(Don’t) Let Them Eat CakeFebruary 1, 2020

The ABCs of the Meeting World’s Healthy Food Scene By
February 1, 2020

(Don’t) Let Them Eat Cake

The ABCs of the Meeting World’s Healthy Food Scene


“Healthy” is today’s across-the-board buzzword, even in the culinary world’s meetings scene. From planners to chefs, eating clean and organic are in the forefront of decision makers’ minds when planning a get-together to reward and motivate attendees. Here’s the inside scoop, though certainly not of the ice cream sort, on foods that are good for the body, eaten for energy and that nurture the mind.

Inspiration and Innovation

In alignment with the food-health-meetings link is Alexander deHilster, creative design manager for Meetings & Incentives Worldwide Inc. (M&IW), a global event management company that specializes in meetings, incentives and conferences. Having taken groups to the InterContinental San Diego, he’s worked in partnership with a nationally recognized health insurance plan provider.

The M&IW specialist describes a culinary reception at InterContinental San Diego, which was inspired and created by the city’s Little Italy Farmers Market. Each vendor/chef-attended station served its own menu selections under an individual logoed tent — complete with a list of all ingredients and food allergens. Decorated with white picket fencing, greenery and communal picnic tables, and featuring an acoustic duo for entertainment, it was overwhelmingly a welcoming and inventive success.

Where does deHilster go to get creatively inspired? “To keep up to date with top trends, I regularly check out sites like Gourmet magazine and Google to see what’s happening food wise.”

The payoff for the specialist’s over-the-years’ diligence is uncovering the unique — from build-your-own acai bowl bar and gazoz, Israel’s version of homemade soda, to smoothie shooters and afternoon happy-hour mocktails.

A significant display of deHilster’s creativity was featured on this recent menu sample designed to appeal to most food preferences/restrictions: hors d’oeuvres, including roasted carrots on crostini with ricotta and house honey, scallop ceviche on cucumber round with sweet chili sauce and wild mushroom vol-au-vent quinoa risotto cake bites. Entrees were a seafood station with grilled octopus, grilled chorizo, fingerling potatoes, frisee, petite tomatoes, fennel and kalamata olives served in a clear plastic sphere chef-prepared to order. It was also available as a vegetarian dish and with non-pork alternatives, in addition to grilled lamb loin over Moroccan-spiced couscous with currants, pistachio and drunken sun-dried fruit served in mini copper pans, also available without lamb for vegetarians.

Among the event specialist’s guidelines are to have non-dairy options, such as almond or coconut milk, as he has several attendees who are dairy intolerant. He looks for food fare that is not heavy because he doesn’t want guests to fall asleep after lunch or during meetings.

His goals are not to order processed foods, to use superfoods wherever and whenever possible and to incorporate locally sourced foods. And if he goes with nostalgic fare, it’s always with a healthier twist. Why is it important to deHilster to work within such parameters? His response: “Most attendees want lighter, healthier fare.”

With meetings no longer seen as opportunities to overindulge, regardless of consequence, today’s planners operate by different rules.

“I do my best to always provide three to four different types of main courses, two to three different types of salads, three to four different side dishes and a variety of desserts to satisfy various dietary needs,” deHilster says. “In general, I also offer mostly vegetarian/vegan hors d’oeuvres so everyone can enjoy them. Even meat eaters don’t miss that we’re not serving beef sliders, lamb chops or chicken skewers. And I always tell chefs: ‘I don’t want to see another portobello mushroom option,’ which is no problem these days as chefs are very creative.”

Mentioning that paleo, keto and Whole30 diets are sometimes requested, he explains that he works closely with chefs to come up with a varied menu that can accommodate almost all special meal requests, as well as providing items that appeal to those with no restrictions. One alternative is to serve deconstructed options so everyone can add whatever ingredients they prefer to the dish. When needed, he sometimes provides two different options of the same dish, i.e. angel hair pasta and spaghetti squash.

“My first conversation with the chef is: ‘Are you flexible with the menu?’ I like to pick and choose, mix and add and collaborate with the chef,” deHilster says. “Most times my menus end up being very different from the hotel’s banquet menus.”

Culture and Cuisine

“Southern California’s culture and cuisine have always leaned toward healthier options,” says Amy DiBiase, executive chef at InterContinental San Diego. “However, the expansion of this mindset across the country has taken it beyond the status of a trend to an expectation.” She deems ‘elevated vegan’ a must and expounds that it should be imaginative — enticing vegans and non-vegans alike.

In the attempt to best showcase a destination, DiBiase thinks local sourcing is the first and most critical step in creating a dining experience distinctive to the locale.

“This needs to happen across the entire spectrum of ingredients — not just produce, poultry and seafood from farms, but also favorite neighborhood vendors, such as bakeries, coffee roasters, gelato makers or a hard kombucha brewer.” Foods, such as walnuts, quinoa, blueberries, acai berries, dark chocolate, avocados, beets, spinach and kale, termed brain foods, have been linked to good health because of their content of B vitamins, magnesium and low glycemic load.

Taking the extra step, InterContinental San Diego divides its brain food snack breaks into categories based on attendees’ desired results — energy, gut health, memory or mood. Along the same healthy theme, DiBiase’s philosophy with respect to food is basic: “People feel better when they eat real, simple, fresh food — period.”

Foods can be Selective and Savvy

“The world is becoming more food savvy, and meeting attendees are interested in every element of the culinary experience,” says Joanie Phillips, CITP, director, purchasing and design with One10 — a Minneapolis-based company experienced in travel and events, incentives and recognition and marketing services.

So, in addition to health concerns, elements of the culinary scene are expansive. To handle the attention to calories, gluten, meatless and more, Phillips’ awareness of food choices covers all the bases. Bullet points of interest to the event specialist are sweet and savory small portions; tasty, plant-based alternatives; milk alternatives, including oat, rice and coconut; energizing foods; lactose-free, nut-free, vegetarian and vegan accommodation, as well as adherence to kosher and halal food preparation. To address the popular grab-and-go concept, healthy options exist and include pre-built salads in a cup, power bowls and bento boxes.

A Resort & Casino’s Culinary Leaders

Situated in Temecula in the heart of California’s wine country is the 1,090-room, AAA Four Diamond Award-winning Pechanga Resort Casino. It is known throughout the region for the property’s wide variety of eateries, including the Great Oak Steakhouse — winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Culinary leaders Chef Hunter Gonzalez, catering and banquets, and Chef Jose Mendoza, Lobby Bar & Grill, which is part of the $300-million resort expansion, have a dual commitment.

Gonzalez says that while their quest is to bring the wine country and coastal feel to the property, the healthy food trend has also led his team to come up with more composed vegetarian and vegan options, as well as lighter fare offerings from their regular menu options, even down to the breaks. “We have incorporated a lot of house-made items such as granolas, pickled vegetables and even coconut water.” The chef has also introduced more superfood selections, including nuts, berries, yogurts, kale, lentils, chia seeds, different juicing possibilities and more.

“We now see a larger impact of attendees with health restrictions or allergies coming into the Lobby Bar & Grill during conferences,” Mendoza says. The end game for this chef’s crew has been to adjust menus so that their most popular dishes can easily be modified to each attendee’s liking.

With a focus on house-made items for the Lobby Bar & Grill, Mendoza ensures that he and his culinary team know exactly what goes into their final dishes. “We have also started a small in-house pickling program where we pickle seasonal fruits and vegetables for use when not in season.” He continues that one of the biggest additions to Pechanga’s healthy-dining scene is its wellness menu, where gluten-friendly, vegetarian and vegan options reign, and gives a shout-out to its most popular dishes – Vegan Mushroom Chorizo served at breakfast and Mushroom Wellington for dinner.

Location, Location, Location

“Because of our location, we have the pleasure of a lot of health-conscious members attending our events,” says Aron Harrington, associate administrator, Southern California Credit Union Alliance (SCCUA), in Long Beach, California. The group has conducted meetings at Pechanga Resort Casino each June for the last few years, returning again this year. “With that said, we certainly see a big wave of people moving toward a plant-based diet and ditching meat altogether. You even see the big guys out there, like Burger King, adapting to this food trend.”

While the meeting planner doesn’t claim his organization to be the best at incorporating healthy choices into every meal and break, he ensures there is always a vegan and or vegetarian option when available and SCCUA has changed its snack offerings from typical sweet treats to more health conscious and mind-power items. With foods new to the scene — such as the West African flavors of moringa, tamarind and cereal grains, including sorghum, fonio, teff and millet; spreads beyond peanut, cashew and almond to include watermelon seed and pumpkin butter, as well as soy alternatives like mung beans and golden chlorella, a type of algae — where do planners like Harrington go to stay ahead of the food curve? “Google is our best friend for everything, including healthy food trends,” he says.

Gonzalez adds: “Our chefs, myself included, are always looking to tweak our menus throughout the year to make sure we’re offering the best and freshest ingredients we can while trying to stay ahead of the curve on food trends and popular items.”  However, his commitment to fresh, local products and healthy outcomes isn’t mutually exclusive.

Recognizing the effectiveness of this culinary duo and taking advantage of the resort’s setting, Harrington says: “When we host our annual conference at Pechanga in Temecula, we make sure that we offer attendees a local wine and brewery tour. Not only is this a fun social time for everyone, but it gets people interested and acquainted with the area’s home-grown flavor.”

Even the Heartland is Healthy

With more than 300 dining options within walking distance of its convention center and meeting hotels, and nearly three-quarters of those eateries independently owned and with chef-driven concepts, it’s little surprise that Indianapolis is considered one of the nation’s hottest culinary cities. Upping the ante is the locale’s proximity to rich agriculture, affording the city’s chefs and caterers the opportunity to collaborate with farmers, and infuse local produce and protein into its menus.

“When you think of Indiana, you typically think of corn cobs and pork tenderloins,” says Rachel Solano, banquet executive chef at JW Marriott Indianapolis. Although the hotel offers those items on some of their menus, these days there is much more. “We source local products as often as possible. This is really where our ‘roots’ are most reflected in our menus,” Solano says. The chef adds that the hotel’s menus have significantly evolved over the years to be more inclusive for all allergies and even diets. “Keto and Whole30 hit with a vengeance and we want to have options for those who are on the path to wellness with food, so we’re introducing things like juice bar action stations, avocado toast, even gumbo made with jackfruit.”

In the end, it’s all about change. And it’s about embracing that change. I&FMM

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