“Americans eat to live, Europeans live to eat.” Until recently, this snipe at our fast-food culture was fairly accurate. But today, growing ranks of ordinary Americans view food in a whole new light. Chefs are stars, organic is in, and diets don't mean deprivation. Welcome to a brave new world of conscious cuisine.

Are Carbs Out?

If the low-carb craze is slowing, you wouldn't know it from the way meeting attendees are scarfing down high-protein fare. At the Insurance Conference Planners Association Educational Forum in Washington, D.C., in July, items such as lamb chops, salmon, and scrambled eggs were consumed with gusto. Pasta and bread? Forget about it.

Meeting menus at the major chains are getting into the Atkins groove. 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 Life-style 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 — most with less than five net carbohydrates — and an assortment of low-carb drinks.

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, speaking at the ICPA Forum. “And we lay out three times as much meat on the buffet table.”

“All of our events now have a low-carb option,” said Carole Statland, director of catering, Park Hyatt Washington. In March, Hyatt introduced a low-carb menu to 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 menu program is designed to meet a spectrum of health-conscious diets, including “carb-conscious.” (It also has low-fat, low-cholesterol, and organic categories.) Bruno Lunghi, senior director of event management operations, Marriott International, says that Fit-For-You meeting menus will be available this fall to chefs at Marriott Hotels and Resorts in the United States, who can tailor the menus for their 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.

Interactive Food Experiences

When attendees checked into the Sagamore Resort at Bolton Landing, N.Y., last January for ICPA's Northeast chapter meeting, they were given a green chef's apron. The next morning, they broke up into teams, donned the aprons, and joined the resort's chefs in the kitchen to prepare a gala luncheon feast.

Interactive and teambuilding food experiences at meetings aren't new, but they're still going strong. At Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, a popular teambuilding option is a cooking challenge that has incorporated as many as 600 meeting attendees over a two- to three-day period, says Anne Hamilton-Chehab, vice president resort sales and services. Using existing kitchens that are closed during lunch, participants are given baskets of food from which they must create a meal that is judged by the manager or group leader.

Kathy Sonnabend-Rowe, senior vice president, food and beverage at Sonesta Hotels, Resorts and Nile Cruises, feels passionate about, “the personal touch of the chef,” and is currently expanding Sonesta's interactive food experiences. Among the most requested hands-on food stations at Sonesta for a heavy hors d'oeuvres reception is a mashed-potato station that has mashed basil and buttered sweet potatoes, garlic Yukon gold potatoes, and sour cream and chive white potatoes. Attendees choose the type of potato, then top it off with fresh peas, caramelized onions, blue cheese, or gorgonzola cheese.

Marriott International properties are adding new action stations with “dim sum, small plate stations in the style of tapas, and mini comforts such as mini pot pies and braised short ribs,” says Lunghi. And more attendees, he says, are asking chefs at omelet or stir-fry stations to customize their orders.”

Interactive food experiences can even become learning opportunities. At the North Maple Inn, Lahey does culinary demonstrations that teach attendees how to buy, clean, and debone salmon, or how to make olive oil infusions.

Cutting-Edge Cuisine

After years of being known for rubber chicken and tasteless mystery meat, hotel banquet food has morphed into a new realm of trendy cuisine. This includes everything from serving meat platters at breakfast — a tradition that is typically European — to dessert samplers placed in the center of the table rather than full-size desserts served to each attendee. Regional and seasonal are the buzzwords of the new meeting menus, and comfort food reigns. Here are some examples of meals across the day 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's 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). 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 might include mini entrée stations with fresh-grilled tenderloin steak, sea bass over couscous with a citrus buerre 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 informal, 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 take 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. Vertical food presentation is an ongoing trend, with such items as quick-fried onion strips giving height to the plate.

Desserts — When it comes to dessert, not much has changed. Meeting attendees are still eating sweets, particularly chocolate. What's new is that there are more choices than in the past. Along with sugar-based desserts, a typical dessert buffet also includes fruit and cheese, for example. 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 haven't 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 (an international competition that pits chefs against each other), says she enjoys putting together country-specific meals that expose attendees to new 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 U.S. at the Copper Skillet Competition, says that he 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 General Manager Gary Armitage.

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 a duo of 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 at Sodexho-managed facilities.

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 from a convention center? These are just a few of the regional specialties prepared at the Hawai‘i Convention Center's 20,000-square-foot kitchen, says Director of Sales and Marketing Randall Tanaka. The attention to cuisine goes beyond the banquet menu, he says. One popular program allows exhibitors to order food delivered to the booth, for example. Tanaka notes that the center's staff works with the planner to look at the culinary offerings over the entire 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.

In any venue, if you want to ensure a memorable meal, ask to meet with the executive chef. “It's particularly important if you are on a tight budget,” says James Wolfe, director of administrative services for NCCI Holdings Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla. — based company that deals with workers' compensation insurance. Wolfe, who attended the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I, before embarking on a planning career, suggests that the meeting take place during the site inspection or pre-con, when the kitchen is not in production. “It will ensure that your event is important to the chef,” he says. You don't need Wolfe's culinary credentials to have a productive conversation. “Just ask what the chefs like to fix and what unique regional or seasonal ingredients they like to use,” he advises.

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

Pointers from a Pro

“Look for venues with progressive-thinking chefs in the kitchen,” urges 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 and Abs Diet books. (How can you find out if chefs are progressive? Google them). Here are Nye's top pointers for pulling off a memorable meal:

  • 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 three-dimensional relish rather than a flat sauce adds both height and flavor-complexity to a dish.
  • Never put alcohol in recipes (not even sauces), keeping in mind religious and 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 — Empowered to offer standard banquet menus and to negotiate some prices.

Executive Chef — Some will help you plan great meal events while 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 or Wine Steward — Selects wines and oversees their handling and service. Some sommeliers are willing to conduct wine tastings for groups.

Break for Health: Skip the Sugar

Are today's breaks healthy? Not necessarily says Dr. John La Puma, the lead researcher on a study about medical-meeting food. He suggests the following fare to maintain peak performance:

  1. Bottled sparkling and still water, with lemon and lime wedges
  2. Good hot coffee and a selection of teas, with nonfat milk, half-and-half, and soy milk available. Also, consider offering hot yerba maté (a natural stimulant beverage with no side effects) and hot chai.
  3. A bowl of seasonal, ripe fruit, preferably regionally grown
  4. Bowls of shelled, toasted, and unsalted almonds and walnuts
  5. Fresh corn tortillas and whole-grain crackers, made without trans- or saturated fats, and with fresh blanched broccoli, cauliflower, and spring onions (or other vitamin-rich seasonal vegetables). Serve with a cooked tomato-based salsa and a simple guacamole, made without mayonnaise or sour cream, and with lime and chili.

8 Budget-Stretching Tips

To add sizzle to banquet food service without busting the budget:

  1. Include a panini station on the lunch buffet instead of a cold-cut deli.
  2. Offer mini-pizzas or focaccia with toppings like smoked salmon, brie, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella.
  3. Serve a chicken Caesar salad for lunch instead of three courses.
  4. Use pencil breadsticks in a vase with crudités around the base as a centerpiece, or whole loaves of rustic breads on a cutting board with a knife, accompanied by an olive tapenade.
  5. Serve almost any food in a martini glass — mini glasses will save the most money.
  6. Serve tender and juicy braised beef instead of tenderloin.
  7. Instead of a 10-inch dinner plate, ask for a nine-inch plate and smaller food portions.
  8. A cut-fruit centerpiece comes alive when a chocolate fondue is served for dipping at the end of a meal.