Fresh, Local and Gorgeous

The newest trends in food are close to home, naturally

Liz Neumark





Liz Neumark (above)runs the trailblazing Great Performances catering company, based in New York City, which offers clients foods grown at its own organic farm.

Liz Neumark is in clover, so to speak. A bunch of just-picked radishes in hand, the founder and CEO of Great Performances, a New York City-based catering firm, strolls around her farm, gregariously exchanging a few words with anyone who happens to cross her path.

A woman approaches. “Liz, this is amazing,” she says. “I was here just a few months ago, and it was...”

“Nothing,” Neumark finishes.

Indeed, the sprawling plot they’re standing on in Kinderhook, N.Y., was as recently as last year a tangle of waist-high weeds. Neumark bought it -- and a section of the neighboring organic farm, 60 acres in all -- thinking she could grow enough produce on it to supply a significant portion of Great Performances’ needs. The idea is appealing but also shockingly bold, that a catering company in the modern era would actually grow the food it serves.

“There seems to be no more fundamental building block to express our passion in our food than the literal act of growing it,” says Neumark. “It’s so basic and unpolluted and simple.”

Using organic, locally raised, whole food (all separate yet interconnected concepts) has been a priority for high-profile restaurateurs and socially conscious consumers for years. More recently, however, this food has crept its way onto banquet menus and, very rapidly, the field has become packed with hotels and catering companies.

“We’re seeing a significant trend toward ‘green’ events, which often means locally grown and organic ingredients,” says Daniel Briones, director of catering at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia and president of the National Association of Catering Executives, based in Columbia, Md.

For those planners who aren’t “greening” their menus because it seems too expensive or difficult or faddish, it’s time to pay attention. Most caterers are doing something to improve the quality of their ingredients, and it’s only getting easier to bring healthier, better tasting, more socially conscious food to attendees.

Locally grown

After buying its own farm, Great Performances launched the “100-Mile Menu,” a banquet option sourced entirely from farms within about 100 miles of New York City, and mostly from the Great Performances farm (which, to be a stickler, is actually about 120 miles away). In its purest form, the meal lacks olive oil and salt, since these ingredients aren’t produced in the area.

A less stringent version of that menu will be served to meeting attendees at New York’s Plaza hotel, which reopens Dec. 3. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts will manage the rooms as it has for years, but this time around, Great Performances won the catering contract. Executive chef Christopher Harkness has planned a menu based on foods grown and produced in New York State. “As a chef, it gives you a sense of relaxation, because you know where the food is coming from,” he says.

There’s perhaps no easier way to improve flavor than by cutting out the long-distance shipping, says Charles Kassels, the executive chef at Eldorado Hotel & Spa, a property in Santa Fe, N.M., that sees about a quarter of its meeting planners eager for meals made solely using ingredients from local farms. “Anything that’s pulled out of the ground Tuesday morning and served Tuesday night,” he says, “is going to be better than something grown in California, washed, put in a bag and shipped 800 miles.”

Doug Brecht, director of marketing at the Doubletree Hotel & Executive Meeting Center in Portland, Ore., sees local purchasing as a way to increase the economic impact of a convention without spending more. “It feeds our local economy, making our area a little bit more vibrant,” he says. “The obvious factor is you do not expend gasoline to get food to the hotel.”

Serving authentic ingredients also enhances a meeting experience, says Scott Cohen, executive chef from the Watermark and La Mansion del Rio, two Omni hotels in San Antonio. Cohen adds at least one or two items grown in the Texas Hill Country to every dish. “They come away pleased because it’s something they haven’t had,” he says. “Local ingredients make the dish more than the recipe.”

Going local ensures that the produce will be fresh, rather than held in storage for months. “A perfect supermarket peach could be four months old,” Cohen says. “Apples can be up to 18 months old. Tomatoes? They’re old.”

One challenge of using such food is that it can be inconsistent in flavor and color, according to C.T. Nice, vice president of food and beverage for Aramark Sports & Entertainment, which has implemented a number of eco-friendly efforts. Also, the definition of “local” depends on the location. “If you’re in Houston and want produce, you may have to go 150 miles to get it,” says Nice. In New Jersey, on the other hand, “you may go 15 miles.” The West Coast and parts of the Northeast are the easiest places to buy from nearby farms, he notes.

Then there’s the difficulty of filling 5,000 plates with ingredients raised nearby. Gaylord Hotels started adding local produce to banquet menus about a year ago, but only for smaller groups. “Trying to find free-range chickens for 5,000 people is almost impossible,” says Giorgi DiLemis, the Kissimmee, Fla.-based vice president of food and beverage for the Nashville-based chain.

How can planners incorporate locally raised ingredients into their banquet menus? Heed these tips.

* Be flexible on veggies. “There are no promises as to what the farmers market is going to have,” notes Charles Kassels, executive chef at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe, N.M.

* Ask about price fluctuation. The cost of food bought locally varies far more than shipped food, explains Kassels. In most cases, the potential for spikes is built into the meal tab.

* Advertise your efforts. Kassels includes the names of local suppliers on the menu. Not only are the farmers pleased, but attendees appreciate a taste of what went into the planning.

* Ask the chef. Scott Cohen, executive chef of the Watermark and La Mansion del Rio hotels in San Antonio, says the convention services manager can get the ball rolling, but it’s the chef who will know what grows in the area and where to buy fresh, local ingredients. -- J.V.

Organically raised

A year and a half ago, management at The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa in Carefree, Ariz., decided the resort would become organic, underscoring the overall sense of wellness guests feel when on property. “When you arrive at the resort,” says Wade Hughes, food and beverage operations manager, “you go into a place that is organic in attitude and feel. We really believe our cuisine should represent that as well.”

Turning a resort organic -- which means using only items created without pesticides, commercial fertilizers or other chemicals -- is a long process, but The Boulders now has all organic goods in the minibars, organic products in the spa and organic food and wines in the restaurants. Grapes are grown on property, with the hope that the resort will begin producing wine in the near future.

A new chef, Wendy Little, asked for space to grow an organic garden, large enough to supply the restaurants and the spa cafe. Now, that 5,280-square-foot garden makes a refreshing event space for up to 50 guests, and planners can select from five different all-organic banquet menus.

Last year, Serge Simard, vice president of food and beverage for Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, challenged the properties to offer organic banquet menus. The results have been varied but consistently impressive: The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, for example, launched its own 100-mile buffet with a menu that’s both organic and local.

In Orlando, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort rolled out an organic banquet menu this fall. “People are trying to figure out a healthier way to eat,” notes chef Robert Ciborowski. The meal is priced about 20 percent higher than a nonorganic version, and Ciborowski says the verdict is still out on whether it will become a popular choice.

With so many hotels bringing in organic menus, there probably are some inflated claims. Ellen Burke Van Slyke, the Coronado, Calif.-based corporate director, creative food and beverage, for New York City-based Loews Hotels, wants to set as organic a standard as possible, but she’s careful not to make too many promises, especially in light of the “greenwashing” that goes on when companies make false claims about their eco-friendliness. “Our banquets as a company are not and maybe can’t be green, because of costs and volume,” she says.

There’s no way, for example, the Loews Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Ariz., can serve a banquet that sources from local farmers, because the arid climate can’t grow enough for a group of diners. However, the chain is rolling out sustainable, organic menus in early 2008, as an option for banquets. They are more expensive than traditional dinners and feature products sourced as sustainably as possible.

Some suggestions for the best organic experience:

Don’t force it. Scott Cohen says it’s very difficult to demand organic food at a facility that has never gone that route before. “They’re going to overreach, and it might not work,” he warns.

Some is better than none. If “all-organic” proves difficult, bring in just a few organic products. Robert Ciborowski says to focus on protein, because animals in conventional settings often are injected with anabolic steroids, antibiotics and growth hormones. Brad Nelson, vice president of culinary and corporate chef for Marriott Hotels & Resorts, suggests prioritizing vegetables grown close to the ground, which normally are more heavily sprayed than other produce.

Providing environmentally, socially and health-conscious food for attendees is a lofty goal -- and expensive, to boot. Indeed, these foods often are more pricey than their conventional counterparts.

How much more? Depending on the region, the time of year, and the relationships the hotel or caterer has with purveyors, organic ingredients can cost anywhere from 10 to 50 percent more, but usually about 25 percent. In some areas, protein -- especially free-range chicken and grass-fed beef -- is prohibitively expensive, and in other areas, the meat is affordable but the vegetables are through the roof.

In Portland, Ore., increased supply is lowering prices. “It used to be more expensive,” says Doug Brecht, director of marketing at the Doubletree Hotel & Executive Meeting Center. “Now the only more expensive thing in our area is organic chicken.”

Local purchasing is more of a break-even prospect. When skyrocketing shipping costs are subtracted, the prices of food bought from farmers markets generally are no higher than food bought from farming conglomerates in other parts of the world. -- J.V.

Healthful and whole

Jo Cooper has very high standards for her group meal functions. She requires the chefs to provide all-organic, all-natural foods, prepared according to recipes her company’s chef provides.

Cooper manages a professional training program in nutrition for health-care providers, called Food as Medicine, offered by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Mind-Body Medicine. Now in its seventh year, the program teaches medical professionals how eating natural, whole foods can improve health. Cooper, manager of professional training and education, insists the food is not only good for you; it’s tasty, too.

“The myth is that health food is all soybean paste,” says Cooper. “The triumph is that whole food can be scintillating and delightful.” Calling food “whole,” she says, means it’s prepared with very little human manipulation. The food can be cooked but not processed. “The good stuff you want -- vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fats -- is going to be maintained in whole foods,” she notes.

As the years go on, the hotels Cooper works with increasingly are receptive to her culinary needs. “Before, I felt like we were avant-garde,” she says, “but now we’re right on the edge of what’s beginning to happen.”

Indeed, healthful, natural food is another major trend in banquets. For example, hotel chains such as Gaylord, Loews, Marriott, Omni and Starwood have eliminated trans fats, linked to heart disease and other ailments, from their properties. Fairmont has begun offering a “lifestyle” banquet menu, with low-calorie and low-sodium choices. Marriott Hotels & Resorts is putting more fruits on its breakfast buffets and looking to reduce the amount of processed food served.

Westin Hotels & Resorts recently unveiled a “SuperFoods” menu that emphasizes items such as berries, nuts, spices and salmon, which are high in antioxidants and other nutrients thought to aid wellness. Management is in the process of introducing SuperFoods to meeting breaks; if that’s successful, the foods might appear on banquet menus.

Jo Cooper offers the following advice for bringing healthful, whole foods to attendees.

Mind the details. When working with a hotel that’s not used to providing whole foods, ask questions and pay attention. At one of Cooper’s meetings, she found bowls of hard candy sitting out during breaks. “We called the staff and asked them to remove them,” she says.

Go with a buffet. When offering foods that extend past some people’s comfort levels, Cooper chooses buffet-style. “That way people can choose what they eat and not feel like they’re being force-fed,” she says.

Label the dishes. Cooper labels buffet items and lists all the ingredients in everything. This helps people with food allergies and also shows attendees just how natural the food is.