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. “My belief that the earth deserves to be treated with dignity and that the sustenance we take from it should be organic and sustainable is mirrored in Ryan's style and expression,” says Kelly-Hale. We caught up with her recently to discuss the nuances of eco-cuisine and how it is beginning to influence meetings and events.

Financial & Insurance Meetings: We're hearing lots of terminology related to food these days — slow food, local food, organic food, sustainable food, and so on. How would you define eco-cuisine? Or do you prefer a different all-encompassing term?

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. Personally, my preferred term is edible ethics. Doctors, lawyers, and teachers all are held to established 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.

FIM: You say that food is the cornerstone of a green meeting. Can you elaborate?

Kelly-Hale: Food is not the reason companies hold meetings, but these days food is expected to be fabulous. If it is boring or just plain bad the entire tone of the meeting is ruined. When the planners we work with poll their attendees after a meeting at Starr Pass, they always rave about the food, and it's at the top of the list in terms of what they care about. So I really think that eco-cuisine is the cornerstone of a green meeting. I don't believe that hotels can be “fashionably” committed and do a few overt things to be green — we also need to do the things that will really impact our world.

FIM: 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.

FIM: How does your commitment to eco-cuisine compare to other meetings hotels?

Kelly-Hale: There's no question that the hotel industry has begun to focus on green meetings — but Starr Pass may have started the conversation about committing to green food. I did a great deal of research on hotel banquet menus across the country in preparing for our 2008 menus and was honestly shocked that this was not a focus. Out of 60 sets of menus from large properties across the country, I was amazed that only two mentioned organic — and those were organic coffee breaks.

FIM: What kind of response are you getting from planners? Have they been requesting green menus on their RFPs?

Kelly-Hale: When we began customizing organic menus a few years ago, the response from our 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.

FIM: Do you offer conventional banquet menus?

Kelly-Hale: No. If I offered a regular banquet menu that was 20 percent cheaper, I should be shot.

FIM: But isn't eco-cuisine more 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.

FIM: Does cooking to order mean that you don't do traditional buffets?

Kelly-Hale: Yes, 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. This means that 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 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. But you can't recycle cooked veggies.

FIM: Speaking of veggies, do you get much demand for vegetarian cuisine?

Kelly-Hale: About 12 percent of each of our banquet menus is vegetarian, which reflects a pretty high demand. I'm not talking about a plate of steamed veggies or pasta. And we cater to six different types of vegetarians, from pescitarians, who eat fish, to raw-food-only vegans.

FIM: What are some of the ways Starr Pass offers eco-cuisine throughout the meeting — at breaks, for example?

Kelly-Hale: Our breaks feature a lot 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. Our chefs make beef, turkey, and vegetarian jerky that is all natural and incredibly delicious. We provide signage highlighting these facts and the food becomes a great conversation point for the attendees.

FIM: In addition to signage, what are some other ways that planners can add an educational component about eco-cuisine to the meeting program?

Kelly-Hale: We offer tours of our organic gardens outside Primo restaurant. We're available to address the group about our menus and our commitment to eco-cuisine. We also provide Web links to our local vendors that planners can use for their online meeting promotion.

FIM: How does the environment in which the food is served at Starr Pass reflect sustainable practices?

Kelly-Hale: Our in-house décor company, Encore Creative, has designed fabulous centerpieces that fit the ambience but don't use cut flowers, such as beaten copper cylinders with candles, mosaic lamps, and cactus arrangements that people take home and keep as house plants. Our menus are printed on 99 percent recycled paper. We reuse our linens constantly, including hand-painted, natural leather table coverings that can be quickly cleaned with an anti-bacterial wipe. In the lobby, we've replaced plastic cups with ones made almost entirely of corn — they break down within 45 days when composted.

FIM: What concluding thought about eco-cuisine would you like to leave readers with?

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.

Ticker:

  • FIM's recent reader survey suggests that industry planners are personally committed to green meetings and events, but their companies are slower to get on board. To learn more, visit meetingsnet.com, click on Green Meetings in the left column, then under “Green Meeting Trends” click on “Shades of Green ….”

  • Green giveaways can range from flash drives with meeting presentations to bookmarks containing seeds that attendees can take home and plant. To read what blogger Sue Pelletier has gleaned on the topic, go to the NEMICE Green Meeting session on her Face2Face blog on meetingsnet.com.

  • The University of Nevada Las Vegas is offering live, college-level webinars featuring UNLV faculty and leading industry experts on such topics as hotel contract negotiations. Visit http://hotel.unlv.edu/hotelweb for more information.

  • Melissa Bell, conference manager, BMO Financial Group, a board associate for the International Association of Conference Centers, coined a new generational term at IACC's recent annual meeting: Zoomers, she said, are baby boomers zooming toward retirement.

Questions to Ask

Want to serve green cuisine at your meetings? Be sure to ask the following questions of the hotel chef, says Cabrin Kelly-Hale, director of event planning at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa in Tucson:

  • Where does the food come from? Does the hotel work with local farms and ranches?

  • Are animal proteins certified humane and free of hormones and antibiotics?

  • Is the milk organic?

  • Are eggs from cage-free chickens?

  • What is the percentage of scratch cooking for group meals?