them.”
He adds, “Chefs need to think outside the box and think more about providing a restaurant setting than anything else. They need to think about the experience you have in a restaurant that serves 40 to 50 people and how you translate that to a party for 1,000 people.”
“No meat” and “no allergens” of all kinds may be the biggest specific food trends to which chefs have to pay attention. And, ironically, “no alcohol” may be the most important thing bartenders have to take into consideration when planning an event menu. “Alcohol is sort of on the outs,” Schwartz says. “Not on the outs like no one is drinking, but people want to have the option of a non-alcoholic drink to go with their dinner or reception — something unique, with complexity, like a cocktail but with no alcohol in it.”
Focus on the What and the How
With every event, John Silva, founder, sherpa and chief visionary at Culinary Eye Catering & Events in San Francisco, likes to dig into a group’s background and interests and determine what will get the attendees excited about dining. With that information, he builds experiences that are interactive or have an interesting design component.
Silva has created edible bird nests and put them in a tree in a reception hall; made a “Filet Mignon” from beets and served it alongside a confit, made with fingerling potatoes and asparagus mousse; and done “make your own ice cream sandwich” stations, where attendees can scoop vanilla or Ovaltine ice cream onto homemade cookies for dessert. Foods like these spark an emotion as much as they quell hunger, and that’s his whole goal.
“We want to create a moment that takes someone somewhere,” he says. “It can be reminding them of a childhood experience with a dish, or taking them to a location through touching and eating that food. With our corporate clients specifically, they’re trying to get people to open up. How do you get an engineer to have a conversation with a group? You create these “wow” moments and give them something to talk about.”
Nathaniel Beaver is the owner of Infinity Hospitality Group in Nashville, Tennessee, a full-service event planning firm that also owns three event spaces — The Belltower, The Bridge Building and The Quarter — and a catering company. He also gets excited about serving food in creative ways and creative places. “At meetings and especially incentive trips, the goal is to get attendees to socialize, not to provide a formal experience,” he says. “We do a lot of high-end cocktail-driven receptions, interactive food stations and creative passed appetizers.”
A popular appetizer for events, he says, is tequila-infused watermelon. Staff will put the fruit and an empty liquor bottle on a serving platter. Besides the obvious eye appeal, this informs people that there’s alcohol in the dish and lets them know what kind of spirit is being used. One of the company’s signature dishes is a homemade waffle cone filled with fruit and whipped cream. Servers place the cones in rustic blocks of wood with holes that fit the food perfectly. Beaver also likes to serve candied bacon on top of a shot glass filled with porter-style beer from Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company.
“In our buildings, we’ve found new locations to serve food that we never thought of before,” he adds. “The Bridge Building has three floors with a rooftop bar. We’ve started putting someone with a tray of food in the elevator and calling it ‘elevator bites.’ I like the idea of giving someone food right as they come in the door.”
More formal meals at today’s events may also focus on miniaturized servings rather than huge plates of food. “Smaller, shareable plates that are served as they’re ready as opposed to set courses is a newer trend that’s really developed in recent years,” says Tejesh Patel, director of food and beverage at The Daytona in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Another popular way to serve sit-down meals is with large dishes that have to be passed. “With family-style dining, more attendees are able to interact with each other and have the option to try different things,” says Victor Miguel, executive chef at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. “It is important because when you have attendees interacting with each other, it allows them to share their experience with the food or the memories they connect with it.”
Buffets have yet to go out of style, according to Beaver. But when his company does them, there’s a staff member at each protein and vegetable station who dishes up the food. “It’s not about controlling portions because everyone can have as much as they want. It just feels more formal,” he says.
For the groups that prefer plated meals, Rafael Corniel, executive chef at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa in Coronado, California, says the focus is less on creating elaborate designs on the plate and more on creating really good food. “We’re more about taking what you’d eat at home and perfecting it, and making it really good. Plates are basic food but done really well. We’re trying to bring attendees back to their memories, when they were home and their grandma or their mom made something. We just want them to think, ‘Wow, that’s really good,’” Corniel says.
Meatless, Mushrooms and More
From the Impossible Burger at fast food chains to Instagram shots where the dishes are front and center, the meatless craze is showing up everywhere. In Southern California, plant-based or vegan meals are very popular, Miguel says. “We have actually added vegan dishes to all of the outlets here on property.”
Corniel has also seen a rise in requests for meatless meals. He attributes it to the growing health craze in America. “People are just more conscious of what they’re eating and how balanced of a meal they’re getting,” he says. That means more vegetable-centric dishes, more alternative proteins, such as beans or lentils, and more requests for plant-based meat substitutes. When people do request meat, they’re more likely to ask for chicken or seafood than red meat, he says.
Beaver and Schwartz are getting fewer requests for fully meatless meals, although planners are increasingly concerned that their vegan and vegetarian attendees have a good alternative. The nuance that Schwartz has noticed is some pushback against manufactured and highly processed meat substitutes.
“I think people are starting to wake up and go, ‘This Impossible Burger is something that’s made in a lab, and I want to eat vegetables and something that I know where it’s coming from,’” Schwartz says.
Rather than offering a meatless meal because it’s meatless, he believes the more important trend is to offer creative meals. That may mean serving a meal where a vegetable is the centerpiece and it’s prepared in a way that people have never seen. The Marriott Marquis’s Marina Kitchen recently created a dish where a head of radicchio was brined, grilled and then finished in the oven, much the way a steak would be cooked.
Beaver also believes attendees are looking for more creative food options. They are much more knowledgeable about food and culinary practices these days, and they’ve eaten or seen a lot more types of food in real life or on TV shows. “It raises the bar,” he notes. In order to really impress them, “You have to take a classic dish and put your spin on it so someone says, ‘I have not seen it served like that.’” Hot chicken and waffles has been a popular dish in Nashville for years, but his company is now doing hot chicken bites in a waffle rolled into a cone topped with rosemary maple sweet tea syrup.
The idea of food having a story is another important shift that Schwar tz has noticed. For example, if a chef serves carrots at dinner, attendees have questions about them like “Why that carrot? Why did you make this dish? Is it seasonal?” “The days of a chef just putting food on a table is going away,” Schwartz says.
Some of this is tied to the growing interest in experiencing the location where a meeting is held. Rather than eating food that has come from thousands of miles away, attendees want to eat food that comes from local farms and has a tie to the local community. They want veggies from the farm where the chef shops and pork from the ranch where they buy meat for their family.
People are also still very committed to the idea of farm to table. “I’m not sure farm to table is a ‘trend’ anymore,” Silva says. “On the coasts and in the south, it’s an expectation. It’s become muscle memory.”
Patel feels very much the same way. “The sustainability trend reigns supreme — from sourcing ingredients and produce from local farms and vendors to utilizing ingredients from root-to-stem in both dishes and cocktails,” he says.
As planners and participants gain a deeper understanding of how what we eat impacts the planet, questions about food waste are increasing. “No one used to ask about food waste and now people are asking about it,” Beaver says.
Besides environmental concerns, food waste touches on issues of community impact and fiscal responsibility for sponsor organizations, as well as a desire to simply take better care of the resources we have. “Personally, I believe food is a commodity and we should respect it and take care of it,” Schwartz says. “I think we all grew up with, ‘Finish what’s on your plate, don’t let it go to waste.’”
Planners concerned about food waste should talk to the chef and sales manager about overage percentages, portion sizes and programs to deal with any leftovers. “People don’t eat as much anymore, and we as chefs need to watch that,” Schwartz says. “We need to make sure we’re not overproducing.” Many venues and caterers, including Beaver’s properties, make leftovers available to staff. The host company can typically pack up leftovers and take them home, or ask the venue about programs to deliver food to homeless shelters or social service organizations.
Food labeling is another topic that’s important for planners to discuss with venue staff. Attendees these days place high value on knowing what their food contains, both because of food allergies and changes in diet. Many of the technology companies that Silva works with are starting to require not just allergen labeling, but full ingredient lists. They may also expect servers walking around the room with appetizers to be able to produce information about what’s in the food without too much trouble.
Mocktails and Other Beverage Trends
Most agree that mocktails are one of the biggest trends. “That’s all tied in with people being healthier and watching what they’re putting in their body,” Corniel says. “People still want to feel like they’re having a nice cocktail but they don’t want the alcohol in there.”
For people who do want alcohol, there’s increasing interest in craft spirits — something that’s getting more popular as more local distilleries open around the country. As was true of the craft beer movement that boomed before it, people like the higher quality that can come with an artisan product. They like supporting local businesses, and don’t want to drink the same things they can pull out of their liquor cabinet at home. “They want new experiences, and they like a story,” Miguel says. “What is the spirit? Who makes it? Where does it come from?”
With this desire for storytelling comes the need for more bartender education. That’s something Beaver is providing to his staff. He’s also looking for ways to provide attendees with more alcohol-based experiences.
“At the Belltower, we have what’s called The Tasting Room, where we have 95 bourbons, scotches and whiskies. It’s a tasting experience, so you’re not paying for every drink. You can try anything and hear the story about it.”
Patel adds, “Our cocktail culture is a big part of The Daytona’s identity, as we’re focused on beverage trends that pertain to groups, such as non-alcoholic cocktails, cocktails with unique spices, superfoods and other unique ingredients,” Patel says.
Storytelling is big here too. The hotel bar’s name, Blue Flame, comes from the legend that moonshine was once lit on fire to determine its quality. A yellow flame meant tainted, a blue flame meant it was fine. The bar offers a signature moonshine-lighting ritual for attendees to enjoy, along with reassurances that, today, the flame is just for show. C&IT