by Jonathan Vatner | December 01, 2012
"Banquet" is no longer a bad word, even to foodies. Planners are asking hotel chefs and caterers for sustainable, healthful, restaurant-quality meals -- and venues are delivering. These requests aren't new, but after years of merely scratching the surface -- fruit alongside the Danishes at a "healthy" breakfast, or a factory-farmed meal served on disposable bamboo plates at an "eco-friendly" event -- they finally are being addressed in a meaningful way.

Top chefs and catering teams are pleasing planners' palates and priorities via a combination of careful sourcing of ingredients, forward-thinking menu planning, modern cooking techniques and, of course, unwavering attention to the client.

"We're focused on being extremely flexible in everything planners ask for," says Guy Rigby, vice president of food and beverage, the Americas, for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. "Otherwise we're not being guest-centric."

Green grows up For years, planners have tried to bring an eco-friendly element to group dining, but most efforts have been scattershot, resulting in merely a patina of green. After all, it's no easy feat to source and cook sustainably for 1,000 attendees at a time. Nowadays, sustainability is being taken more seriously, and it's coming from a hunger for food that's tastier, more humane and gentler on our planet. The result is that meeting planners don't always have to ask for a sustainable menu; a growing number of hotels and catering businesses now provide one automatically.

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts has set a gold standard in green with its new global food-and-beverage philosophy, "Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served." That means, in part, focusing on sustainable farming practices for the foods each hotel sources.

"We were hearing from planners that the hotel company that can figure out how to infuse healthy, sustainable food practices into its banquet operations will gain their business," says Susan Santiago, Hyatt's vice president of F&B operations for North America.

To that end, the chain now uses cage-free eggs, responsibly harvested seafood, and all-natural chicken and beef in its banquet operations, and each hotel buys from local artisanal ranchers, farmers, cheesemakers, bakers, brewers and vintners. The philosophy seeps down into the fabrics in employee uniforms and the materials in to-go containers.

Hyatt also now offers seasonal banquet menus that differ based on region. And most North American hotels feature a "100-mile menu," in which just about every ingredient is sourced locally.

The hotel company also is working on communicating these advances to guests. New menus released this autumn share the new philosophy and annotate where the products are sourced. Labeling on buffet tables is clear and descriptive, especially when allergens are concerned. Also, local purveyors often are invited to talk about their products with attendees.

Of course, Hyatt is far from the only hotel brand focused on sustainability.

"Almost every business now has a green initiative," notes Tom Elder, executive chef of the 458-room Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in Virginia. "When they plan meetings, they're looking for a hotel with the same mindset." Elder, whose father was a veterinarian, buys goods for the hotel only from farms he's visited, to make sure the animals are treated well and to investigate agricultural practices. Organic and sustainable are two separate things, he explains. Organic is a governmental certification, and it's a start, but it doesn't necessarily mean the farming is sustainable.

Bee hives at Hilton McLean Tysons CornerElder also cultivates bees on the hotel's rooftop, not so much for the honey but to help pollinate the surrounding area -- including the hotel's herb garden -- in an effort to be a good neighbor to nearby farms.

Most chefs also are concerned with serving seasonally appropriate meals. "Right now it's not even an option not to be seasonal," says John Harenda, director of operations at New York City-based Union Square Events, the exclusive caterer for the 463-room Conrad New York in Lower Manhattan. "If you're serving certain vegetables in the wrong season, the client is so well-educated, they'll scratch their head and say, 'What are you guys doing?'"

At the 800-room Deloitte University Hotel & Conference Center in Westlake, Texas, managed by Benchmark Hospitality, executive chef Mike Jackson not only sources from local artisans, but he also has brought some of that artisan production in-house. At the center's new training facility, employees smoke bacon, cure pastrami, make fresh cheeses, and grow herbs and peppers on-site. The chefs also serve different parts of freshly butchered animals at different action stations; e.g., a lamb's legs and ribs could be served at a carving station, its tenderloins could be smoked and used as charcuterie, and other cuts might be braised for a stew or tagine.

Other properties managed by Benchmark Hospitality employ foragers to collect wild greens and mushrooms to use in the kitchen.