“LOOK FOR VENUES with progressive-thinking chefs in the kitchen,” urges Tom Ney, director-food marketing for Rodale, the Emmaus, Pa.-based publishers of Prevention, Men's Health, and numerous other lifestyle magazines, as well as The South Beach Diet.

Ney's attitude represents that of most planners today, who have become much more discerning about their F&B decisions. That goes for the “B” part as well: For example, he always chooses fine wines in 750 milliliter bottles and local beers for receptions and dinners. “I specify wines for ordering, if the wine list does not meet my needs,” he says. “Never hard liquor, except for maybe one specialty drink.”

Nancy Karp, special events manager for Men's Health, tailors menus toward low-carb meals. “When people go away, they typically binge, but with low-carb meals, they return home feeling good.” She also integrates cooking demonstrations into her meal events because attendees love to see how healthy, delicious foods are prepared. For breaks, she likes to offer a create-your-own smoothie bar; attendees choose the ingredients, and hotel staff blend them into a healthy energy drink.

Many of the meetings Rodale plans are for their customers — so promoting the company's mission is important. Most lunches are inspired by The South Beach Diet book. But for dinner, Lorraine Sakli, marketing services director, who plans meetings for Prevention magazine, loves to get attendees involved by taking them to a local cooking school where everyone helps to prepare dinner. Ney recounts a time when he pre-set five identically equipped cooking stations — akin to the “Iron Chef” TV show — with butane cookers, cutting boards, and knives. Teams of five, decked in aprons to commemorate the event, were assigned to each station. The teams had to create, cook, and write a publishable soup recipe from 10 identical ingredients in just one hour. In addition to Ney, the chef from the resort and a guest chef from the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City served as judges.

A New Era

Welcome to the new world of conscious cuisine. Rodale's planners — and meeting planners in general — are a discerning group these days, looking for healthy, creative choices for an increasingly sophisticated level of attendee.

At the forefront in F&B trends is the low-carb craze. In April — three months after Starwood Chairman and CEO Barry Sternlicht observed that the low-carb box lunches at Starwood's World Conference in Phoenix disappeared faster than the sushi — Starwood launched its Low-Carb Lifestyle by Sheraton program, including a special banquet menu, in 200 Sheraton hotels in the United States and Canada. The program features more than 15 menu items for meals and breaks across the day — most of which contain fewer than five net carbs — and an assortment of low-carb drinks. There's even a low-carb chocolate mint to leave on attendees' pillows at night.

Hyatt and Fairmont are also introducing Atkins-friendly banquet menus. “Every hotel company that does meetings is starting to offer them,” said Robert Mikolitch, director of catering at The Fairmont Washington, D.C., at the recent Insurance Conference Planners Association Forum. “And we lay out three times as much meat on the buffet table.”

“All of our events now have a low-carb option,” added Carole Statland, director of catering, Park Hyatt Washington (D.C.). In March, Hyatt introduced a low-carb menu to Hyatt restaurants, room service, and banquet menus at more than 100 of its U.S. properties.

The approach is somewhat different at Marriott International, whose new Fit-for-You program is designed to meet a spectrum of diets, including carb-conscious. It also has low-fat, low-cholesterol, and organic categories. New Fit-for-You meeting menus are available this fall to chefs at Marriott Hotels and Resorts in the United States, who can tailor the menus for catering proposals.

How are chefs getting creative with low-carb cuisine? Scott Lahey, executive chef at the North Maple Inn in Basking Ridge, N.J., offers Mediterranean platters with marinated veggies, soprassata (spicy sausage), and cheeses on his banquet menu. At the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, Calif., the chef develops customized low-carb menus using seasonal ingredients and such high-protein items as kobe beef and kurobuta pork.

But it's not always easy to add culinary flair to a low-carb menu, particularly for breakfast. At the Park Hyatt Washington, Statland has had success with deviled eggs, cheese trays, strawberries, and low-carb bagels. “People who are on Atkins understand you are somewhat limited,” she says.

Creative Choices

In addition to becoming healthier, hotel banquet food has gotten trendier. This includes everything from serving meat platters at breakfast — a tradition that is typically European — to placing dessert samplers in the center of the table rather than serving full-size desserts to each attendee. Regional and seasonal are the buzzwords of the new meeting menus, and comfort food reigns.

Here are some examples of meals that typify the new way of thinking:

BREAKFAST — Whole-grain cereal, yogurt parfaits, cheeses, and sliced meats accompany traditional bacon and eggs on full breakfast buffets. Toast stations include homemade grain and nut breads that attendees can top with seasonal jams. Chefs may carve fruit to order or blend customized smoothies.

LUNCH — Salads assembled to order are the latest trend in lunch buffets. Sonesta Hotels & Resorts' Little Havana Cuban food experience includes made-to-order arepas (traditional Venezuelan corn cakes), empanadas, grilled fish, and churrasco steak with chimichurri sauce (a savory blend of garlic, jalapeño pepper, oregano, and parsley). Also, chicken Caesar salad or cold poached salmon with marinated haricot vert (skinny string beans) typify a lighter breed of plated lunch.

BREAKS — Food at breaks is all over the map: fresh mango juice and low-carb energy bars; espresso and mini-chocolate croissants; and beef and turkey jerky are among the popular choices. And high tea is coming into vogue for an afternoon break in many venues.

Larry Pirner, executive chef at Intrawest — the company that manages the Copper Mountain Resort and Conference Center in Colorado — offers a different twist on the break. Along with snacks, attendees get a gear bag that includes a water bottle, chocolate-coated espresso beans, and a high-energy squeeze pack (a gel-like food). Attendees not only chow down, but they also participate in activities that could include racing mini-bikes or hand-painting coffee mugs that get fired overnight and are given as takeaways at the next morning's coffee break.

DINNER — Whether dinners are served buffet-style or are plated, they are at the apex of the new culinary experience. Rather than complaining about the boring banquet fare, many attendees are buying cookbooks that feature the gourmet chefs who wowed them at their banquets during the meeting.

A dinner reception, for instance, might include mini-entrée stations with grilled tenderloin steak, grilled fish over couscous with a citrus beurre blanc, garlic-mashed purple potatoes, and grilled asparagus. Regional buffets with such items as tapas, paella, or Cajun jambalaya are also popular.

Plated dinners range from family-style meals — where big plates of comfort foods are passed around the table — to four- and five-course feasts. What they have in common is the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Game is the new twist on red meat, exotic fruits are being used for flavor-enhancing relishes, and wild Alaskan salmon is replacing sea bass as the fish of choice.

DESSERTS — When it comes to dessert, not much has changed. Meeting attendees are still eating sweets, particularly chocolate. What is new is that there are more choices these days. Along with sugar-based desserts, a typical dessert buffet includes fruit and cheese. Mini-desserts and smaller portions are coming into vogue, as is the rebirth of the fondue, where guests dip fresh fruit or pieces of cake into a pot of warm chocolate.

Big Eats: Conference and Convention Centers

Let's face it, convention and conference centers have not led the charge in innovative menus — until now. Ethnic theme events created by Victoria Todd-Smith, senior executive chef/food and beverage manager at Kent State University's Professional Education & Conference Center in Kent, Ohio, for example, include A Day with Degas, featuring the 19th-century French cuisine popular during the Impressionist movement. Todd-Smith, who spearheaded this year's International Association of Conference Centers' Copper Skillet Competition, says that she especially enjoys putting together country-specific meals that expose attendees to new flavors and culinary traditions.

Seasonal banquet menus featuring locally grown foods have become a hallmark of the new conference center cuisine. Chef Lahey's signature dish at the North Maple Inn is crispy-skin wild salmon with smoked tomato broth made from fresh Jersey tomatoes. Lahey, who represented the United States at the Copper Skillet Competition, often picks up the tomatoes himself from a local farm stand. Similarly, the New England Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham serves corporate groups local fried clams for just one month each year, when the clams are “sweet and plump and better than lobster,” says Gary Armitage, general manager.

Third-party contractors who manage banquet food service for some conference and convention centers — notably Sodexho, Aramark, and Centerplate — have upgraded their menus to include everything from high tea with finger sandwiches, mini-scones, and chocolate-dipped strawberries to low-carb dinner entrées such as mirin-glazed Atlantic salmon and beef tenderloin medallion with Cabernet Sauvignon demi sauce. Sodexho's Your Health Your Way program — a series of meals that are low in fats and calories and contain at least three grams of fiber — is a new banquet menu option.

In-house convention center cuisine is making huge leaps. Who would expect Thai shrimp salad with wild greens, fresh mint, and basil; mango-roasted duck breast with red currant sauce; or macadamia nut cassata with tart orange coulis? These are just a few of the regional specialties prepared in the Hawai‘i Convention Center's 20,000-square-foot kitchen, where food is taken very seriously, says Randall Tanaka, director of sales and marketing. The attention to cuisine goes beyond the banquet menu, he says. One popular program allows exhibitors to have food delivered to the booth. Tanaka notes that the center's staff works with the planner to look at the culinary offerings over the course of the event — including any off-site meals — so that menu items don't repeat. The biggest trend, he notes, is customized banquet menus based on meeting attendee profiles.

Joseph F. Durocher, PhD, teaches hotel and restaurant management at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He is in his 31st year of teaching, is co-author of Successful Restaurant Design (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2001), and is a contributing editor to Restaurant Business magazine.

What About Wine?

There are several ways to include a wine tasting in your meeting. A “general” wine tasting starts with a light wine and then moves on to progressively heavier-bodied wine — Semillon, Chardonnay, Beaujolais (the Gamay grape), Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Barolo (Nebbiolo grape), for example. A “horizontal” tasting samples one type of wine from a similar vintage (harvest year). One option would be 2001 Cabernets from California, or narrow it down to Cabs only from Napa or Sonoma counties. Another twist might be to sample 2002 Chardonnays from diverse growing regions — California, Washington state, Chile, Australia, or South Africa. A “vertical” tasting is the most expensive tasting to offer, as it includes wines, typically from the same producer, over a number of vintages. One excellent tasting is of Brunello di Montalcino from the Tuscany region of Italy. Many vintages can be included — 2001, 1996, 1990, 1985. While the 2001 is still too young to appreciate, it demonstrates how a bold red needs time to mature in the bottle. The other vintages will show similarities but significant differences between years.

For an experienced group, a “blind” wine tasting can be a lot of fun. A simple blind tasting asks participants to identify the grape from which the wine was made. More challenging tastings will press tasters to identify the producer and year.

The most effective, yet difficult, tasting is one in which food and wines are paired. It's not as simple as red wine with meat and white wine with fish. The cooking technique — sautéing, roasting, or poaching, for example — affects the interaction with a wine along with the seasonings that are used. For example, a brut (devoid of sugar) champagne goes very well with zabaglione, but if the chef garnishes the dessert with a sprinkle of cardamom, the champagne takes on a metallic taste.

Another option is to offer a different wine with each course. By offering a Syrah from California and the Barossa Valley of Australia with a roasted tenderloin of beef, for example, the tasters can see the different characteristics that the same wines take on when produced in different areas. You might even find that the wine steward will have a few bottles of several different wines hanging around that you can use for this type of tasting at a discount price.

Your wine steward or sommelier should be able to help you put together any of these tastings. (If the sommelier cannot help you, consider contacting a member of the Society of Wine Educators to engage one of their members.) When beverages and foods are paired, it helps to hire a speaker who can comment briefly on each wine before and after the course. And for any type of tasting, make sure that participants have printed information about the wines they will be tasting with a space in which they can write their comments.

Pointers from a Pro

Want to find out if your hotel chef is progressive? Google him.

That's a pointer from Tom Ney, director — food marketing for Rodale, the Emmaus, Pa.-based publisher of such magazines as Prevention and Men's Health, as well as The South Beach Diet. Here are some others:

  • Broiling meats can be tricky, particularly for a large group function. A good alternative is a filet dipped in rosemary-infused oil and baked in a low-temperature oven.

  • Be politically correct whenever possible, out of respect for your attendees. Stay away from swordfish, sea bass, foie gras, and veal.

  • Ask for the hotel's restaurant menus along with the catering menus to see what the kitchen can produce.

  • Request a test dinner as insurance.

  • Ask the chef to try aromatic broths instead of sauces.

  • A 3-D relish rather than a flat sauce adds both height and flavor complexity to a dish.

  • Never put alcohol in recipes (not even sauces) out of respect for religious or health concerns of attendees.

Who's Who in F&B

F&B DIRECTOR — Some are hands-on, and some are not. Ask for special menu recommendations. If the F&B director pulls out the stock list, talk with another member of the team.

CATERING SERVICES MANAGER — They are empowered to offer standard banquet menus and to negotiate some prices.

EXECUTIVE CHEF — Some will help you plan great meal events, and others wear their whites for show. If you're looking for culinary creativity, get the executive chef involved.

BANQUET CHEF — At the very least, the banquet chef will be charged with the success of your food events and can provide important insights during menu planning; he or she may also be involved with meal preparation.

SOUS CHEF — The banquet sous chef (literally, “under chef”) is the one who makes the meal happen. Make it a point to touch base with him or her when you're on-site.

SERVICE MANAGER — Oversees dining and reception areas. The service manager can help you review timing and service needs.

SERVICE CAPTAIN — Oversees a group of waiters or may function as the service manager for a small event.

BEVERAGE MANAGER — Orders beverages and sets their prices.

SOMMELIER/WINE STEWARD — Selects wines and oversees their handling and service. Some sommeliers are willing to conduct wine tastings for groups.