Some chefs are seeing a newfound focus on beverages such as bourbon and scotch, craft beers, molecular drinks, mocktails and cocktails with pearl caviar and infused and injected drinks.
Trends come and go, and that’s as true for and beverage (F&B) as anything else. Remember when kale and cake pops were king and using liquid nitrogen to wow attendees was everywhere?
So what’s trending today, and does it matter to chefs and planners? In a word — yes.
Edward Perotti, CMP, CMM, director of global events with Pure Storage, says, “100 percent, yes. It’s important to keep up with the latest food trends,” adding that he depends on venue chefs to keep on top of them.
“I communicate the look and feel of the event to the chef, then give him/her free reign to show me what can work that aligns with the event and is within the budget, etc.” One caution, he adds,“is to not go toward a trend at a business event without making sure it fits the goals of the event or even culture of the organization.”
“For so long, F&B events were turnkey, and rarely did you do something out of the box. Today, ‘out of the box’ is becoming an everyday thing. I’m beyond excited and inspired.”
What really excites Perotti, however, is the creativity chefs and mixologists are bringing back to the art of entertaining. “For so long, F&B events were turnkey, and rarely did you do something out of the box. Today, ‘out of the box’ is becoming an everyday thing. I’m beyond excited and inspired.”
Like others, Perotti sees changes in special-request meals. “Vegetarian options have evolved to the level of fabulous meals. Now if we can just get the other special-meal options to that point. When hotels have a chef that’s creative and open, and they let him/her do what they do best, the product is an experience,” he says. “Take Chef Michael at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square. He’s so creative and driven by the guest experience, and his dining experience shows it.”
And there’s no reason, Perotti notes, not to serve “special” foods to everyone. “As a work- and cost-saving measure, how about doing halal beef for everyone or gluten-free pasta as the choice for all meals? Special-request foods are at a point where the product is really good, so you can serve it to everyone and take the notion of specific food areas off the table, so to speak.”
Seafood, too, is changing. “The go-to seafood in my mind is out. I believe the popular, done-to-death fish like salmon, swordfish and tuna will fade away and we’ll see fish entrées made with less common catering-world fish such as cod, trout or even triggerfish. These are more sustainable and the preparation options are fun.”
“And give me bread,” Perotti says. “I’m glad to see it back. With the heritage grains, high-quality flours and ingredients and artisanal bread preparation, the idea of minimal bread options, or the notion that it’s a boring add-on, is going away.”
Culinary education as part of the meeting experience is also increasing.
“I’m thrilled that many chefs are weaving in options for education and interactive food-and-drink experiences. There’s a price tag for this, but it is a great way to engage guests, give them an up-leveled F&B experience and, with a little imagination, weave it into your event messaging.”
Perotti says craft cocktails as part of the dining and engagement trend at events has gained momentum but has challenges. “It’s a costly line item in budgets. And many venues don’t have the catering/mixology talent or capacity to create craft cocktails for large-scale events. Additionally, in the corporate world, shying away from full open bars to just beer and wine is on the rise due to corporate liabilities. Get guidance from your legal and human resources teams on where they stand,” he cautions, “before you give that CEO his open bar.”
As for sustainable practices, that’s core to Perotti’s job. “I’m not seeing guests or attendees asking for local. I believe they don’t because, as a planner, it’s part of my professional brand to advocate and provide local and sustainable foods. I don’t believe guests or attendees should ask, it should just be. I see this as part of my role to make it a priority for my guests, attendees and organizations. I’m a huge supporter of the communities and locations in which we host our events. We, as the planning community, have the ability to do much to help local economies as well as the environment, just within our food programs. I don’t, and will never, see a reason to NOT follow sustainable practices.”
Jessica Rife, CMP, senior events manager with E Source, also believes in delivering new experiences to attendees, including exciting and innovative F&B concepts. “I absolutely rely on chefs and hotels to guide this discussion and bring new ideas to the table.”
She calls the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel among the best at that. “I’m always excited to sit down with them and hear their ideas for our events.”
The top five trends Rife sees are farm-to-table, locally sourced foods, new plant-based proteins, mocktails and a demand for flavored sparkling waters. Additionally, requests for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals are up, but she doesn’t see a decline in meat. “People like to have options,” she says. “They want more proteins and fruits and vegetables, but balance is important. They still enjoy a fun treat such as a doughnut wall.”
As for global foods, she says they can be risky to serve to a large group, yet people are branching out and embracing more global options. “Last year, we had a ramen station created by Chef Skomal at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel; people loved it and were lining up.”
Sharon Purewal, DMCP, managing partner at 360 Destination Group, a San Francisco-based DMC, says her clients are generally sophisticated and well-traveled, and one way to surprise them is via technology.
“We now have options like drone delivery of beverages, robot-made coffee, edible cocktail printing and molecular bites. We’re also seeing a trend in 3D dining and projection mapping on dining tables. It’s all about heightening the senses in new ways.”
Requests for special meals are up at Purewal’s events as well. “At times we may be asked to provide up to 30 percent special meals for seated dinners. If we’re doing an event with food stations, we have to make sure to have a diverse enough menu to satisfy most needs — and make sure everything is labeled.”
While creative non-meat options are up, meat, she says, has not disappeared. “Many chefs are designing more complex and unique plant-based offerings. However, we have yet to have a group not offer a meat course. But when we do food-station events, we can take more liberty in offering a creative vegetarian station and really showcasing the skills of the chef.”
While not new, connecting people to local purveyors of food is still on trend. “From the attendee perspective, there’s definitely a greater interest in where the food is coming from,” Purewal says. “We partner with organizations like The Cheese School of San Francisco to offer interactive, immersive food experiences where guests can ask questions and learn about their food from origin to plate.”
Purewal also likes to invite local producers — farmers, wine makers, brewers, etc. — to events to mingle with the guests. “They may be at a food station to answer questions one-on-one. Or they speak to the group as a whole as their course is being served,” she says.
Learning about beer and cocktails is increasingly important to attendees, too. “We’re still serving a lot of wine,” Purewal says, “but there’s interest in expanding the palate and learning how to pair other beverages. For example, The Cheese School offers a wonderful beer and cheese pairing. It’s a great education and allows us to showcase local artisan cheesemakers and brewers.”
Additionally, Purewal notes, there’s a trend of offering creative non-alcoholic drinks including “mocktails made with the freshest ingredients used in unexpected ways to create fusions people wouldn’t think of on their own.”
Rheanna Binkley, venue and events manager at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which offers hands-on, interactive, educational corporate and team-building events, does see an increase in meat requests.
“Some of our regular clients keep requesting additional meat items for their groups. This may be due to the ‘keto diet’ trend. What we’ve noticed about vegetarians is that they’re being more curious about the source of food items and inquiring about animal byproducts such as rennet, which is in a lot of cheese. It seems the trend may be the emergence of the more educated vegetarian.”
Additionally, she says, the definition of “healthy” has changed. “For decades ‘healthy’ meant low-fat, low-salt and veggies. With the rise of slow food challenging the industrialization of food and the value we now see in knowing where our food comes from, many of our clients are embracing whole fats, animal products and real sugar.”
It’s storytelling, however, that really excites Binkley. “We’ve noticed an upswing in themes and requests for stories to be told through food,” she says. “Whether it’s a six-course meal based on a revolutionary product launch or recreating a ‘magical cheese moment’ a client had while traveling, the opportunity to give guests a unique experience with food is what gets us excited.”
A planner’s relationship with a creative chef can drive more than menus. Shannon Wilson, owner of Know Forte, LLC, says Chef Ken at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, is the reason she set a second meeting at the hotel. “He created a break [meal] with pecans multiple ways as we had a keynote speaker from [Green Valley Pecan Company]. Next day he did beef jerky five ways for break food. He was a huge hit with the attendees.”
The resort also offers F&B-related interactive activities, which fits well with Wilson’s clients. “What makes people want to come to events I organize is based on how they remember experiencing it, which is often a combination of activities focused around eating and drinking. If I don’t provide something fun, exciting and creative, something they haven’t previously experienced, their impression and takeaway reflects that.”
Chefs, she says, play a major role in providing lasting impressions. “I need chefs to be creative and adventurous while tailoring to local flavors and the audience. If the first meal/beverage starts on the wrong foot, it’s hard to overcome that.”
Wilson says the concept of alcohol pairings has also changed. “There are new flavors evolving, such as more interest in global cuisine, adding whiskeys to sauces and international flavors to provide a whole pairing experience and depth of flavor beyond traditional uses.”
She’s also seeing creative ways to use cuts of meat rarely found in grocery stores but that previous generations used, and more interest in smoking and curing.
Attendees, too, are interested in keeping up with the latest trends, Wilson notes. As an example, she organized a hands-on cooking demo based around the sous-vide cooking method, something most home cooks don’t use. It was a hit.
“People have more interest in knowing where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. They pay attention to flavor profiles,” Wilson says. “It’s fun to learn something new with a familiar ingredient.”
And her clients want healthy options. ”The days of ‘doughnut/pastry’ breaks are gone for the level of attendees I organize. They don’t want pre-packaged snacks or foods. Attendees expect fresh foods and more often they want protein — foods that satiate and fuel them rather than a quick-fix that causes a sugar spike and then a crash. I can select lean beef choices, which have unlimited flavor opportunities, so they never get boring.”
Wilson is a strong believer in drawing from the region when creating meal and break menus. More than locally grown, she says, her attendees want local flavor. “If attendees arrive at my event and are presented with the same food they have at home, it’s not a destination experience for them. Ingredients don’t have to be sourced within a certain radius to provide local flavor. Food and beverages can be prepared to add a local flavor or touch without being grown right there. It’s more about providing a destination experience and relying on chefs to know and understand local food flavors.”
David Daniel, executive sous chef at JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes
Storytelling, Daniel says, has become increasingly important. “Locally inspired is not enough anymore. It needs to be story-driven also.”
Other trends he sees include more plant-based substitutions, nutritional notes on menus and cleaner presentations. As for beverages, he sees a focus on bourbon and scotch, craft beers, molecular drinks, cocktails with pearl caviar and infused and injected drinks.
Interactivity also continues to trend. “I believe we have a great opportunity in focusing on executing events with an interactive and social approach of guest perspective, involving the guest being a part of the meal and interacting with the food.”
Sustainability is paramount. “Anything disposable should be compostable.” Daniel says the property partners with Harvest Power, which converts food waste to energy. In the past, the program has diverted as much as 195 tons of food waste from landfills.
Michael Vaughn, executive chef at Hilton San Francisco Union Square
Vaughn also points to storytelling, “It’s about customization. We ask more questions to learn about the concept, the purpose and end goals for the event. We then translate the information into the décor and cuisine, etc. We like to say, ‘Your story, our flavors.’”
He sees an intersection of global cuisine, healthy eating and environmental responsibility. “Our menu designs have an intensified healthy balance to them, offering cuisine from around the world with an emphasis on plant-based accents and environmental responsibility. As an example, we’ve developed a vegan, gluten-free cauliflower ravioli that’s extremely versatile to design around.”
He says air frying, dehydration, algae, mocktails with a creative culinary component and ghee, a clarified butter used in Indian cooking are on the rise, while use of traditional food stations is declining. With his region so tech driven, his team has tapped into that. “We’ve worked in some fantastic performances. We’re using infrared grills, NuWave ovens, siphons and handheld smokers to name a few. Gone are the days of simple carving stations.”
By partnering with a local grower, Vaughn says, farm-to-table evolves. “We design what we want for a flavor profile, search the world of seeds they plant and 12-15 days later we have incorporated these in our menus for guests to enjoy.”
As for sustainable practices, Vaughn notes a team sorts through all discards at the hotel, resulting in an award-winning program of landfill diversion.
Chris Clark, F&B director, Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel
One trend that’s increasing he says is buying and using unusual but usable fruits and vegetables. Blemished produce is perfect for pies, purees and sauces, and, Clark says, helps decrease food waste. “One reason for the trend is that this produce is now much easier to get from national suppliers.”
Mushrooms have a new popularity according to Clark, including mushroom jerky, which he calls a great stand-alone break food. Mushroom- and truffle-infused spirits and cocktails are also on the rise, as is growing mushrooms in-house. “They’re not only a cool display piece but a great show when your action-station chefs are clipping and cooking in front of guests.”
Infusions are also trending. Clark says butter infusions and CBD-infused snacks and drinks, such as sparkling waters, are also gaining popularity. “And no, these will not get you high.”
As for global cuisine, Clark is seeing a rise in authentic Oaxacan and Michoacán cuisines from Mexico, which notably pair insect protein with spirits. “There’s mezcal and insect pairings and the taste is way better than you can imagine,” Clark says. “Dried and seasoned crickets — ‘chapulines’ — and pisco are another trending pairing.”
Among the front-and-center beverage trends are low- or non-alcohol options, flavored seltzers and local cold-pressed juices. Additionally, he says, IPAs are out, lagers are in and milk bars are a thing. “Almond, cashew, coconut and oat milk sharing real estate with half-and-half, low-fat and skim milk will soon be the new norm.”
One sustainable practice gaining traction is straw alternatives — straws made of bamboo or durum-wheat pasta. Clark notes, “Some places are making their own pasta straws now.”
Doug Connor, senior vice president, Centerplate
Chefs at venues managed by Centerplate are seeing an increase in special-request meals. “Our guests are more diet-conscious than ever before, and it’s our responsibility to offer something delicious for everyone. In time, the market for plant-based meat will not be just vegans or vegetarians; it will be meat-eaters, too,” Connor says.
Among the major trends Connor is seeing include fermented foods such as kombucha; adding more seeds to foods; exotic citrus including yuzu, bergamot and pomelos; and herbs such as lemon verbena, savory and caraway flower.
Matt Walbaum, executive chef, Levy Restaurants
Walbaum says convention center menus have evolved in keeping with expectations. “Before you might have seen the same vegetables on your plate year round. We now bring in local and seasonal ingredients and prepare them with real care and expertise. Meeting planners want their guests to get a true sense of the city they’re in, so we keep that in mind when designing our menus and seek to celebrate the local market in our menus.”
He says he’s also seeing more Thai, Vietnamese and Indian foods. “Plant-based protein options are growing among vegetarians but also among those who are thinking about the health and environmental impact of their diets,” Walbaum says. “Craft beers and coffee roasters with signature proprietary blends are popular in our centers. Fresh-baked goods from in-house bakeries are a point of difference at Levy’s convention centers.”
Walbaum also notes that some Levy centers have gardens or bee farms onsite — living walls are a trend and reducing food waste is a priority.
While keeping up with trends is important, he says, “There’s something magical about taking classic dishes and adding a new twist. Turning those dishes into something new and spectacular is truly rewarding and a whole lot of fun.” C&IT