by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | July 01, 2007

illustrationLast April when British Columbia’s culinary elite gathered for a night of serious feasting and to welcome a new batch of inductees into the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame, they didn’t choose a luxury hotel or one of this foodie city’s high-profile restaurants for the gala dinner. Instead, they headed to the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, where they dined on delectables such as pan-seared foie gras with apple relish, smoked trout with leek vinaigrette, and osso bucco with fresh morels.

“There was definitely some performance anxiety backstage in the kitchen that night, because that was an intimidating group,” says Andrew Pollard, director of food and beverage for the VCEC. He needn’t have worried. The group was so impressed by Pollard’s culinary prowess, they plan on returning next year.

Remember when hotel dining was the kiss of death, before headliner chefs began popping up in hotel dining rooms and rolling out signature restaurants? Well, convention center dining, that bastion of mediocrity, is undergoing a similar transformation that is certain to banish those industrywide rubber-chicken jokes.

“Bulk food production has always gotten a bad rap, so people don’t expect much from convention centers,” says Pollard. “But they should. People are often shocked at the quality we are able to put on the plate for large numbers of people.”

Flip this food

It might have been a long time coming, but the food and beverage trends emerging at convention centers across North America, as well as the new injection of culinary talent, will have meeting planners downright eager to dive into planning their event menus.

* Lights, camera, drum roll. From preparing Asian noodles to tossing customized salads and grilling skewered meats, the art of culinary showmanship, delivered tableside, is now thrilling legions of diners at convention centers. “People want to see the chefs, so we are taking them out of the kitchen and bringing them up front and making them part of the event. It’s performance theater, like Iron Chef,” says Richard Toscano, vice president of event planning for Spartanburg, S.C.-based Centerplate, a catering, concessions and management firm counting among its clients 130 convention centers, arenas and sports venues, including the convention centers in Dallas and San Diego. “When the chef prepares the food in front of you, the meal takes on a whole new dimension. You almost don’t need to have any other entertainment, he adds.”

* Family-style dining. The typical scenario for a plated meal is this: Wait patiently for everyone at your table to be served before digging into that course, now gone cold, then repeat the process for the next course. “We have begun taking a family-style restaurant approach to meals by placing a selection of platters in the center of the table,” says Bennett Fass, executive chef and director of culinary standards at Philadelphia-based Aramark Convention Center & Cultural Attractions, which manages food operations at more than 50 convention centers, museums, zoos and science centers across the country. “Not only aren’t people waiting around for their food,” Fass continues, “it becomes very interactive. One person turns to the next person and says, ‘This is delicious. What did you try?’ ”

Roger MorganNo out-saucing: Connecticut Convention Center’s Roger Morgan

* Made fresh daily. “Where do you buy your soup?” It might seem like an innocuous enough question for a client to ask of a convention center’s chef, but it makes Roger Morgan at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford bristle. “I make my own soup, my own seasonings and sauces, because I am a perfectionist. We don’t take shortcuts here,” says Morgan, the CCC’s executive chef, who has pushed this relatively new center, open less than three years, to take an ambitious attitude toward its food-service operation.

Morgan’s background explains a lot. He had never worked at a convention center before and came to the CCC following more than a dozen years at Bally’s casino hotel in Atlantic City, where he acknowledges the aggressive competition among chefs for consumer recognition and media ink can be ferocious. “I am accustomed to creating and serving four-star quality food. It’s the only type of food I know,” says Morgan, one of the few executive chefs in the convention center industry. “Now, I am competing against myself and pushing my team to do that here.”

To ensure that his handpicked team of 10 buys into and perpetuates his demanding standards, Morgan includes them in tastings, actively solicits their feedback and shares praise from clients. “They have eaten every meal I’ve made, because they need to know what they are serving and be proud of it,” he says. And when the accolades come through the kitchen’s swing doors, Morgan makes sure they fall on the most deserving ears. “I absolutely share them with my team,” he notes. “I don’t hold onto compliments for myself.”