Customised catering

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With events continuing to push the boundaries of what’s possible, innovation and creativity is a top requirement when it comes to food. Zoe Vernor heads to the kitchen to find out this year’s meeting menu trends.

vegetable From bowl food to street food concepts, event catering has come a long way from the days of your typical stodgy, bland conference food.

Clients are now not afraid to tell caterers exactly what they want when it comes to the food at an event. Simon Mason, executive head chef at Smart Hospitality Manchester says creating a bespoke menu is “a great way to ensure the food really fits the brief and brings the event to life”.

With food often front and centre at an event, customisation is a growing trend, according to Mason. “From the moment the guests walk through the door, it’s all about foodie delights.”

James Mark, executive director of ancillary services at Excel London considers food to be an “enabler for events”. 

“It not only provides a focus for people to meet and interact, but with the right balance of ingredients and menu, it can have a positive impact on delegates’ ability to concentrate and participate and enhances their motivation during the day.”

The post-lunch slump following an over-indulgence in carbs at the free buffet is likely something we have all experienced at least once.

Creative, customised catering in 2015

Zoe Watts, business development director at Creativevents notes that a more relaxed and informal style of dining is growing in popularity for seated dinners. “This social dining translates so well for events, particularly in venues where the architecture, decor and ambience lends itself to a more casual experience.”

At the newly-launched Camden Foundry, the company is encouraging clients to use the existing wooden bench tables and mismatched seating for dinners, rather than traditional clothed banqueting rounds and chairs. “Add to this shared boards and small plates in contrast to a plated meal where one menu fits all and we’re seeing much more interaction between guests who also like to be in control of what they are eating.”

Open kitchens is not a new concept for restaurants, but it is one that is starting to filter into the events industry. Creativevents often bring the buzz of a kitchen front of house through live cooking or making the cooking and service more visible.

John Hearn, executive chef at food design and event management company Tapenade, says food with a difference is all the rage this year, mixing unusual ingredients and serving it in surprising ways. “We are serving dishes such as ‘Apple Sourz Jam Jar Trifle’ with warm raspberry and cinnamon doughnuts or bags of sticky pork ribs in jam jars, empty tin cans and flower pots,” he says, adding that Japanese influences are still going strong.

Smoke and sausages
Hearn is no stranger to dealing with, and fulfilling, unusual catering requests, including putting sauces on toothpaste tubes and mini paint pots, and serving fish in a sardine tin. “Recently, a client asked for smoked baked beans and sausages in a sealed tin. We had to put the beans and sausages in the individual tins and fill the can with smoke before sealing them. The guests were surprised when they removed the ring pull and smoke escaped - it was fantastic theatre,” he says.

Catering requests submitted to Moving Venue have been getting more adventurous and challenging of late, with clients expecting what is happening on the London restaurant scene to be reflected at events.

“Peruvian food is having its moment, particularly with the success of Lima Floral and Ceviche and consequently requests for Ceviche food stations matched with pisco sour cocktails have soared,”  Moving Venue head chef Steve Williams says.

Unspoken requirement
Healthy, locally produced, seasonal ingredients are still a top requirement in the events industry, so much so that Watts considers it to be a standard and as such  it is “pretty much an unspoken requirement”.

Healthy, of course, doesn’t need to be boring. Tapenade’s Hearn reveals pomegranate molasses as his favourite ingredient and something he uses as a base for salad dressings. “Grapefruit, burdock and chicory will all appear more in our salads, but it’s all about balance; when combined with other flavours they can really lift a dish and create something unusual.”

Lancaster London says local and seasonal produce are often requested at the venue, and executive chef Ben Purton says there always needs to be a healthy or ‘free from’ option available. “We are working towards having an events menu or dishes that come from within a certain number of miles from the hotel and this will be a great sales tool moving forwards.”

The Vale Resort in Wales places a considerable emphasis on healthy eating, with freshly-prepared food replacing the standard mass-catered options. Head chef Daniel James says traditional items such as cocktail sausages, fried or breaded meat items and pastry-based canapes have long fallen out of favour and been replaced with fish and seafood options, vegetable items and fresh finger food.

But does this trend for healthy eating and food provenance mean higher costs?
James notes that as these requirements become more important to guests and delegates, an increase in cost is generally accepted. “Letting our guests know the salmon comes from the river Teifi in south west Wales and their Teriyaki chicken is free range and comes from a local farm within walking distance of the resort adds to the quality experience we offer,” he says.

Smart Hospitality Manchester’s Mason says catering budgets are always challenging, but the idea of a ‘budget’ per se is starting to shift. “Value for money is being redefined - it’s all about the quality of the food; sustainable and environmentally-friendly products, locally reared and sourced ingredients, and artisan-style products with a splash of wellness and added top-notch service.
“It is certainly not about what’s the cheapest on the menu, it’s the best quality a client can get for their money,” he says.

Andy Hardy, business director for conference and exhibition centres and arenas at Levy Restaurants, says the company has noticed a return in confidence in the market and a general uplift in budgets allocated to the food and beverage element of meetings and events. Research conducted by Lime Venue Portfolio, Levy’s sales and marketing consortium for venues and events, highlighted food as a key differentiator when organisers are choosing a venue and a clear reason why spend on food remains robust.

Event chefs of the future
Conference and events space provider, De Vere Venues, has launched a new apprenticeship scheme, ‘Cooking with Verve’, which will see 10 chefs receive an accredited Level 2 NVQ Diploma Professional Cookery qualification.

The 12-month chef development programme welcomed its first wave of students at the end of 2014.

Jo Monk, HR director at De Vere Venues says: “Programmes such as Masterchef: The Professionals have a real following across the UK and we need to harness that interest in food service and delivery through the employment market.”

With new chefs in training, catering budgets looking good and conference food increasingly being influenced by trends on the high street, who knows where next for event catering.

Line Up’s logistics manager Rebecca White shares her tips for deciding on catering at an event...
  • Do the guests know each other? This can make a difference as to whether the meal is a seated served lunch or a networking/standing lunch, for example
  • Is the majority of the audience male or female – we may offer something more substantial if the majority is male
  • Think about the time of year and the details of the event. If this involves outdoor activity in winter, such as a track day, then we would offer warm, hearty meals
  • Consider the content and length of time in the main plenary – offer brain food to heighten concentration and performance 
  • If the conference is more than one day then it’s important to not only change the food that is being served but also the way they dine – standing/seated buffet/bowl food etc.
This was first published in the March issue of CN. Any comments? Email Zoe Vernor

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