Cabrin Kelly-Hale, a 28-year hotel catering veteran, joined the JW Marriott Starr Pass in Tucson as director of event planning during the resort's pre-opening in 2004. She worked closely with Executive Chef Ryan Littman on a journey to green cuisine that culminated in the introduction of 98 percent sustainable banquet menus in 2008 — including free-range, hormone-free beef and poultry; line-caught fish; organic veggies, fruits, and milk; and partnerships with local farmers and ranchers. We caught up with her to discuss the nuances of eco-cuisine and how it is beginning to influence meetings and events.
: How do you define eco-cuisine?
Kelly-Hale: I define eco-cuisine as a conscious effort to be aware of what we put into our bodies and how that affects the world around us. My preferred term is edible ethics. Doctors, lawyers, and teachers are all held to ethical protocols, and for me, understanding our connection to the foods we eat and how we treat the Earth and its bounty is also a matter of ethical decisions.
RCM: What are the food choices that matter?
Kelly-Hale: We use free-range chickens and certified humane ranches for our meats, a number of local farms that are certified sustainable and organic for our vegetables and fruits, organic milk, cage-free eggs, and line-caught fish. Chef Littman did extensive research, including visits to local farms and ranches, to ensure that what we buy fits our sustainable profile. He also got buy-in from Marriott corporate to insist on purchasing organic milk from company vendors.
RCM: What kind of response are you getting from planners?
Kelly-Hale: When we began customizing organic menus a few years ago, the response from planners was overwhelmingly positive, and we knew that we had to move forward. We are seeing more and more requests for green menus — during the first three months of '08, these requests were up at least 35 percent from the same time period in 2007. Last year, planners were interested. This year, they're making site decisions based on our green initiatives throughout the resort — food among them.
RCM: Isn't eco-cuisine expensive?
Kelly-Hale: Not if you manage it correctly. Organic may cost a little more, but because we cook to order, we don't overorder or overproduce. Typically, banquet menu pricing goes up 5 percent to 7 percent yearly, and we kept our 2008 menus completely in line with this standard. Also, the chef and I can customize less expensive menus that still meet all the environmental criteria.
RCM: Does cooking to order mean that you don't do traditional buffets?
Kelly-Hale: That's correct. Our food is never finished in the kitchen, put in a chafing dish, and left for the guests to serve themselves. Instead, we present experiential cuisine in an interactive environment. We sear, sauté, assemble, carve, and create each dish to order for the guest at the time they want it. We don't use any steam tables, ever. Cooking to order means that we never run out of food and we never have to throw food out. We may need to do some well-thought-out bulk preparation, but never any bulk cooking. If, for example, we cut up more veggies than we need, we can make soup.
RCM: What are some ways that Starr Pass offers eco-cuisine throughout the meeting — at breaks, for example?
Kelly-Hale: Our breaks feature lots of products from local vendors. For example, Green Valley Ranch pecans become house-made pecan brittle with local honey. We have a made-to-order salsa break with locally grown chilies and tomatoes.
RCM: Give us a concluding thought.
Kelly-Hale: At the end of the day, we could do all of these meaningful things but if our food didn't taste amazing, no one would care. We have to do the right thing and have great food.