August 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Cuisine Art August 1999 Current Issue
August 1999

Cuisine Art

Creating custom menus for groups means doing away with the old rules

By Carla Benini Photographs by Judd Pilossof

What moves a chef to try serving, for example, seared tuna with fennel? Or to add polenta to a fruit cobbler? Such seemingly whimsical food pairings can, with one taste, reveal themselves to be strokes of genius. The question is, when it comes time for the meeting planner to play chef and create his own menu combinations, will attendees consider those decisions brilliant and inspired or strange and ill-conceived?

For planners, the art of putting together menus is perhaps more challenging than ever. With the popularity of fusion and ethnic cuisines, the choices of appetizers and entrées are endless. "In today's menus, there are no rules," declares Kathy Koenig, CEO of Culinary Concepts, a catering company based in San Diego.

This culinary lawlessness is inspiring creativity in planners, many of whom are eschewing standard banquet fare to create their own. But making the leap from stuffed chicken breast to sea bass, without being left with 500 half-eaten dinners, is not always easy. First, it means telling food and beverage staff that the standard menus do not pass muster, a potentially unpleasant conversation.

If rules for menu design have been backshelved in the pantry closet, guidelines nonetheless exist. An Asian and Mediterranean fusion might sound sultry, but a Caribbean and German combo could be best described as disturbing. There are also timing issues and budget concerns to address. M&C asked several palate-sensitive planners their advice on how to get the F&B staff in sync with you creatively to help design a meal worthy of the most discriminating diners.

Food prep
An experienced chef anticipates how ingredients will blend, react and flavor a dish. Planners need to have a similar sense about their attendees: They should know how they will respond to the menu.

Are the guests all from the Midwest, or will there be an Asian contingent? A group of mostly Europeans might appreciate salad at the end of the meal, which is a common practice in Europe, but American attendees might think the kitchen just forgot to bring out the salads.

Are diners from urban settings, where they are more likely to find and try riskier dishes? If not, the inexperienced ones might be more excited about eating chicken topped with a creative sauce than something like osso bucco (veal shank roasted in a red wine sauce and tomatoes). At the W New York, the most popular chicken dish ordered by groups is a breast served with "melted" (braised) leeks, says David Chase, director of catering. The presentation is offbeat but the dish itself is familiar. "I don't strong-arm anyone about a dish," he says. "If they're not into veal or lamb, you're not going to end up selling it."

Other questions to ask yourself: What kind of event is it? What is being planned before and after the meal? How much time will the group have to eat? For instance, when Thomas Nevin, senior vice president of New York City-based Catering by Restaurant Associates, has a group seeing a Broadway show after the meal, he keeps menu choices light and not too spicy. He might start with a vegetable napoleon with an herb goat cheese; then he may move on to a seared red snapper or chicken paillard, and finish the dinner off with a sorbet or fresh fruit and a tray of truffles. Preset appetizers also will have attendees eating more quickly than if they are served.

Planners also need to think about other meals during the meeting. What is being served at lunch, or at dinner the night before? Those in F&B suggest not to repeat menu items; keep things like the ubiquitous chicken breast to a minimum, and watch for redundant flavorings. "I've looked at menus where gorgonzola appears four times," says Koenig.

Then there is the location. When meeting in an area known for a particular cuisine, the decision to incorporate it is obvious. But planners stress the need for subtlety. "We try to reflect the area of the country but we never overdo it," says Phillip Cooke, president of Louisville, Ky.-based FSA Group, a food-industry association management company. Conversely, if the group is from the local area, the menu could be made more interesting by highlighting international cuisine.

One more thing for planners to consider: Is the event an awards banquet, during which there will be speeches? Nevin makes sure not to interrupt dessert remarks with forks sawing through thick pie crusts, so he will serve something less resistant, like tiramisu or flan.

Icing on the cake
At this point, menu conversations should not be so much about logistics as culinary nuances. Discussions also should be held with the executive chef, if possible.

"You need to build a relationship with the chef," says Peggy Roden, Dallas-based president and co-owner of Resort Marketing Associates Inc., a site-selection and meeting-planning firm in Atlanta. "They can be accommodating once they realize that you're not trying just to be difficult." Be forewarned: Getting a meeting with the chef can be an issue in itself; some F&B staffs are protective of the chef and consider him someone without the time or disposition to meet with a planner bringing a group to his dining room.

By speaking directly to the chef, planners can better communicate the role food will play in the event and the kind of people who will be eating it. Roden says when meeting with a chef, she comes prepared with notes, either referring to dishes she likes from the standard menu or to ideas from restaurants that she wants re-created.

Joanne Stratton, senior manager of global markets, meetings and events for Andersen Consulting in Chicago, does not even ask for a menu packet. "I'll say, 'Have your chef tell me what he thinks is an appropriate dinner for this group.' That way, I give the chef an opportunity to really excel and show me something different."

Planners advise that the menu should have some overall theme or concept. Courses should follow a logical progression without repeating similar tastes. For example, do not follow a Japanese-style udon noodle soup with an Austrian Wiener schnitzel. On the other hand, every course in a Mexican-themed meal should not be smothered in salsa.

Talk to the chef about what regional fruits and vegetables will be in season when your group is in-house. A winter event could highlight various squashes, like pumpkin or spaghetti squash. Early summer could call for a dessert like a braised rhubarb or the use of fresh corn in a salsa. Mary Evely, executive chef at Simi Winery in California's Sonoma County and author of Vintner's Table Cookbook, says you will end up with fresher and cheaper produce using seasonal items because they will be more abundant.

Evely also recommends getting a list of the venue's food suppliers, especially if you are looking to serve imported food or obscure wines. This way, you will know what needs to be specially ordered, which could have an impact if you are working with a short lead time.

Details like color and texture also are important. Dishes should mix crunchy with creamy, smooth with textural. A great way to do this in a salad, for example, might be to toss walnuts with Granny Smith apples, currants and greens. Dishes should be colorful and visually appealing. Pasta with a white sauce could be perked up with a carrot and turnip garnish, or served on colored plates.

Musical Menus

The catering department’s or company’s recommendation does not have to be the last word. If anything, their suggestions should be a jumping off point for creating your own menu.

For an evening affair held near Scottsdale, Ariz., Peggy Roden used the catering company’s menu as a blueprint. The Dallas-based president and co-owner of Resort Marketing Associates Inc., a site-selection and meeting-planning firm, started by tasting 15 appetizers among other items suggested by the company. From the tasting, Roden added and subtracted menu items as she felt necessary.

Many items from the suggested menu ended up on her final list, but Roden made several changes to dishes she felt did not reflect the meeting’s Southwest location. For example, she nixed one of the appetizers — small chicken medallions wrapped in bacon — for a wild mushroom pizza with a blue cornmeal crust. She also added a squash, red pepper and jack quesadilla to the appetizer offerings, which was not on the original menu. Roden felt that a side of grilled green and yellow squash, bell pepper, onions and eggplant would be zippier than a medley of baby vegetables. Dinner was also accompanied by corn bread instead of dinner rolls.

Even dessert was given a facelift: Roden replaced the ubiquitous chocolate torte with a medley of ice cream, apple crumb cake and (a smaller version of the) chocolate cake.



Which foods are risky business at banquets? Chefs and food-savvy planners say to avoid organ meats, such as liver. No one interviewed by M&C had qualms about serving veal or lamb, but they say to be sure to have alternative dishes. Some planners nixed any dish with bones. "You don't want anyone having to pull meat off a carcass," says Peggy Roden, Dallas-based president and co-owner of Resort Marketing Associates Inc., a site-selection and meeting-planning firm. For large groups, some caterers stay away from food with a short table-life: soups that cool quickly, like consomme, and anything wrapped in puff pastry, which can get soggy before it reaches the table.


The check, please
Designing a menu from scratch undoubtedly will cost more money than sticking to the standard fare. Cooke says the simplest menus, not including alcohol, cost $50 a head. A general rule of thumb: Expect to pay $140 to $275 per person for a full menu with alcohol, depending on the food items as well as production costs, such as whether items have to be imported.

If you want the kitchen to whip up a blowout menu without blowing out your budget, it is best to give the F&B staff individual budgets for each meal instead of an all-inclusive one. How much can you spend on breakfast? How about coffee breaks? What do you expect to spend on the closing banquet? The chef then can come up with advice on which meals can be pared down inconspicuously.

There are plenty of other budget-saving shortcuts a planner could take. A tactic used by Susan D'Ercole, CMP, president of Liaison Professional Meeting Services in Eustis, Fla., is to find out what other larger groups that are meeting in the hotel are eating. If she likes their menu, she asks the chef to prepare the same one for her own group. "What's another 30 covers to him [the chef]? It's a good way to keep within a budget."

As a low-cost alternative to a pricey raw bar, Roden fills martini glasses with a chunky red sauce and diced shrimp, then garnishes it with a whole one. The cost saving is huge, she says: Raw bars can cost as much as $100 per person, compared with about $3 per person when serving shrimp in individual glasses. Roden does a similar twist on a crudités station by filling glasses with a pesto sauce and a raw vegetable bouquet. "Budgets have been flat, so we've had to be more creative, to try to make these look as good as they were in the past but on less money," she says.


From hotel to hotel and from year to year, catering menus are nearly identical. The only thing that is sure to change is the price.
That was the consensus of five planners who met recently at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency McCormick Place for a frank roundtable discussion about hotel food and beverage service. (Although the event was sponsored by Hyatt Hotels Corp., planners’ comments reflect their experiences with hotels in general.)
Here’s what they’d like to see.
Make it look good. “Because the product is essentially the same, I really put a great emphasis on the presentation of the food and the service,” says Paul Pendola, convention manager for Smith, Bucklin & Associates Inc. in Chicago.
Think themes. Props and decor go a long way. Phillip Cooke, president of FSA Group, a food-industry association management company in Louisville, Ky., recalls a hospital-themed break, with servers in doctors’ and nurses’ uniforms. “The president of the association was in a hospital bed wearing a hospital gown… That was 10 or 15 years ago, and people are still talking about it.” (Hospital food was not served.) Among the favorites of Joanne Stratton, senior manager of global markets, meetings and events for Andersen Consulting in Chicago, was a golf break, complete with videos, golf-shop products on display and a pro offering tips and teaching trick shots. Another winner was a Space Age break where, in addition to coffee and soft drinks, Tang was served and some freeze-dried astronaut food was set out for sampling.
Bring on the veggies. Vegetarian dishes should no longer be an afterthought but a taste-tested part of the planned menu. For Stratton’s meetings, she says, the average age of attendees is 27, and one-quarter to one-third of attendees are vegetarians. “They’re young; they don’t eat meat.”
Make it healthy. At meetings of the Chicago-based American Hospital Association, “our average attendee is a 56-year-old male. That’s the profile of a heart attack,” says Kimberly Casper, associate director of meeting and travel services, who plans only low-fat lunches for her group and expects 25 percent will request vegetarian meals. “This group is fanatic. For an event with 1,500 people, they want to know the fat grams and fiber content of what they’re eating, and they’re going to announce that at lunch. Hotels freak out, because they don’t know exactly, and I need to know.”
Go ahead, get giddy. “One thing our staff finds really irritating is when the people they are assigned to work with at the hotel do not have the spirit and the enthusiasm and the sense of excitement we have about doing the event,” says Cooke. “We want them to have fun. We want them to giggle with us, for God’s sake.”


The Cabernet Conundrum

So, you have assembled a five-course mélange of flavors that will tease the most jaded palates. Now it is time to play sommelier and choose some wines to complement each dish. For those planners who still refuse to serve red wine with fish, read on.

With many dishes, the preparation and spices dictate the choice of wine, not whether it is veal or lobster. “I can make salmon go with any [wine] you want,” says Mary Evely, executive chef at Sonoma County’s Simi Winery and author of the Vintner’s Table Cookbook. She insists a smoked or cured salmon would go with a Sauvignon Blanc because the wine’s acidity can match the fish’s high-salt content. But poach that salmon in white wine and serve with a dollop of basil mayonnaise, and it would be better suited with a rich Chardonnay.

Grilling it? Says Evely, the charred flavor would work well with a high-acid Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. In general, salty and fatty foods are best paired with high-acid wines because the strong flavors balance each other out.

Just as a five-course meal should not begin with a glistening veal shank, a first-course wine should not be a port. “With food, you start with lighter, more subtle [flavors] in the beginning and work the menu up to earthier, richer and bigger flavors,” says Robert Curry, executive chef at Domaine Chandon, a winery in California’s Napa Valley. “You work the wines in the same way.” Evely notes that a good starting point may be a Rioja rosé from Spain, an Italian Pinot Grigio or French Chenin Blanc. As the meal progresses, planners can choose fuller and more complex-tasting wines, such as Cabernets and Pinot Noirs.

When in doubt about the kinds of wines to serve, taste.


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