The Foodie ExperienceJanuary 1, 2017

For Sophisticated Attendees, Creativity in Cuisine and Presentation Is Everything By
January 1, 2017

The Foodie Experience

For Sophisticated Attendees, Creativity in Cuisine and Presentation Is Everything
Hilton Chicago executive chef Mario Garcia says more adventurous cuisine and presentations — for example, using whole animals like this whole pig at a taco action station — are trending. Credits: Hilton Chicago

Hilton Chicago executive chef Mario Garcia says more adventurous cuisine and presentations — for example, using whole animals like this whole pig at a taco action station — are trending. Credits: Hilton Chicago

One of the biggest trends in F&B these days is not actually about the food. It’s about how the food is presented and displayed.

“It’s about creating an experience,” says Mario Garcia, executive chef at Hilton Chicago. “The Food Network, Anthony Bourdain and social media have collectively changed the expectation for group meals.”

Naturally, the food also matters, and thanks to TV food shows and celebrity chefs, we’re all foodies now, and that dictates what we want. “Attendees want a foodie experience built around creativity, flavor, balance, health options and an ever-increasing number of dietary restrictions and personal preferences,” Garcia says.

Alexander deHilster, event design manager with Meetings & Incentives Worldwide Inc., set two events in the Conrad Suite at Hilton Chicago last fall, the first for a corporate real estate firm, the second for a global consulting firm. “The room itself was for me initially the biggest draw,” he says.

But in the end it was the innovative execution that wowed him. “From the gorgeous, artfully passed miniature hors d’oeuvres to the unusual serving dishes such as the tins, the bamboo steamer and the salad served in an acrylic ball, to the miniature pans with a nearly one-bite meal in each, the hotel went out of its way.”

The Wow Factor Challenge

It was all part of creating a full-on experience for clients who’ve been there, done that. “Those clients want more interesting flavors, more unusual dishes and more creative ways of displaying, plating and preparing dishes, and they’re willing to pay for it,” deHilster says. “Many of our clients have seen and done it all, so it’s a challenge to come up with the next wow factor. Hotels in general seem to have the least wow factor, possibly because they’re trying to keep it safe in order to please all.”

But the Hilton Chicago surpassed expectations, particularly for the second event. Clear communication was one key.

“(Clients who’ve been there done that) want more interesting flavors, more unusual dishes and more creative ways of displaying, plating and preparing dishes, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
— Alexander deHilster

“As I was adamant with the client that the dinner should be at the Conrad Suite,” deHilster says, “my instructions to the hotel were ‘think out-of-the-box.’ Originally the dinner was going to be a seated affair for 40, which changed just three to four days ahead to a buffet station for 60. The hotel staff had no time to provide us with menu suggestions so we didn’t know what we would be walking into. Needless to say, they pulled through and blew us away. We’re considering taking the 2018 holiday event from an offsite property with outside catering back to the hotel.”

While catering staff and chefs have become increasingly creative in presentation and execution, clients, too, have changed. In addition to a continued focus on sustainable and local sourcing, Garcia says, “Groups are now more open to experiencing alternatives in F&B — different cuts of meat, different types of fish, different veggies and more ethnic items.”

Some experts believe that new openness to unfamiliar tastes and cuisines can be attributed to millennials, with Generation Z right behind them. They appear more adventurous in terms of food than their older counterparts, and that’s driving American cuisine toward a new “melting pot” sensibility that embraces a multitude of cuisines. That trend also exists within a host of other trends.

At the Hilton Chicago, Garcia says action station variations are very popular, “such as Peking duck taco stations, made-to-order steam-bun stations and made-to-order pasta stations with made-to-order gnocchi or ravioli.” Also trending: presentation of whole animals such as whole pig, whole lamb or whole roasted groupers (20 lbs and up), along with small-plate variations and exotic fruit desserts made with passion fruit, quince, kiwi, guava and lychee.

The art of presentation and the ultimate experience is so integral to today’s corporate events that Rosewood Sand Hill in California’s Silicon Valley launched its own Event Studio, in collaboration with celebrity event planner Colin Cowie, to provide planners with one-stop shopping and design assistance for experiential, curated, bespoke events in the region. Hundreds of design elements are locally sourced, and planners can incorporate detailed branding options, such as personalized M&Ms in corporate colors, as well as local foods, into the mix to create exactly the right experience.

Locavore Trend

While the concept of focusing on local purveyors is hardly new, it continues to evolve, for example in combination with less familiar and ethnic foods. One ethnic food making a splash on the F&B scene is Caribbean Sea cuisine, local not just for island resorts but also for many Florida mainland hotels.

At St. Joe Club & Resorts on Florida’s northwest Emerald Coast, corporate executive chef Todd Rogers notes that all seafood is caught locally and stars in such (unusual or ethnic) dishes as grilled octopus with Cuban cooked plantains and Gulf-caught grilled cobia. Rogers says he even gets a call from the boat when a line-caught tuna is landed for the resort’s sushi bar.

St. Joe Club & Resorts also works with a local farmer who grows only for the property and only certified organic herbs and vegetables. These kinds of relationships go far beyond buyer and seller for many chefs and growers these days, another aspect of the evolving locavore trend. “We have been to his farm to help harvest. It is way out there in the middle of nowhere, and we get there by bumpy red-clay roads with no signs or a GPS, so it’s hard to find,” Rogers says.

Pick or Catch Your Own

More often these days, attendees also have direct access to the foods they will consume. For example, groups continue making an intimate, often hands-on connection to local foods as hotels provide programs connecting attendees with gardens and farms — often right on property. And that trend often combines with the ever-evolving craft cocktail movement as well as health and wellness at spas.

Attendees in Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort’s mojito mixology classes start in the hotel’s herb garden to handpick mint they’ll muddle into their mojitos. At the JW Marriott Grand Rapids in Michigan, groups pick pineapple sage from the resort’s outdoor garden and living wall to create a pineapple sage mojito. Both the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and nearby Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek give guests a chance to pick and create their own salads, while the Hilton West Palm Beach offers groups an experiential mason-jar class in which participants pick fruit from the hotel’s potted orange trees and create a citrus dressing.

That hands-on experience is sea worthy, too. Executive chef Pedro Abascal at Thompson Playa del Carmen in Mexico takes attendees on a “catch your own catch of the day” experience with local fishermen. Afterward, the catch can be grilled or made into ceviche or sushi for the group’s dinner.

At the Clift in San Francisco, combined trends includes bees, which made an entrée into corporate events in recent years as hotels began managing their own hives on rooftops across the country. That trend not only continues but thrives as awareness about the importance of bees and their dwindling numbers increases. The Clift’s Rooftop Bee Sanctuary originally housed 100,000 bees. Today, it’s home to 800,000, and the hotel continues to artfully introduce honey into menus that highlight several F&B trends, including creative craft cocktails.

The hotel’s mixologists experiment with intriguing flavor combinations for their cocktails, often using on-property ingredients including honey. The 49er Tea Time, for example, combines black-tea-infused whiskey with housemade honey syrup and lemon for a cocktail that melds local ingredients with a nod to another local element, history. Patrons also can try a housemade lavender-infused gin with the honey syrup, lemon juice and lavender bitters.

The small-plates trend also is alive and well, and the Clift uses its honey and cocktail herb garden to create dishes such as compressed watermelon salad with lavender-infused honey, and an ever-changing tapas platter served with house honey.

At Cedarbrook Lodge, located on 18 acres just a mile from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Copperleaf Restaurant and the hotel’s spa work together to offer Taste & Touch, a philosophy and program that combines health and wellness, and a focus on local foods and ingredients from the gardens, fields and forests of the Northwest for both F&B and spa patrons. “Taste & Touch is the pinnacle of the farm-to-table, farm-to-face and locavore movements,” says Copperleaf Culinary Director Roy Breiman. “We’re blessed with an incredible natural bounty here in the Pacific Northwest, and this series represents a lifetime of learning and a desire to see people fully immerse themselves in all things that nourish, both inside and out.”

Joan Higdon, spa director, agrees, referencing seasonal highlights. “Taste & Touch marries the senses to jointly experience the replenishing powers of our homegrown botanicals, juicy heirloom tomatoes, warming ginger root and spices of the holiday season.”

Taste & Touch can be customized for corporate meeting groups: Planners can choose to include parts of the program they like, such as set meals or jet-set therapies that incorporate the seasonal ingredients being featured.

Taking a cue from the wine industry, Cedarbrook Lodge points to the particular terroir from which its inventive cuisine and spa ingredients and treatments are derived, a terroir the lodge describes as “fueled by an enriched climate that creates a cohesive, artfully crafted experience unique to the region.” For both culinary and spa teams, it’s all about sourcing from small-scale, local artisans who produce sustainable, often organic products that help create that all-important experience.

Meet With Purpose

The trend toward healthful, more sustainable meetings also continues. In September, Hilton Worldwide launched the next iteration of its Meet With Purpose program. It was prompted in part by the results of a May global survey conducted by Hilton that found, not surprisingly, that attendees struggle to focus in the afternoons, often thanks to heavy lunches, no chance to exercise and a letdown after the high of sugary break foods.

One in three respondents said they’re drowsy in the afternoons during conferences, with 2–4 p.m. the least productive time period. Fully half of all respondents said they were not satisfied with their ability to stay on track with diets or normal eating and exercise during conferences and seven out of 10 said they consider good diet and exercise an important part of daily living. When asked how to promote a more satisfying meeting experience, 46 percent were in favor of fitness activities in the local area, such as guided walks or runs, and the same number thought spa promotions to unwind after meetings would be helpful. As for food, 52 percent voted for balanced menu options, including locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.

If these options are available, the survey found that four out of five attendees would be more likely to participate and to be attentive during sessions, which would increase overall meeting satisfaction and, as a result, ROI.

Hilton Worldwide took that information and created combination menus of healthful foods paired with activities, such as Yogurt & Yoga, a 50-minute, instructor-led yoga class paired with a menu featuring such items as watermelon, yuzu and mint salad with citrus-basil dressing; house-made granola with nuts; a chef’s choice of protein and savory; and seasonal fruit-infused yogurt. Other activities on offer: a one- or two-mile fun run or power walk and a 25-minute stretch session. Hilton’s Meditative Moment pairs a 10-minute meditation session with a customizable lean protein plus veggies or a fruit smoothie. Health and wellness menus are available at more than 40 Hilton hotels in the United States, a clear mandate for wellness and healthful food trends at meetings.

More Trends

When it comes to trends directly related to the dishes appearing on menus for 2017, Elizabeth Blau, James Beard semifinalist and investor on the “Restaurant Startup,” the CNBC television show, has an expert take on what we’re likely to see. The Las Vegas restaurateur and founder/CEO of Blau & Associates, a strategic restaurant planning and development company, is tuned into the foods American diners want as well as the innovations of the country’s most promising chefs. Among the trends on her list: ancient grains and seeds “introducing unique and deep flavors” in such dishes as savory granolas and alternative risottos.

Chef-focused delivery is another trend. “2016 was the year of the chef-driven, fast casual concept,” she says, “or fine casual, and that is a great thing — scaling high-quality food that is created with the consumer in mind but also our supply chains. This year I am excited about chefs moving their restaurants out of storefronts and onto apps. From home meal replacement options to the best lunch delivery in New York City, chefs are fighting back on some of the litany of operational challenges they face with exciting and innovative combinations of technology and limited-edition menu items.”

This delivery focus may allow planners more flexibility to bring the cuisine of top chefs into corporate boardrooms and other non-restaurant or hotel venues where meetings take place.

One Menu a Day

Rising rents and increased labor costs are driving additional restaurant trends. Solution: One Menu a Day. According to Blau, more and more chefs are offering a single menu every day and changing it every day. Whether that’s making chefs’ lives easier or harder is unclear. But either way, Blau says, “They are making ours more delicious.” She describes these menus as a “curated list of the best ingredients and the most inspired dishes that make these restaurants a joy to visit time after time. They also bridge the gap between the inherent trust in a chef and the (sometimes) perceived arrogance or restraint implied by a tasting menu. As more and more chefs continue to explore modes of expression that suit their voice, I think the short, constantly evolving, single menu will overtake the tasting menu as the vehicle of choice.”

Some of the other trends Blau sees coming: fewer meat burgers, lower-alcohol cocktails (e.g. session cocktails), breakfast grain bowls, Paleo 2.0 and more fermentation.

As for what she hopes to see in 2017, that list includes loaded sweet potatoes, veggie tartares and pokes, creative hybrid sprouts, next-level oatmeal and porridges, savory smoothies, dim sum carts at brunch, the rise of Filipino cuisine, organic artisan chicken nuggets and kelp as the new kale.

Dine & Recline

In the realm of out-of-the-box trends, there is now an interesting flip on the “unconstructed dining” at work in many hotels, which allows guests to eat where and when they want in the hotel, not just in traditional restaurants. In this newest version of that dining freedom, small groups can base their meeting location in a hot restaurant rather than a hotel as some savvy restaurateurs lead the way in adding hotel rooms to their dining establishments. With many of these restaurants in the highest echelons of upscale dining, this may prove especially alluring to high-end incentive groups and the planners tasked with not just satisfying but truly wowing this ultimate “been there, done that” clientele.

Among the restaurant-lodging combos is Brae, one of Australia’s most coveted restaurants but located 1.5 hours from Melbourne. It now features six uber luxurious hotel rooms on the farm property that currently sell out months in advance. Closer to home in West Texas, Rancho Loma, three hours from the nearest big city, opened five suites for its guests. As the Airbnb mentality fully permeates American culture, and as chefs and restaurateurs demand more control over the experience they create, this trend will likely grow — incentive planners take note!


In terms of trends that should not continue, there’s one high on the list of chef Garcia of Hilton Chicago: waste at conventions. “Many planners ask for a lot of food stations,” he says, “which results in heavy waste.” Good communication could help with this issue as chefs and catering staff understand group numbers and the appropriate amount of food for them; planners need only take their advice into consideration.

And there’s waste of time and energy, too, elements also lessened by good communication. The primary tip Garcia offers planners who are set to meet with chefs and caterers on F&B is simple: “Have a clear vision of what you want to offer to your conference attendees. It makes the planning and developing process much easier.” C&IT

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