The legendary red carpet is rolled out. Limousines pull up alongside it. When their doors open, flashbulbs pop and cameras zoom in. One by one, hundreds of celebrities walk the carpet into one of the most celebrated events in Hollywood.
This is the Academy Awards — and while it may seem that corporate events for insurance and financial companies operate in a different world, there are many ways in which meeting planners can make their attendees feel like stars, and make these events extraordinary and memorable.
One surefire way to achieve this is by creating a unique culinary experience — and don’t be afraid to be creative. Throwing the rule book out the window, having some fun with the food and incorporating hot new trends can have enormous impact on your event.
“Groups can get turned off by foods that are too overthought or too classic; they want something that is a bit more refreshing and a bit more whimsical,” says executive chef Josh Eden of The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Chef Eden has the benefit and experience of working in a venue that is imbued with history and glamour; his hotel was where the very first Academy Awards were held in 1929.
“We are fortunate here, because The Hollywood Roosevelt is a canvas,” Eden says. “The hotel has multiple rooms with tons of history to them, and so the venues where the event will take place start the experience. The main Blossom Ballroom, which has room for 400 people, is an iconic venue — the very first Oscars were held here, Prince has played that room.
“Iconic parts of our culture, nostalgia and fond memories are all things that work strongly in building a stellar culinary aspect of an event — one that will create an experience, and not simply feed the guests.
“As a trend, I’ve noticed that people are drawn to flavor profiles and items that remind them of their childhood,” Eden shares. “As chefs, we often look back into our childhoods for menu items that got us excited about food to begin with; and use those as inspiration for flavor profiles, shapes and sizes.”
He cites an example of using the humble frank-and-beans casserole, and putting a spin on it by highlighting a fantastic pork chop or pork belly, with the beans delicately on the side. When it comes to dessert, Eden’s childhood memories really come into his work. “I always play with chocolate and orange. Those flavors remind me of candies that my grandma had in her kitchen when I was a kid.”
Eden, 2008 StarChefs.com New York Rising Star and Jean-Georges protege, is not the only celebrity chef with a strong take on themes and trends in the F&B realm that can make the difference between a boring, ho-hum corporate event, and one that people will be talking about for a long time to come. Here are some of the hottest trends and favorite food techniques from top chefs around the country, and beyond.
The culinary side of any event also offers an opportunity for entertainment, and top chefs and meeting planners take full advantage of that.
“One of my favorite things to see at an event is the chef preparing in front of you,” says event mastermind Michael Cerbelli, president of Cerbelli Creative and creator of The Hot List, which details the newest and most inspiring event and entertainment insights. Whether it’s hitting puff pastry with blowtorches or injecting homemade mozzarella cheese with pesto and sauce using giant syringes, drama is the name of the game in creating a culinary experience.
“Why do a dessert station, when you can do a custom doughnut shop in a classic Jewish bakery?” Cerbelli asks. “The experience should be a journey.” Cerbelli has partnered with chefs and caterers to complete the theatrical show with costuming that matches the staff to the experience.
“I can promise you that chefs want to be part of the creative side,” he assures. “I have worked with many who are anxious to go off the menu, and work with a theme.”
One that stands out for him was a challenge he threw down to executive chef Brian Bailey at the JW Marriott Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Cerbelli wanted a complete Alice in Wonderland dining theme — and he was not disappointed.
“Giant glass teacups using ground mushrooms as the ‘dirt,’ with vegetables that looked like they were growing out of it,” Cerbelli describes. “Then a server poured a delicious broth from a tea kettle for the appetizer, and there were Shepherd’s Pie ‘croquet balls’ for dinner. Every attendee Instagrammed the event from start to finish, sharing the incredible food journey.”
And social media sharing is a major goal for many companies, hotel groups and event planners. Attendees who are wowed enough by something to Instagram, Snapchat, Tweet or Facebook Live it become your brand advocates. For financial and insurance firms, hosting such an event (with prominent hashtags and brand message, of course), can pay off big with both event participants and the marketing department.
Chefs “performing” rather than staying in the kitchen is wildly popular due in large part to today’s celebrity chefs, and the huge craze of kitchen-based reality television competitions. Putting on a Chopped or Top Chef-themed challenge at your event — whether it’s spectator only or something your attendees actually participate in — is one of the biggest current trends.
At Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas, such contests are often incorporated during the reception part of a meeting or retreat, and used as a teambuilding event. The “contestants” are given a mystery basket of ingredients with which to create their dishes, a head chef and a time limit. At the end of the cooking time, each team presents their dish to the judges, who select a winner based on the food, team organization and creativity.
Brandy Boswell, executive meetings manager at the resort, says, “We have found that this is a great icebreaker, and serving the winning dishes as part of the dinner works well.”
So you’re having a conference in another country, or you’re hosting clients from a different culture? Food is known as the great human equalizer, and can be a fantastic way to bridge these differences and to experience local flavor.
At Hilton Los Cabos in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the in-house meeting planners recreate a Mexican mercado, offering attendees the chance to “shop” for their food, interact with each other and participate in live cooking stations.
The events team at the Hilton, which consists of Marco Lozano, Gabriela Baeza and Ulises Zamora, aims to create a true Mexican culinary experience. “We want to promote our roots and educate people through authentic, local experiences. We offer a unique selection of Mexican traditions, including a hands-on cooking class that takes guests to a local farm to pick ingredients, then back to the hotel to use during the demo/class.”
Hilton Los Cabos even hosted a “Day of the Dead” theme dinner, showcasing the traditional celebration to remember loved ones who have passed on. The event included a live show with marionettes, stilt walkers, a fire show, Catrina face painters and Mexican music.
Bringing a local holiday or custom to life in your event offers a wealth of potential “wow” moments, in both the cuisine and spectacle. Ethan McDonald of 1718 Events will never forget an awards dinner he planned at Mardi Gras World.
“All the guests were seated for a plated meal, while the speaker presented on stage, as typically happens at these events. Then, all of a sudden, motorcycle cops burst through the door, sirens blaring! Immediately behind the motorcycles, a 60-person high school marching band followed; and behind them was a mini float parade. All of the top sales executives were riding the mini floats and the parade was circling the guests. That was an experience that the guests will never forget.”
Even without that much drama and elaborate scale, incorporating the culture of any destination can be done. Portland, Oregon, is well-known for its craft beer scene, for example. And while it might not be feasible to take meeting attendees out to experience the local brewpubs, the Duniway Portland Hilton Hotel had a solution: bring the pubs to them.
“One of my personal favorite events was creating a pub crawl inside the hotel, showcasing Portland’s amazing beer by pairing them with fun traditional food,” says Susan Hemberry, director of events at Duniway. “Guests wandered the ballroom tasting a variety of local beers from four of the breweries in town, paired with small bites. We invited representatives from each brewery to the event to engage with guests and share how each beer was made. Our guests left feeling like they had been on a pub crawl without ever leaving the building!”
Hemberry’s advice is to learn about the meeting destination, and what the area offers — then incorporate those local items and themes into your event.
At any large meeting or event, having a “build your own” option is always popular. Guests love it because they can customize food to their liking, and it has the advantages of catering to the special dietary needs and restrictions that have become a way of life. It eliminates the concerns over making sure there are vegetarian, gluten-free, kosher and other options on the menu.
There are a lot of types of dishes that lend themselves well to the “build your own” concept, such as breakfast bowls, omelets, ramen soup, sandwich and taco bars, poke bowls and sushi, to name only a few. But this concept also offers plenty of opportunities to get creative, as well. For example, at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California guests were treated to an over-the-top pretzel station.
“We get a variety of different types of pretzels and make them in a ton of different styles — with some of them about the size of a steering wheel!” says Jason Adams, executive chef at the resort. “These really wow the guests, many of whom take pictures of them and share this memory with their friends on social media.”
Chef Adams says that in general, Omni La Costa Resort & Spa tries to be playful with the cuisine they present for company and large group events. “A lot of it has to do with comfort and bringing back the classics. The ‘build-your-own’ option is one that allows guests to be in control of what they are putting in their body, so it caters to their needs.”
Adams takes full advantage of the visual aspect of food as well, using presentation displays to create a full experience for his stations.
“We look at the menu as a means of inspiration and build something that will fit into that theme. For example, if we have a rustic-inspired menu we might use cast iron to decorate a food station. If it’s a more refined menu, we would use some glass pieces to display a bit more delicate; and for a pizza station we would build a brick wall behind it to mimic a brick oven, with a fireplace to tie into the theme.”
The Omni La Costa property gives Adams and his team the ability to forage for fresh herbs and plants onsite, so they use these natural herbs and fruits to decorate the stations. “We have beehives on the property as well,” he adds, “so we’ll utilize a non-active honeycomb to be on display, as it increases the story behind our dishes as well.”
There are many new trends that revolve around the “B” in F&B. Millennials, in particular, are the driving force behind such things as the popularity of Prohibition-era cocktails, and new ways to drink such as spoonable spirits — booze-laden jellies, puddings and ice creams.
Executive chef and Culinary Trendologist Christine Couvelier, president of Culinary Concierge and creator of the “Trend Watch Report,” says that the new generation of sommeliers that are emerging go far beyond wine. Today’s libation experts specialize in sake, bourbon, bootleg alcohol, cider, coffee, tea and more.
Organizing an expert-led tasting class proves to be a big hit with most corporate events. These types of events are usually scalable for groups of different sizes, and can include a wide variety of pairings, from mezcal and tacos to cognac and seafood.
Pastry chef — and self-titled “chocologist” — Wouter Tjeertes recently introduced a tasting of housemade chocolates paired with select spirits at the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall and Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The tasting highlights unexpected flavor combinations using local ingredients (smoked sea-salt and chipotle truffles paired with a Jamaican aged rum, for example), with commentary by chef Tjeertes on his artistic process.
Worried about the attendees having a little too much fun, or dozing off during an important presentation? There are plenty of creative non-alcoholic options as well. Couvelier lists a Mocktail Mixology station as one of her most recent top trends. Cold-pressed juices and flavored teas are natural items, as well as drinks that incorporate interesting new tastes such as juniper berry, herbs, spices and even peppers.
Other innovations include the Mood Cocktail program that The Resort at Longboat Key Club in Sarasota, Florida recently introduced. The menu of mood-inducing drinks utilizes ingredients such as lemongrass and lavender to impart a choice of effects such as invigorating and relaxing. The cocktails are served over color-changing ice cubes, with a salt or sugar rim.
Whatever culinary theme or experience that a meeting planner goes for, chef Eden says that one of the most important things for a successful event is that they share any and all information that they have about the participants: age range, male to female ratio, etc.
“This allows us to build great menus and a great experience together,” Eden says. “Corporate meetings planners should not be afraid to ask the impossible. In some cases that is what you are paying us for.” I&FMM