Four caterers reveal how to create outstanding group menus without breaking the bank.
Oh, No, did You Say Chicken? Though chicken might be the obvious choice for F&B on a budget, that doesn't mean the meal has to be a bore.
“Chicken has developed such a bad reputation,” admits Shelia Henderson, director of catering at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Ore. “However, that is really due to poor preparation and presentation.” She suggests a hearty menu of stuffed chicken breast paired with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables to keep poultry from seeming paltry.
Executive Chef Dennis Shakan of Baltimore's Tremonts also encourages what he calls “those other white meats” — chicken, pork, turkey. “Too many people eat turkey one time a year,” he says. A cost-conscious dish he describes as “absolutely delicious” is turkey medallions dusted with wild rice flour and topped off with a caramelized corn and sherry cream sauce.
Todd Jeannotte, director of catering and conference services at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, has his own white meat suggestions. “Cornish game hen is something that reads nice but isn't substantially more expensive than chicken,” he notes. A menu he likes includes lobster bisque, truffle- and honey-glazed Cornish game hen, and a Valrhona chocolate mousse. “It's not necessarily all that expensive relative to some of the other choices.”
And don't count out a fish dish, even on a tight budget: Shakan and Jeannotte both suggest salmon. “Everybody loves salmon,” Shakan says. But for planners who find salmon too rich, Henderson suggests trout as a substitute.
Champagne Dreams, Beer Budgets
There are also ways of incorporating high-end ingredients without going over budget. If clients demand pricey prawns, Jeannotte simply stretches the item with a prawn pasta. And those who long for lobster can get their wish — in the form of lobster bisque. Shakan has similar suggestions for making the most of key elements. When working with clients, he might ask, “Instead of salmon filets, could it be a cioppino [stew]?”
Another trick: medallions. Shakan worked with a client who wanted filet mignon; he suggested a more affordable trio — a 2½-ounce filet medallion, a 3-ounce chicken medallion, and a 3½-ounce salmon medallion. With beef medallions, the chef explains, “I'm getting to use the whole tenderloin instead of just the center cut. I'm saving a lot of money, and I can pass that on.”
David Winter, director of event planning and operations at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, suggests that clients stay away from prime cuts. “They get spoiled after a while with tenderloin, especially in Fort Worth,” he says. Particularly problematic has been the rise of tenderloin prices by 50 percent to 60 percent in the last couple of years, which forced the Renaissance Worthington to switch to market pricing for beef on banquet menus.
One solution is to pump up the theme rather than the menu price. For one such event, the Renaissance Worthington's chef created a Brazilian menu that included a salad of mixed greens, diced mango, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and manchego cheese with an avocado and lime dressing; vaca frita, or shredded fried beef, as the entrée, alongside black beans, white rice with slivered garlic and fried plantains; and for dessert, a tres leche cake soaked in sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream (the “three milks” of the name) and topped with cajeta, a caramel sauce made from goat's milk.
splurge on Dessert
Most hotel caterers agree: If you want to up the ante on your budget in only one place, make it dessert. One example Winter gives of a more elegant dessert option is a ganache-glazed flourless chocolate cake timbale.
But there are impressive desserts at low-end prices as well. Shakan makes a basil flan with a mango gelato accompanied by a fresh lychee nut and three raspberries.
“If you look at this dessert, you would say, ‘I think that's expensive,’” he says. “But in reality it's cream, eggs, and sugar.”
For the most part, hotel caterers recommend that meeting managers steer clear of buffets. “Ultimately, buffets are a horrible choice,” Jeannotte says. “The reason is that you need to offer more selection, which increases the portion cost.”
Henderson offers one easy way to lower this expense: Have the banquet staff, not servers, work the buffet. Still, “you should add up to 20 percent to go from plated to buffet.”
On the other hand, Shakan claims a buffet can be less expensive when it comes to dessert, especially because many guests forgo sweets altogether, which can be costly and wasteful for a plated affair. “If I switch to a dessert table at the end and there are 100 people, I'm going to start out by putting about 70 pieces on it,” he says. “Often, that may do it.”
Experts discuss how to spot high-priced food:
Sheila Henderson: “Foods that are out of season — fruits, vegetables, seafood, shellfish — and foods that need to be special ordered or are not normally used in the kitchen.”
Todd Jeannotte: “Canapes or hors d'oeuvres, due to the labor involved in preparing them. Cold hors d'oeuvres tend to be a little more elaborate than hot ones.”
Dennis Shakan: “Premium meats, high-end seafood, high-end desserts. You've got tenderloin, sirloin, prime rib, shrimp, Chilean sea bass — all those things that roll off people's tongues — and veal.”
David Winter: “One of the things that we really advise against is for planners to ask about any of the over-fished species.”