In the past, serving groups all at once has prevented banquet chefs
from maintaining the level of innovation found in the kitchens of top
restaurants. But thanks to technology and increasing flexibility,
banquets are getting better at emulating the finest dining experience.
the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, for example, the dishes served in the
property's restaurant, Härth, are essentially the same as what's on the
banquet menu. The trick to mass-producing intricate recipes: "It's a
mindset more than a technique," Elder says. "Now we cook in small
batches, and the food isn't sitting in a hotbox somewhere waiting to be
served. Even for 1,000 guests, I'm not cooking two days in advance."
One technique perfected in top restaurants that helps catering teams cook a flexible menu for large groups is called sous vide,
French for "under vacuum." Meats, sealed in plastic bags, are cooked
slowly in a hot-water bath. The hotel or caterer can prepare a variety
of entrées; if some are not ordered, those can be refrigerated for the
next event without loss of flavor.
"In the old days, we'd give
people a choice for their plated dinner," Guy Rigby of Four Seasons
says, "and we'd have three or four courses in advance to get things
prepared. Today, the technology in kitchens lets us turn around the menu
Molecular gastronomy, cooking techniques that rely
on chemistry and physics to create new textures and flavors, has been
used in restaurants since the 1990s. Now it's appearing in banquets for
1,000 or more guests. Jackson, for example, sets up a Champagne station
with a selection of "stable foams" -- aka decorative bubbles -- in
fruity flavors such as peach and raspberry to float atop the beverage.
Also, by jelling droplets of watermelon juice, he makes "caviar," which
gives a sweet kick to ceviche.
"When molecular gastronomy got
hot, the techniques were closely guarded by chefs, and you'd have a hard
time getting the chemicals you needed," Jackson explains. "Now you can
find the cooking technique displayed on YouTube and buy the ingredients
from broadline food providers."
Banquet menus are getting more
adventurous in response to the expanding palates of many meeting-goers.
Hopkins sees Korean food as a trend; the Houstonian recently introduced a
Korean short rib on kimchee, the fermented cabbage that is becoming
popular, largely thanks to its health benefits.
borrowing only from fine-dining restaurants. Just as the trendiest
casual lunch spots do one thing really well, whether meatballs or
lobster rolls, Four Seasons is stripping away the excess options on the
lunch buffet and focusing on, for example, a carefully prepared
sandwich. That one item can be far more appetizing, Rigby says, than a
line of chafing dishes.
Street food is hot right now, according
to Rigby. People aren't eating traditional American lunches at work
anymore, instead picking up takeout from an ethnic restaurant or a food
truck. When they come to a meeting, then, sitting down to a three-course
lunch feels anachronistic. Instead, a Four Seasons hotel might serve up
fish tacos or Thai street food that attendees can eat while walking.
people break out of a meeting, the first thing they do is take out
their phone and return e-mails," Rigby notes. "They're happy to pick up
food and go off into a corner. There's a much greater blending of work
Mobile munching is most prevalent at breakfast, when
latecomers will bring a muffin and coffee into the meeting room.
Sometimes they'll dodge the breakfast setup entirely and pick up a latte
at a nearby Starbucks. In response, Four Seasons has begun staffing
prefunction space with baristas. If attendees want an espresso drink,
they can duck out of the session for a moment and get their pick-me-up.
the office, people tend to gather around the water cooler or
photocopier and chat," Rigby says. "Off-site, people like to chat around
a coffee bar."