Buying local isn’t new. It has been a Gen X-driven consumer trend for years. But it has moved into kitchens for three reasons. There’s a growing desire by consumers to know where their food comes from for health and political reasons; there’s a chef-driven movement to reconnect menus to what’s indigenously in season; and it’s a way to be sustainable without the hefty cost of going organic because you’re reducing emissions involved in transportation and reinvesting money into the host community.
In years past, we’ve seen isolated convention centers, like Pittsburgh’s, and boutique hotels partnering with local farmers. But it’s far more common now to walk into a major chain and see banquet menus that emphasize local, seasonal cuisine.
Looking for unexpected ways to incorporate this trend? Invite the farmers to break bread with your attendees or do food tastings or demos at receptions. Another option: bring in a food truck, or several, for a meal. Most CVBs have a list of trusted purveyors.
This includes anything from artisan-made cheese to locally brewed root beer or handmade foodstuffs (like honey) as gifts. To rephrase Gertrude Stein, a ballroom is a ballroom is a ballroom; so, including things that are authentic to the host community is an easy way for attendees to absorb some of the local flavor.
Think about serving local beer and wine at receptions. If there’s a local distillery, consider tasting stations for those spirits or feature “adult milkshakes.” To limit liability, spotlight locally made sodas, ice creams or other indulgent treats. At PYM LIVE Denver, a colorful craft soda bar was the most photographed and shared element of the event.
Gluten-free, ancient grains
It’s not your imagination. People are reporting more food allergies than they did five or 10 years ago. People are more aware of their bodies and how they react to food than in generations past, and the number of people being diagnosed with allergies or food-triggered medical conditions is growing.
Luckily, this is dovetailing with a chef-driven trend to explore ancient grains, many of which are naturally wheat/gluten-free and can be prepared to avoid the rest of the “big eight” allergens (soy, peanuts, eggs, dairy, tree nuts, fish, shellfish).
Don’t believe us? Take a look at a banqueting menu. Instead of pasta, white rice or potatoes, you’ll likely see quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, polenta or millet. Chia and flax seeds are being added to salads, smoothies and break foods, providing colorful accents and a nutritional punch.
These ancient grains tend to have more protein and fewer carbohydrates, which means that after meals, attendees can focus rather than slide into a food coma.
Pundits say the Great Recession ended years ago, but many of us still don’t feel comfortable with the economy or upheavals happening around the world. So, we still reach for comfort foods, although they’re more health-conscious than they were a few years ago. Comfort foods show up on banquet and dessert menus in micro-portions. Think shot glass instead of martini, wonton soup spoon instead of small plate or lollipop stick instead of skewer.
This downsizing has a fun visual effect. We’ve seen entire dessert buffets set in shot glasses, chia-seed smoothie shooters and energy balls for breaks, and wedges of grilled cheese sandwiches served in a tiny cup of tomato soup.
Mmmm … meaty
Chefs in the private sector have been experimenting with cuts of meat and animal parts — sweetbreads, bone marrow and tripe — that Americans no longer commonly eat but which are considered delicacies elsewhere in the world. These items are showing up on hotel restaurant menus, which means it’s more acceptable for banquet menus as well.
Not every group would enjoy seeing oxtail soup, but for the right audience, it’s a way to surprise (even delight) the palate with something far removed from rubber chicken and mashed potatoes.
To include this trend without going whole hog (or using it), think in terms of garnishes and flavor accents. Use a bone marrow risotto or pork belly slices on a salad rather than an entire plate of sweetmeats.
We typically assume taste buds determine sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The Japanese have a “fifth sense” they call umami, which roughly translates to a “pleasant savory taste” like that found in ketchup or soy sauce. Umami-accented food is popping up on catering and banquet menus in glazes, sauces, soups and condiments.
It’s a meaty kind of mouth feel that also appeals to non-meat eaters. Examples include soy glazes, miso soups, ginger or kimchi accents that add dimension to vegetarian meals.
In most countries, people eat at least one vegetarian meal a day. But in a conference setting, American meeting planners tend to offer meat at every meal function. This is expensive and unhealthy. Chefs seem to think so too, because they’ve really raised the bar on what used to be a standard Caesar salad/grilled Portobello mushroom option. Now vegetarian and even vegan meals come out of the kitchen looking just as good as or better than their meaty counterparts.
We took a critical look at the lunch buffet at our last event and noticed that the vegetarian options had to be refreshed three times while the traditional meat options produced leftovers. Our registration list showed that vegetarians represented only 1 percent of our attendees, so why the big difference? When given an option, many non-vegetarians will choose a meatless meal, especially at midday functions because it makes them feel healthier and doesn’t weigh them down.
Why not challenge yourself and your chef to create a meatless menu for at least one meal function for every day of your program? They’re ready for it: Years of avoiding allergens and catering to picky vegans has honed chefs’ skills and inspired them to create beautiful plates that don’t depend on showcasing a cut of meat.
Now source it locally, give it some Asian seasoning and serve it with gluten-free grains, and you’ve got a healthy treat that packs all sorts of trends people can feel good about.
Join the conversation? What are your favorites among this list? Which trends do you like or dislike? What’s missing?