As in life, the only certainty in the world of meetings is — uncertainty. Change is inevitable and constant, even in the food arena. So, to be ahead of the culinary curve, keep reading for insight from in-the-know planners and gastronomic experts.
What do turmeric, cauliflower, kombucha, fresh-pressed juices and milk alternatives have in common? According to Elise Kaiser, program manager with Bishop-McCann, LLC, in Lincolnshire, Illinois, an industry leader in producing meetings, incentive programs and events worldwide, these food items are among the latest ‘it’ ingredients being incorporated into meeting menus.
It’s a different world from those back-in-the-day, meat-and-potatoes meals, reluctantly accompanied by the sole vegetarian option of steamed vegetables. “Health trends are a huge component when selecting menus,” Kaiser says. “I worked on a program with 200 attendees and there were over 15 different dietary restrictions in just that small group.” As the planner strives to incorporate something for everyone, she’s found an easy way to do this is by selecting menus that can be custom designed, giving attendees the freedom to select their own food options. “It’s fun and allows them to be creative, but more importantly, it gives them a sense of security in knowing exactly what they’re eating.” The caveat, of course, relates to the pocketbook, as healthy, fresh food options are pricier — an important item to address with the client during budget review, which can translate to an additional $5 to $10 more per attendee.
But though it’s no longer an exclusive steak-and-au-gratin audience, it’s certainly not a healthy-all-the-time crowd either, as sometimes nostalgic, albeit heavier entrees can be found on today’s menus, but now with a twist. Kaiser elaborates with an example. “Instead of the typical beef Sloppy Joes, coleslaw and tater tots, you might see turkey Sloppy Joes with gourmet mustard, local barbecue sauce and grilled onions, accompanied by a kale and cabbage slaw with cranberries, a citrus vinaigrette and sweet potato tots.”
Know your audience, Kaiser urges. “Food diversity and global cuisine are extremely important, even more so with an international attendee base,” she says. “They’ve flown hundreds of miles, sometimes thousands, just to attend a meeting and it’s important to be aware of their cultural and religious backgrounds.”
“Food diversity and global cuisine are extremely important, even more so with an international attendee base.” Elise Kaiser
Kaiser admits that with so many fad diets out there, it’s impossible to appeal to them all. “We once had someone list ‘no fat’ as a dietary restriction. We can’t promise that, but we can make sure the menu has multiple salad options — serving the dressings, carbs and proteins on the side.” With respect to the vegetarian crowd, Kaiser deems a salad insufficient. Her advice is to offer one or two hot, substantial entrees.
Lastly, she advises incorporating the destination into your menu. “If you travel to Mexico, for example, odds are the fresh ceviche, barbacoa tacos and homemade guacamole and salsa are a better bet than an Italian pasta station. Same for regional microbrews, spirits and wines. Sticking with the Mexico theme, a tequila and mezcal tasting at the welcome reception is a fun way to sample new things that attendees might not be able to experience in their hometowns.”
When just north of Mexico in San Antonio, consider a salsa-making competition, suggests Vicki-Lynn M. Terpstra, senior marketing manager, at Billings, Montana-based PayneWest Insurance. Having selected this Texas city and the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa for the insurance company’s Network Builder event in the past, the planner provides details of this group activity: “This was the first time we’ve created an entire, on-site foodie experience, which was due to our confidence in the resort’s food and beverage team.” Judged and guided by the resort’s executive chef, who suggested such eclectic challenges as pairing salsa with sugar cookies, the planner deems this event at the top of her attendees’ memories. “When we find good partners, like Hyatt properties, we go to them for the ideas. Let the masters do their craft.”
‘Local’ is Terpstra’s favorite trend. “We travel to different communities to be exposed to their regional cuisine. You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate the difference in meals found in every corner of our country.” She elaborates that as this group is typically on property taking care of business, there is little time to venture off site. Thus, her remedy for infusing local culture into corporate meetings is to serve some of the region’s noted dishes. Terpstra gives additional kudos to food demos where attendees are given the opportunity to learn cooking tricks and exclusive-to-the-area recipes.
Though plant-based proteins are universally popular these days, the reception of the PayneWest group for this movement has not been enthusiastic. However, the planner sees her attendees loving infused waters and their subsequent hydration, along with kombucha, quinoa and pickled veggies that have long been loved. “And as long as the masses love it, we will provide it,” Terpstra says, adding that the industry’s pairing of eco-friendly initiatives with healthy living has guided her and her company away from prepackaged foods toward fresher choices. “Fresh produce flies like hotcakes, and we are happy to pick options that offer a healthier meeting or event.”
For a blast to the past, Terpstra gives a shout-out to nostalgic foods. “Again, we look at food as part of the fun and having stations of food that take us back to our childhood is an excellent way of providing added-value entertainment.”
“As our meeting is held annually in New Orleans, we try to incorporate the spirit of the city with our food and beverage choices,” says Emily Coia, conference director for the New Orleans Investment Conference and COO of Metairie, Louisiana-based Jefferson Financial Inc., which has produced the conference of 1,000 attendees for more than 45 years.
“This year we’re offering mini muffulettas, deviled eggs with crawfish tails, king cake and pralines. The closing session, at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, is also food forward with the addition of an ahi poke station. Described as sushi-grade ahi, dynamite sauce, wasabi aioli, forbidden rice, seaweed salad, pickled ginger, furikake, ponzu and liquid nitro, this culinary combo checks the boxes of many of today’s ‘go-to’ ingredients. And as we have done year after year, morning break stations feature hot beignets, the city’s renowned French doughnuts — an everlasting favorite.”
Executive Chef Alan Ehrich and Sous Chef Mark LeJeune, of the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, elaborate on this city’s distinctive food offerings and changes in today’s epicurean landscape. “We are in southern Louisiana, and the majority of our menu reflects this,” Ehrich says. However, the chefs expound on current trends, mentioning interest in Indian and Asian cuisines, anything vegan or vegetarian along with more green initiative-oriented menus — sustainability, farm to table, non-GMO and environmentally sound considerations.
With respect to the role of food as a connector, conversation starter and immersive experience, LeJeune says, “We find that the food does that on its own, but the family style format that most of our clients opt for certainly helps with group interaction. In addition, the creation of new and inventive items presented in an action station allows us to bring people together.”
Across the country, Joel Delmond, executive chef at The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage, California, gives a breakdown and the prognosis of food trends he sees. “Super foods, healthy fats and fermented and pickled foods will remain strong, as will kefir and fruits and vegetables. The introduction of coconut oil and grass-fed ghee will be incorporated into some menus/dishes, and provenance will become even more important.” Among the far-from-standard ‘it’ ingredients for this chef are aji chile, amchoor powder, black salt, mustard oil, a variety of dhals and hemp.
Delmond also takes cues from Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisines and their global influences, where plant-based foods and salads are common denominators. Among his favorites are hummus with dozens of toppings, Arabic, Bulgarian and Moroccan kebabs, Tunisian seafood, beef shashlik, beef shawarma, tahini shakes and such exotic spices as baharat.
At 20, Christopher Gentile, Chef de Cuisine for AVANT, the signature restaurant of San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo Inn, California, made his way across the U.S., staging four different Michelin-starred restaurants, before ending his tour in California. Now a seasoned veteran at 29, he speaks from experience. “I think one of the biggest and best pushes in the culinary world, as of late, is for more vegetable-focused and health-conscious dishes to appear on menus. And, I feel as a chef that instead of getting frustrated by the growing number of dietary-restricted diners, we should embrace a healthier cooking culture in all of our cuisine.”
When asked what he considers today’s ‘it’ ingredients, he responds: “Though I try to steer clear of ‘it’ ingredients and introduce diners to new and exciting experiences, I think in my circle of chef friends, we all have a sunchoke dish on our menus. In the past, ingredients like sunchokes were looked upon as a dish’s starch component. Now the trend is to take what was typically considered a component and make it its own menu item.”
With respect to the meat-substitute trend, however, he offers caution. “These aren’t exactly healthier options when talking about imitation meats and cheeses. It frustrates me to see vegetarians and those on plant-based diets opting for ultra-processed meat substitutes full of chemicals. If you want the flavor and texture of beef or cheese, I think you’re better off eating the real thing.”
He concludes with wisdom delved from his galley — insight he shares with planners: “In my opinion, over the last five years the whole restaurant scene has begun to realize that these dietary restrictions and plant-based lifestyle choices aren’t going anywhere. In order to be better chefs and restaurateurs, we need to adapt to the trends. As I’ve adapted, I’ve found myself cooking and thinking about food differently and in turn, have become healthier in and out of the kitchen.”
Bon appétit! I&FMM