The American palate is changing. Not only are we embracing foods from differ- ent parts of the world, many of the ingredients that go into those cuisines are becoming mainstream—and that’s increasingly the case for chefs who prepare menus in the meetings and events industry. Peek into their pantries and you’re likely to see a supply of spices such as zaatar, harissa, curry, chili peppers, galangal, and duqqa. Rob Trufant, executive chef at the Michigan State University (MSU) Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, describes it this way: “We’re not going so far as to make dishes unrecognizable to people. We try to meet in the middle—offer things that are still familiar, but with different flavor profiles.”
For clients who are flexible and open to new ideas, Trufant is happy to “go out on a limb and offer them things that maybe aren’t as common in the American palate— especially the Midwestern palate—especially the mid-Michigan Midwestern palate.” Kellogg often hosts conferences where clients want to showcase foods in new ways. When the American Lamb Board convened there recently, Trufant and his staff offered lamb with a variety of flavor profiles. “We had some African dishes, some Middle Eastern dishes, some regional American flavors,” Trufant says. “That was part of the point—they wanted us to showcase different kinds of ways that lamb can be used that maybe aren’t as familiar to processors here.”
Similarly, when MSU’s College of Agri- culture and Natural Resources hosts events, they also strive to showcase prod- ucts in different ways. For example, a bean conference included dishes that demonstrated how beans are prepared globally, Trufant says, adding, “There are all sorts of unique requests.”
Those planning weddings and other social occasions tend to be more open to trying new dishes as well. “We’re seeing a lot more—I wouldn’t want to say requests, but openness to Middle Eastern and African cuisine,” says Trufant, who finds infusing global ingredients and dishes into menus exciting. Experimenting with Mediterranean flavors at a recent event, he says his reper- toire has expanded so much that many of the spices called for by various global dishes are already on his pantry shelf—it’s just a matter of using and blending them in different ways. “Some of the most common feedback is that it’s something our guests never experienced before, so it’s nice to do something memorable,” says Zeinab Mrou, operations manager of the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center.
Liz Della Croce of Grand Rapids, founder and CEO of The Lemon Bowl healt hy food, travel, and lifestyle blog, attends and plans events every year and says global inspiration is more prevalent now. “Whether it’s a charity fundraiser with local chefs, a national food blogger retreat, or an international press trip, I’m seeing a huge trend toward showcasing dishes that tie into the history and culture of the chefs preparing the meal,” she says.
At Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, Executive Chef John Clements says Tex-Mex, Italian, and Mediterranean dishes are standard on various banquet packages. Beyond that, he’s offered classes for groups that enable participants to build their own ramen bowls. “A corporate group will come in for lunch, and we will do a little presentation and then set up an area where they can go and build their own noodle bowl,” he says. “Sometimes it’s their first time [having a noodle bowl], and they will say ‘Wow, we have never seen how easy this is.’ Because that is the fear for some people, that it’s just a lot of work.”
He has also offered sushi rolling and stir-fry classes, which usually come about when a client asks for a project attendees can do together. “They want to do a group lunch, but don’t want to do the same boring thing,” Clements says. “That’s when I would do something like that.” It helps that his staff originates from all over the world, he adds.
In fact, a vegetable curry was added to Mission Point’s Bistro on the Greens restaurant menu. Earlier in the spring, a Ben- gali dessert called rasmalai was offered, with an intern from Bangladesh showing the rest of the staff how to make it. “We notice we’re having up here on Mackinac Island a pretty diverse crowd … a lot more people from India and Pakistan walking through,” Clements says.
ENGAGING OVER FOOD
At the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, Chef de Cuisine of the Spanish-themed AAA Four-Diamond MDRD restaurant Stephan VanHeulen says that event and meeting planners are seeking more engaging and memorable events.
“We incorporate globally influenced action stations and themed menus to create those memorable and photographable ‘wow’ moments for guests,” he says.
VanHeulen says that Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and Moroccan cuisines are gaining popularity in the meetings and events space. He is especially partial to serving a variety of Spanish tapas for large groups. “Guests get to enjoy a variety of small plates and experience more flavors during their dining experience,” he says. “This creates more of a strolling dinner and social event; our guests are really enjoying this format and are booking repeat events.” There’s no risk to introducing globally influenced and culturally authentic dishes if you include other options for those with different preferences, he notes.
“You have to be creative enough to uniquely tailor the menu to accommodate most dietary and allergen needs for a large group without sacrificing the experience for others,” he says.
EXPANDING THE COMFORT ZONE
Stephan Blaser, Sodexo Live! executive chef at the Huntington Place convention center in Detroit, started his career 43 years ago in Switzerland. He credits the public’s overall interest in travel and willingness to try new restaurants with authentic local cuisine for helping to broaden what he and others can offer groups.
Huntington Place is in an area that is surrounded by many growing industries that attract people from all over the world. “Because of that, we can focus our cuisine on local ingredients that also reflect various international influences from the cultures you can find here in town,” he says.
The list of dishes he has served illustrat- ing his point is long. When a client requested a menu that reflected four countries for a 6,000-person event, Blaser and his staff served up items that included Egyptian Spinach Pie, a Brazilian chicken dish called coxinha, Swedish mini donuts known as klenat, Japanese small plates, and a ramen bowl.
Colin John, director of culinary and executive chef for Troy-based full-service caterer Forte Belanger, says caterers have an opportunity to offer foods that guests may not typically order in a restaurant or make at home.
“I’m thrilled when we offer an array of menu items exploring different ingredients and cul- tures,” he says. “The goal is [to] nudge the guests out of their food comfort zone and into an experience of fantastic flavors they may have never tried otherwise.”