Catering at conferences and meetings has come a long way from soggy sandwiches and stewed coffee, to become something which delegates look forward to rather than approach with antipathy, or sometimes even dread. One only has to look at the UK restaurant scene to find key influencers for the meetings menu, the ever-changing taste of consumers eating out coupled with a growing public awareness of provenance, has driven the evolution of cooking styles, choice of ingredients and even the size of portions.
In terms of lunch break set ups, perceptions of plenty have started to dominate, with lavish displays presented in non-linear arrangements becoming popular. This could be anything from a side of Iberico ham carved at the table by a chef, a delicious display of British cheeses garnished with plumptious grapes and tangy home made chutneys to fresh, vibrant looking salads, to entice the diner and inspire the imagination.
There has also been a distinct rise in ‘brain food’ for events, with a greater understanding and demand from conference organisers and delegates about which foods stimulate the grey matter and those which dull mental capacity. As a result more and more caterers have started to incorporate superfoods into their offerings, using healthier cooking methods, and reducing fat and salt content.
An important consideration that Smart Hospitality is focusing on in our conference menus is the avoidance of the mid afternoon energy slump. Lunch menus are created using slow burning carbs, based on the glycemic index, (GI). For example salads and main courses would contain oats, whole wheat grains, fruit, sweet potatoes, cous cous and raw and steamed vegetables rather than heavy potato, red meat or pastry. But don’t worry there is always a place for a chocolate brownie.
The rise of dietary requirements, particularly lactose and wheat intolerances, have also had a profound influence on the meeting menu, especially following the EU directive on food allergens that came into force in December 2014. Caterers are therefore designing dishes that specifically avoid these ingredients where possible, while aiming to ensure they are still delicious alternatives to the main offering.
In particular, I have noticed that bowl food, small plates and tasting dishes have become fashionable of late – especially for post-event networking receptions – inspired by the cicchetti and tapas styles of presentation, favoured by many uber-trendy restaurants such as Polpo and Barrafina. It provides something more substantial than a canapé for guests but from a caterer’s perspective it is usually a less labour intensive exercise. Bowl food tends to be hale and hearty, and can be made in large batches (think bangers and mash, pork and chorizo meatballs, smoked haddock, spinach and soft boiled egg).
Innovative presentation and a la mode preparation aside, many of the same old principles apply, as clever presentation cannot be a substitute for quality ingredients or poor logistics. Caterers and venues need to respond the country’s demand for fresh, seasonal food with a low food mileage but ensure the dishes served are both interesting, appropriate for the meetings delegate and above all tailored to be delivered on any scale.
Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor