The Art of the MealDecember 12, 2022

Great F&B Elevates an Event Into an Experience By
December 12, 2022

The Art of the Meal

Great F&B Elevates an Event Into an Experience
Courtesy of Dewey LoSasso

Courtesy of Dewey LoSasso

Ask any meeting planner what accounts for meeting success, and you’re bound to receive a range of responses. Yet, one key ingredient consistently stands out among the others: the overall quality of the food & beverage service. Why? Because happy meeting planners know that top-notch culinary experiences make for more than memorable meals and a memorable event. When elevated from ordinary to extraordinary, exceptional dining experiences deliver an emotional wealth of well-being.

“Maybe that emotional response is the euphoric feeling of having an amazing bite of food you have never had before, or maybe it triggers a memory from your past, or maybe that bite of food is trumped by the people you are breaking bread with, but was only the vehicle that brought you all together,” says Joshua Murray, executive chef and director of food & beverage at Conrad Washington, DC. “The pure essence of hospitality is what I want to provide, and that means creating the moment for people to truly feel at home.”

The feeling of “an inclusive home away from home” is also the goal of Adam Tanner, assistant vice president of F&B for AHC Hospitality in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We want you to know that your meeting will have our undivided attention to the details. From the comfort of a great breakfast muffin to Instagrammable event spaces, we have you covered.”

The small details are what elevates a mere conference meal into culinary experiences, agrees Elliott Grover, executive chef at 45 Park Lane, Dorchester Collection. “Just because you are providing a high volume of food doesn’t mean the culinary experience has to be basic,” he says. “You can put more effort into the prep where you have more time and manpower, and then the finishing touches will be a lot easier without compromising on the wow factor.”

For Andrew Chadwick, executive chef at Chatham Bars Inn in Massachusetts, there are three key themes that elevate a culinary experience from noteworthy to exceptional for corporate meeting attendees: “They are the setup, execution of the food and service,” he says.

Paul Peddle, executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel, Houston, echoes Chadwick: “The culinary culture at Four Seasons Hotel Houston is based on quality ingredients, thoughtful and creative preparations and extraordinary service.”

Pablo C. Aguirre, executive chef at Marriott Marquis Houston, says from his perspective, elevating a culinary experience from noteworthy to exceptional begins with the planning. “My team and I get involved with the planner and group’s vision for the F&B experience from day one,” he says. “This way, we’re able to plan more seamlessly for menu adjustments and customizations based on tastes and dietary preferences. Food is one of the most memorable experiences of any event, and our immediate and consistent involvement in the planning process is one of the key ingredients to our team’s success.”

A Conceptualized Experience

In this vein, to create the desired ambiance, whether one of comfort and class, evoking the vibe and feel of the event’s location or creating a truly modern luxury experience, Tanner thinks with all exceptional events, the theme can be felt from start to finish, he says, adding: “[These] intangible factors can lift an event from good to great when the vision of the event is met on all levels.”

Murray describes his and his team’s effort as trying to create “a true conceptualized experience like you would get in a restaurant.” He says, “Most great restaurants don’t just have great food, they have a great story with food, décor, service, china/flatware, music and more that all tie into the F&B experience to make it great.”

Courtesy of Joshua Murray

Courtesy of Joshua Murray

Murray details the seamless execution of a “conceptualized approach” at the Conrad. “Here, we are a very art forward venue, and we took great pride in leaning into that. We, of course, work to partner with groups on individual group wants, but our catering menus are conceptualized to tie into the art of the hotel,” he says. “For example the hors d’oeuvres section of the menu is called the ‘color wheel’ and has two sections to it. ‘Warm hues’ make up the hot hors d’oeuvres and ‘cold hues’ make up the cold ones. When choosing your menu for an event, this is the beginning of making your reception an art piece that works in harmony with the design of the hotel. From there, you may move on to your plated dinner where you are selecting from sections called the ‘foreground,’ ‘middle ground’ and ‘finishing touches’ to form the courses of your meal. All the while we focus on the all-important components of creativity, locally sourced, sustainability and seasonality. The end result is a start to finish experience that really makes sense and, in my opinion, stands apart.”

A conceptualized, synergistic approach is also top of Tanner’s mind as he describes his culinary experience discovering how to balance the flavors in one dish: “Working in Asia for nearly 10 years shaped my philosophy of creating a dish, getting all the taste buds energized in the goal of achieving ‘umami,’ where you try to stimulate every part of the palette in one dish — salty, savory, sweet, bitterness, for example,” he says. “I cook to achieve a balance between the key tastes on the palate, like pairing wine with a great dish when all the flavors come together to elevate everything even more.”

Less is More

Tanner’s evolution as a chef has led to his current culinary philosophy that “less is more.” In fact, he says, “Ingredient-driven cuisine with proper cooking techniques is hard to fault.”

Grover agrees, saying the inspiration behind most of his dishes are the ingredients. “I like keeping it simple and using the best seasonal produce available,” he says. “With the right produce, it’s hard to go wrong. I want my dishes to be comforting whilst still being luxurious.”

It’s that focus on an approachable culinary style with attention to detail that drives Peddle’s philosophy as well. “The best ingredients prepared thoughtfully allows the food to shine,” he says.

A less-is-more approach is also the philosophy behind the goal of these chefs to create a relaxed atmosphere that isn’t intrusive. “The quality of the ambiance and food should be at a level that is naturally so good it doesn’t require the attendees to think/talk about it,” Grover says. “At the end of the day, the meeting is not focused on the food, but the meeting itself.”

Courtesy of Dewey LoSasso

Courtesy of Dewey LoSasso

A Customized Approach

Karen Devine, CITP, CEO & founder of 3D Cruise Partners, cites the high-level dining selections as the deciding factor in many of her clients choosing a luxury, customized cruise experience to host their conferences and events. From Devine’s perspective, “culinary experiences at sea have become not just a surprise and delight any longer, rather an anticipated, and almost expected, experience.” She says, “So many cruise lines have relationships with top chefs and restaurants globally, and the ability to experience diverse dining at sea is now more prevalent than ever.” She adds, “[One] particular client, because she chartered the ship, was not only able to customize the menu choices based on her guests’ preferences, but also surprise them with a wide choice of dining options from the existing offerings. The attendees were delighted to see the deck dinner, not something normally offered on many ships, that had been set up and customized from a décor and F&B perspective just for them.”

For Tanner, a customized approach means creating bespoke experiences for each individual planner. For example, Tanner had a recent client who wanted strict sustainability efforts throughout the corporate event. The culinary team provided a number of special touches to exceed expectations, such as all plastics being removed from the meeting room, but the property’s executive chef spoke to the group about the locally sourced foods and beverages on the menu “with an emphasis on local must-try items,” since so often conference attendees leave a destination without ever having tried the food and beverages unique to the region. “If you haven’t been to Grand Rapids before, you might not know what’s here,” Tanner says. “Grand Rapids is known as beer city, but also has made its mark on the culinary scene with the olive burger, wet burrito, warm Fruit Ridge apple cider and doughnut holes in the fall, so we bring in some of those must-try elements as well just so people have that experience.”

Courtesy of Adam Tanner

Courtesy of Adam Tanner

Trusted Partnerships

If there’s one truism that has evolved from the global COVID-19 pandemic, meeting planners and culinary professionals alike attest to the value of nurturing trusted partner relationships whether between planner and the venue’s F&B team, or between the F&B team and their vendors. “The pandemic forced us to learn and adapt very quickly,“ Peddle says. “Our long-standing relationships with our distributors and suppliers proved to be so valuable, ensuring we were able to continue receiving the ingredients we needed to operate our restaurants and serve our guests. These days, we’re planning not just for the next three weeks, but for the next three months.”

Tanner says there is a trust that needs to be built between the two sides, which for him means, “Give our culinary team the freedom to make your events exceptional, and we will,” he says.

Chadwick says the ideal corporate meeting planner partner would be someone who allows him the creative freedom to develop and take charge of the event menus. “I love offering a completely unique and authentic menu that leaves their … meal instilled in their memories.” he says. “With that creative culinary freedom, I’ll infuse locally sourced and nontraditional ingredients into my menus to surprise and delight their attendees with unexpected new recipes.”

These one-of-a-kind offerings reflect what chefs are aiming to create more of across the entire industry, Aguirre says. “I am always looking for those wow moments. I get inspired by thinking about how I can re-create a dish that I see or eat in an elevated way with my knowledge of different cuisines. I love to weave my knowledge of Central American cuisine into my cooking.”

Grant Morgan, executive concept chef at Hotel Drover, Autograph Collection, strives to create ambiance that is reflective of Fort Worth’s distinctly Texas appeal and of Hotel Drover’s atmosphere, and he draws inspiration from local products. “When a farmer or rancher brings me an ingredient, I use that ingredient to inspire a new dish.”

Consequently, Morgan appreciates and respects corporate meeting planners who are open to discovery: “Someone that is interested in learning about and including regional cuisine to enhance their overall goals,” he says, and goes on to advise planners to look for venues where the chef is willing to work with planners to create an experience that is catered to them. “Don’t just settle for the deli platter for lunch or the chicken buffet for dinner,” he says.

Murray, echoing the other comments, says the perfect meeting planner client is one who is a partner. “This means we are in it together. I relish the ability to understand what they want to accomplish and then allowing the team here to partner with them to exceed those expectations,” he says. “I want them to know that we understand planning a meeting is a major responsibility that comes with a lot of stress. The food and beverage team here knows that, and we are here to make the food and beverage side of it a distant worry and the highlight for their event.”

Clear Communication

Within trusted partnerships, clear communication is key to building successful meeting events. “I like working with meeting planners who know their internal customers so we can create the right experience,” Aguirre says.

Clearly communicating their understanding of the customer to the F&B team naturally follows. “The most important part is that the client is able to give us a clear vision of the event and make sure we build upon that theme,” Tanner says. “Elevating an ordinary event into a top-notch experience happens when the vision of the event is met on all levels. This is possible with the whole team coming together and delivering the best product we can.”

Grover acknowledges “whilst running a busy and successful kitchen, I have to be quite specific about what I want to focus on at a certain time,” he says. “Timing is really important for us. We are always grateful when planners are really clear about what they need and when they need it. This helps us to not interrupt important meetings at the wrong time.”

For Dewey LoSasso, corporate executive chef at Bill Hansen Catering & Event Production, what elevates the overall culinary experience is the interaction between the end client and the chef. “It’s sort of an informal, organic interview,” he says. Toward that end, his image of the ideal corporate meeting planner partner is one where “a planner comes to the table with end-client data that is clear and concise, a planner who is open to a culinary brainstorming session that partners with us on logistics, as well as food and beverage.”

Peddle also notes that “A great communicator — someone who truly understands their group — makes all the difference in allowing us to make the magic happen from our side.”

However, even if planners don’t have a clear vision for their events, a great chef can ease the planner’s worries. “Just come to us, and we will make your culinary vision happen,” Aguirre says. “If you don’t have a clear vision, let us help to guide and craft your experience. We want to make your meeting distinctive. We have a well-seasoned team and a fantastic property that can offer endless options when it comes to activations and execution.”

LoSasso says there is never a wrong question. “For that matter, we take to heart ideas from planners and execute them beyond the scope of a simple catering company,” he says. “Planners are conduits to an amazing experience. What we do is source a product, fabricate a product, execute a product and get a reaction on that product, normally in a three- to four-day window. Meeting planners are instrumental in all aspects of that process. We are not making cars that may sit on a lot for a year. We create experiences and memories in an instant. When done right, it’s astonishing and will leave a lasting impact.”

Devine, in fact, implores planners considering a cruise event to “ask questions of the cruise line — particularly for a charter, as that is easy to do with customized menu choices; but even for a group on a regular cruise,” she says. “Find out if a dinearound can be done at sea, as many ships allow this now. Or find out if a particular restaurant can be taken over for your group and customize the menu. Choose your ship in the destination you are interested in by looking into the culinary offerings and ensuring there are venues that meet your guests’ interests, or offer some unique and different approaches to F&B vs. just a restaurant on board.”

For his part, LoSasso says: “All of this is dictated by … truly listening to the meeting planner. We want attendees to leave an event knowing that we cared about them.”

Peddle agrees: “Listening and understanding the group dynamics is essential. Every group and event are different, so planning and communicating in advance allows us to create something personalized that suits each meeting perfectly, giving the attendees an opportunity to enjoy a superb snack or meal and refresh before their next session.” C&IT

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