by Jonathan Vatner | January 01, 2010

In boom times, everyone wants to know about the hottest cuisine. Planners aim to find exotic foods that attendees haven't tried and to serve them in the flashiest, most memorable way -- even if that means paying a premium.

But 2010 is not shaping up to be a boom year. And, when money is tight, the F&B budget is one of the first to be cut. Therefore, the question on planners' lips is not "What's in vogue?" but "What's inexpensive?"

Most of the food trends on M&C's 2010 hot list are cost-cutting tips in disguise. Even organizations that still can afford caviar and lobster will be opting for modesty this year. Opulence has become tacky.

"All the out-of-the-box stuff is back in the box," says John Vingas, the San Diego-based senior vice president of convention centers for Centerplate, which caters five of the 10 busiest convention centers in North America. "The 'Did you see that?' days were left behind in 2006." Besides budget-slashing, the catering world is making food approachable, healthful and sustainable; setups have become simple and practical. In a word, food is becoming real.

Classic dishes are new again Every year, it seems, foodies designate a newly discovered ethnic cuisine as the latest must-eat. This year, though, the fads are on hold. People are looking to sophisticated interpretations of familiar foods -- though that doesn't necessarily mean meatloaf or mac and cheese. "Honestly, it's about good food, well-executed," says Brad Nelson, Marriott International's Bethesda, Md.-based corporate chef and vice president of culinary.

Stacy Zeigler advocates a return to Julia Child, as repopularized in the movie Julie & Julia. "Beef bourguignon, coq au vin, apple tarte tatin," recites Zeigler, CMP, director of sales for Bold American Events and Catering in Atlanta, as well as first vice president of the National Association of Catering Executives. "They sound fancy, but they're really simple, warm comfort foods. It's an inexpensive cuisine, but it has some flair and specialness to it. Julia Child has made simple cool again."

Chicken is king In 2009, for the first time in memory, Marriott saw chicken outsell filet mignon at final-night banquets. "On the surface, filet seems extravagant," says Brad Nelson. "There's been a pretty strong movement toward the anti-luxe."

In addition to filet becoming less prevalent, Nelson has seen less king crab and lobster, and the reason is only partly due to price. Often, a planner will choose a less gourmet option that doesn't actually cost less, simply due to concerns about perception. "In many cases, the perception of 'less is more' is more important than the actual cost," Nelson says.

Cows are versatile A different cut of beef can do the job. "There are only two tenderloins on a steer," notes chef Gregory Griffie of the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. "There's always a lot of other product that not a lot of people use, so it can be obtained at a great price."

Griffie has gotten kudos for a hearty pot roast, which is considerably less expensive than filet. And for the price of a traditional filet, he can do something more exciting with a different cut, like braised short ribs with ginger, chilies and hoisin, served on steamed jasmine rice. Using more of the animal is friendlier for the environment, too.

Small surprises still surprise Even on a budget, planners can include just one "wow" item during the meal, suggests Stacy Zeigler. She recommends a hot doughnut station or fish and chips served in a newspaper cone -- creative elements that will build some buzz.

Breakfast can be tweakedBlueberry muffinPlanners looking to cut costs often target the morning meal. For small meetings, instead of giving each gathering a room and breakfast setup of its own, Loews Hotels has begun opening up its dinner restaurants to house a handful of groups at once in the morning. A single buffet serves everyone, which saves on labor, space and food costs -- and guests get the experience of eating in the beautiful restaurant setting.

ASE Group Inc., an independent planning firm based in Overland Park, Kan., has been able to save clients money by offering brunch. Coffee and pastries are served in the morning, and then at 10:30 or 11:00, a hearty brunch replaces breakfast and lunch. For groups that want breakfast, ASE's vice president, Marissa Schaffner, CMP, advises doing a continental spread plus just one hot item, which saves considerably over a full buffet.

Some meetings are dispensing with breakfast entirely. Mariano Stellner,  Fairmont's San Francisco-based corporate director of food and beverage, notes that the standard meal progression used to be breakfast, break, lunch, break, dinner, but nowadays, planners are requesting an a.m. break table that stays out all morning and has enough food to satisfy those who didn't eat breakfast.

Barbara Ketcham, senior consultant of hotel operations for America's Health Insurance Plans, based in Washington, D.C., has obviated the need for breakfast by moving the meeting's start time later. She makes it clear in conference materials that breakfast will not be served, and she leaves a coffee break out for the constant flow of attendees in the public areas. (For more on how Ketcham has cut costs, see "Saving Money on F&B" at left.)