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No Holds Barred Catering

Events that showcase on-property chefs are not on every hotelier’s calendar, most likely because they typically deliver an expense line well above operating revenues. However, they provide significant value in several indirect ways.

First, events like this allow a hotel to demonstrate unbridled culinary excellence. Next, they allow your chefs to demonstrate creativity. Third, they afford your public relations team great fodder for continued media interest. There’s a powerful fourth attribute that I’ll get to in a moment. Oh, and did I also mention that these events can be a lot of fun?

This past month, I had the opportunity to attend the Park City Food & Wine Classic in scorching hot Utah. While there, we attended several wine seminars and dinners, with the signature launch event held at Montage Deer Valley, an ultraluxury property nearby. The 400-attendee, outdoor terrace affair included a series of four food stations delivered by Executive Chef Shawn Armstrong and was surrounded by several dozen wine pavilions representing vineyards mostly from California and Oregon.

What interested me strategically was the selections. The two main stations had strong Middle Eastern (lamb and za’atar) and Korean (pork bun) influences, not something you would expect from this location. Needless to say, the audience raved about all the unique tastes. In effect, Chef Armstrong was providing a well-appreciated lesson in global culinary arts.

Next up, the refresher course encompassed a watermelon and strawberry salad sampler. The photo demonstrates how a simple, self-serve display can generate mouth-watering appeal through unpretentious presentation and only a few doodads to draw the eyes. As an aside, bite-sized palate cleansers like this are always a great addition to any banqueting or catered event where most of the appetizers and mains will skew more toward the savory side of the spectrum. Not only do these ‘intermission’ food items heighten one’s appreciation of all the other food, but in the extreme heat of a cloudless Utah summer day, they are all but compulsory, along with a well-oiled bar staff!

The highlight for me, though, was the dessert station, and this is where that fourth rationale comes into play. Here, the wait staff was dressed most unusually in full stewarding outfits and protective eyewear while holding plungers filled with liquid chocolate. They were making ice cream sundaes that were distributed with the syringe so that each patron could add the sauce as he or she saw fit. The eyewear was important because the second dessert course was a crisped rice marshmallow square partially immersed into a bath of liquid nitrogen, instantly freezing it before adding a dollop of vodka.

Clearly, these were not your average sweets! Even though they were, in essence, more elegant versions of fairly quotidian treats, their presentation added an experiential X factor that would be difficult to attain if the foods were prepared behind closed doors. And this is how events can truly stand apart.

Where else but a catered affair are you going to set up a full liquid nitrogen apparatus for all to see? Imagine this as a regular menu item whereby each time the vodka marshmallow square was ordered, a member of the kitchen team would have to wheel out a special cart containing all the necessary supplies. Not impossible, but a logistical nightmare!

To recall a similar experience, at a reception I hosted at my apartment before the start of this year’s HITEC tradeshow, one of the appetizers I specifically requested was the quintessential slide of modern Canadiana of cheddar cheese cubes rolled in maple syrup. They’re utterly delicious on their own, but what makes them exceptional is their preparation. A cook must lay out a tray of crushed ice, then spread a dollop of the syrup in a line atop this cold surface to allow the fluid to freeze, right before twisting a stick with the cheese on the other end so the frozen maple wraps around the dairy. Due to some inclement weather, we couldn’t set up this maple cheddar station in a spot frequented by the partygoers and so, unfortunately, they only got half the experience.

The bottom line here is that food and beverage continues to be the best way for a hotel to differentiate itself because experimentation can be done for a relatively nominal cost. Moreover, there is always an opportunity to expand the F&B to make it more experiential and engaging of more senses than just smell and taste. Be it in catering or any other outlet, boring should have no place in our hotel food chain!

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