What’s Cooking in Food and Beverage?April 1, 2017

Creative Cuisine for Cutting-Edge Events By
April 1, 2017

What’s Cooking in Food and Beverage?

Creative Cuisine for Cutting-Edge Events
Experient, along with MGM Event Productions, created a color-coded dining experience at Bellagio. Credit: Digital Blue Photography

Experient, along with MGM Event Productions, created a color-coded dining experience at Bellagio. Credit: Digital Blue Photography

Environmental sustainability, encouraging good health, personalization and experiential learning are major areas of focus in the meeting industry. It should come as no surprise, then, that these areas impart a strong influence over 2017’s food and beverage trends. Here’s a look at what industry experts believe are ways to create memorable and high-quality experiences for today’s event attendees.

Farm-to-Table Food and Drinks

Interest in locally sourced, sustainably grown and raised food is still wildly popular with attendees. While that trend has been going on for a long time, planners may be pleasantly surprised by how much easier it is to get the fork-to-plate experience at larger venues.

The move to bring locally sourced cuisine to banquets started with independent and boutique hotels, according to Mike Schugt, president of Teneo Hospitality Group, a global sales company that works with more than 300 hotels and resorts and 70 destination management companies. Those smaller venues were able to experiment in their restaurants, then share best practices with the banquet staff. Over time, larger hotels have adapted that same model. As they’ve done that, “They’re able to create these intimate, unique, almost farm-to-table banquet experiences for thousands of people,” Schugt says.

“Experience design is one of the trends that continues to develop. The same is true of personalization.”
— Karen Watson

The focus on local extends to the drink menu as well, says Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, CFPM, president and chief connecting officer of Thrive! Meetings & Events. More food service professionals are pairing local wines and microbrews with menus to give guests a true taste of the region. “People are incorporating more and more flavors into their cocktails as well,” she says. “They’re using local and organic vegetables and fruits and coming up with creative drinks that are seasonal.”

Along with the focus on locally made food is the interest in housemade items and/or foods prepared from scratch. Many hotels are now making some of their own condiments, cured meats, cocktail mixers and more.

Healthful Foods

Another popular trend is creating more healthful food and beverage options. The main place where planners are doing this is with snacks or breaks. Instead of the traditional cookies or sugary foods, more companies are opting for protein-rich items such as yogurt and nuts, or fruit and veggie-focused items such as roasted vegetables or make-your-own smoothie bars.

This trend definitely extends to the beverage space. Instead of sodas, caterers are setting out club soda and water infused with cucumbers or strawberries.

Schugt cautions not to go overboard with healthful foods at meetings. “You still have to cater to people’s sweet tooth,” he says. “Maybe you can have a little shot glass of carrot cake or key lime pie on the end of the buffet. At events, those are the things that fly off the shelf the quickest.”

Non-Traditional Proteins

“A couple years back, every banquet and convention menu was based on chicken breasts and pork tenderloins,” says Stefan Peroutka, executive banquet chef at The Venetian and Palazzo resorts in Las Vegas. “People are much more open to trying new things now.”

Today’s consumers understand that part of sustainability is eating the whole animal and avoiding certain types of fish. This shift in mindset has allowed Peroutka to introduce menu items such as smoked and braised meats and housemade sausages. He’s also using some unusual seafood, including sardines, mackerel and rockfish. “Even two years ago that was a definite ‘no,’ ” he says.

Stuckrath can envision a time when banquet staff may offer dishes with crickets, venison, elk, bison or goat. “Since goat meat is the No. 1 meat eaten around the world, it’s starting to be incorporated into a lot more restaurant menus,” she says. “It will be interesting to see how hotels and convention centers incorporate them — maybe more for appetizers than main courses.”

It’s also becoming more common to see plant-based proteins as part of a main course — and not just for vegetarians and vegans. “We’re definitely incorporating more for lunch and breakfast,” Peroutka says. He often shies away from tofu — “soybeans have gotten a really bad rap in the last few years because they’re genetically modified” — and instead uses beans, legumes or nuts.

There’s a sustainability element to serving more plant-based foods. “Reducing the amount of meat we consume is huge for the environment,” Stuckrath says.

There’s also a guest services element to this trend. “One of the things most meeting planners are getting away from is that special meal area where people feel singled out,” Peroutka says. “We try to offer a regular meal that appeals to everybody.”

Starch Replacements and Other Alternative Foods

As more people adopt special diets such as paleo or gluten-free — and as more people develop food allergies — starch replacements and other food alternatives will continue to garner interest. “The one I love is alternative pastas,” says Stuckrath. “You can use a spiralizer to create pasta from vegetables such as carrots and zucchini.” It’s also possible to purchase pasta made with almond flour or chickpea flour.

Alternative milks made from products such as rice, soy, hemp, nut or coconut remain popular with many guests. Stuckrath is seeing more cooks use alternative sweeteners, including agave, date sugar and maple syrup.

“Transparency in food is huge right now,” she says. “Not just what meals are free of but what they actually contain.” Sharing a list of the ingredients for every dish will be appreciated by many guests, not just those with allergies or special diets.

Ethnic-Inspired Items

“The crowds we’re catering to are getting more and more diverse,” Peroutka says. That, combined with foodie culture, means guests are more open to exploring different flavors.

Peroutka likes to experiment with ethnic cuisines at breakfast. “We’re exploring Indian-inspired breakfast items right now,” he says. “It’s a good fusion; there’s some egg in it, but it’s more like handheld items with authentic flavors.” Many of these foods, he points out, are lower in fat than the traditional bacon, fried potatoes and eggs, which fits with the trend toward more healthful eating.

Offering a variety of exciting flavors can work great at other meals too. Peroutka recently did a street food-inspired dinner for a cloud software company. He created three different hot dog options using housemade sausages. There was a banh mi-style dog, a German-style offering made with bratwurst, and the “confused Californian,” which had an avocado topping.

For planners looking to introduce ethnic foods to their attendees, Stuckrath says cuisines from Thailand, the Phillipines and other Asian countries are really big right now. So is food from South American and Middle Eastern countries. “There’s a lot more melding of flavors across different countries and continents,” she says, which can lead to some interesting fusion dishes.

More Beverage Trends

Premium beverage stations are an up-and-coming trend. Ditch the airpots of coffee and invite baristas to whip up lattes, Americanos and other hot drinks in front of guests. “It’s like bringing in a mini Starbucks,” says Schugt. “That’s an amazing presentation for groups.”

Cold-pressed coffee is another craze among the caffeinated set. Find ways to incorporate it into cocktails or daytime drinks. And don’t forget about tea. For people who are health-conscious or trying to avoid caffeine, a nice selection of organic and free-trade teas will be much appreciated.

Just as not everyone wants to drink caffeine, plenty of people avoid alcohol. But they still can participate in trendy cocktail culture when venues offer mocktails. Whether these are thoughtful interpretations of the drinks on the menu, or custom-made beverages just for them, offering mocktails will make all guests feel included.

Many meeting planners are choosing to offer a signature cocktail created just for that event. The cocktail can reflect a theme, such as Prohibition-era drinks or beverages using local spirits. Or it can reflect some aspect of the group’s personality and tastes.

Customized F&B Experiences

In addition to quality food and beverages, event attendees want to have can’t-miss experiences. “Experience design is one of the trends that continues to develop,” says Karen Watson, CMP, director of strategic events for Experient. “The same is true of personalization.”

Watson created a dining experience at Las Vegas’ Bellagio that exemplifies this trend. Her goal was to make sure the 500 people who attended felt like they were attending the best dinner party they’d ever been to.

She started by surveying attendees and asking them to rank 10 different types of cuisine by what they’d most enjoy eating. From the survey she narrowed the choices to seven different themed meals that the kitchen would prepare.

MGM Event Productions created customized table­scapes to go with each cuisine. Guests who wanted a steakhouse-style meal would be seated at round tables with metal chairs and centerpieces that featured cowboy boots and sunflowers. Tables and chairs that could be lit up with turquoise lights were used for the seafood setups.

As part of the survey, attendees also were asked a few personal questions such as their favorite sports, television shows and books. Watson made seat assignments based on those questions so everyone would be at a table with people they had something in common with. There were tables for people who played sports and people who liked to watch sports; tables for guests who admired the same famous people and liked the same kind of music. “There was even a ‘Game of Thrones’ table,” she says.

Event guests, who were staying at The Mirage for the conference, received invitations to the closing dinner at the Bellagio that were color-coded to their choice of cuisine (red for Asian food, blue for comfort food, etc.). When they came to the hall for the pre-dinner reception, they found a wall painted with the images of seven different houses with doors that would take them to their area of the dining hall. The houses also were made up to resemble the theme of the cuisine. The Asian house was flanked by regal lions; the comfort food house had real shrubbery in front.

When folks went through each door, their area of the room was spotlighted in the theme color so they could easily find their table (see photos on page 14–15). “Even the waiters were dressed in appropriate colors for the seven different concepts,” Watson says.

The event was a tremendous amount of work: Watson says it took about two weeks to do the seating assignments. But her guests were truly treated to an experience they’ll never forget.

‘Live’ Experiences

Live food events, where meals are prepared in front of guests, are getting more popular. “I’m seeing more and more requests for sushi stations,” says Gregg Herning, vice president of sales at Las Vegas’ Bellagio. These are sushi bars where chefs prepare the food in front of guests. “Even though it’s a laborious and expensive endeavor, people want to do it because it will wow their participants.”

“As people’s knowledge of food grows, their thirst for information grows too,” says Watson. That informed her decision to create a live cooking event for another trip she organized. The group of 30 people was staying at the Boca Raton Resort & Spa in Southeast Florida. The chef planned an unforgettable fishmonger’s lunch.

“They took us to the sidewalk by the water,” Watson says. “The executive chef was there in his rubber overall suit, and he got on his smartphone with one of the fishermen he gets fish from regularly. The fisherman pulled up alongside us and the other chefs started loading the fish off the boat into a big wheelbarrow.” The chefs filleted the tuna and made a sushi appetizer in front of the group. While they worked, the head chef told them all about the fish, including its habitat, sustainability, market price and what else it could be used for.

After attendees had finished their appetizer, they went back inside so the chefs could prepare the remainder of their meal. Everything was done in front of the group, so the educational component continued throughout the meal. Not only did guests learn cooking techniques, they got recipes so they could prepare some of the same dishes at home.

Not all live food events have to be on par with this one. “Bring the chefs out and have them interact with your group or do different tastings,” Stuckrath says. Beer and food pairings, cheese and salt tastings, or champagne and chocolate tasting are out of the norm and will give guests an experience that engages multiple senses.

Immersive Experiences

“The new trend is to get the participants involved in the cooking process,” Herning says. “It’s not just watching a cooking demonstration, it’s being part of it.” Bellagio can set up cooking classes or opportunities for people to act as celebrity chefs giving cooking demonstrations. Their staff videotapes these sessions so each attendee has a memento of their experience, and guests can receive a Bellagio or Tuscany Kitchen apron with their name embroidered on it.

Another fun option is to participate in a mixologist session. “We’ll divide the group up, put them with their own mixologist and have the smaller groups compete to create the next new very cool mixed drink,” Herning says. “Sometimes we promise the winner we’ll highlight their drink as the happy-hour drink. We’ll show a picture of the drink, the recipe and put ‘as created by’ with the guest’s name. It’s much more immersive than just standing there.”

And that’s definitely the expectation of guests these days, whether they’re attending a reception, meal or any other part of an event. C&IT

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