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Chefs Tell All

By Melissa Sersland

As the bar for surprising guests gets set higher and higher, the challenge intensifies for planners to make event food and beverage memorable. Thankfully, these Chicago chefs and food and beverage teams are stepping up to the plate, sharing advice and new ideas to wow your guests and their taste buds. Read on for advice and inspiration for everything from crafting all-vegan menus to putting on a fiery culinary show. 


While you may want to serve bold, internationally inspired flavors, not all guests are adventurous. Enter chef Bill Kim, known for his Korean barbecue with a twist at bellyQ*, who prides himself on making flavorful food that’s also approachable. The key is creating items that guests have some level of familiarity with, he says. “People need to recognize what they’re eating. That’s very important for us.”

One example is Kim’s Korean-fried chicken served with scallions and crushed garlic peanuts. Another is bellyQ’s play on bolognese. “People know a bolognese is a meat-based sauce with tomatoes, but we do our take on it,” Kim says. “When people have that familiarity with [a part of the dish], they are more likely to compare it to what they know.” Kim’s bolognese (the Tea-Smoked Duck Bolo “RTC” Style) incorporates red Thai curry, tomato, carrots, onions, celery and smoked duck. The “pasta” is Biang Biang noodles with Shaoxing wine.

To accommodate guests with dietary restrictions, about 10 percent of bellyQ’s catering menu is vegetarian or gluten free. One example of a gluten-free option is bellyQ’s savory scallion pancake, made with a vegetable base. Guests have the option of adding pickled vegetables, hummus or pulled pork to the pancake, which they can fold and eat like a taco.


Conference attendees love (and rely on) their morning coffee. But how can you make the traditional conference staple more exciting?

The Rolling Bean, a traveling espresso and smoothie bar, works with clients from Nike to Ted Baker to create customized coffee drinks for events. “By letting our clients customize the specialty drink of the day, we let them take the reins,” says owner Jonathan Levy. That includes items like handcrafted espresso drinks, and even creative latte art—perfect for Instagram.

You can also work with The Rolling Bean to create custom drink toppers, from initials and company names to logos. For Nike, they developed a Swoosh latte, complete with the iconic logo made of cinnamon

Other favorites include lattes made with homemade syrups, like Almond Joy and lavender, along with matcha tea lattes. The Rolling Bean also offers a line of fresh teas and makes a customized Oreo hot chocolate, Levy says.

When serving guests from different parts of the world, Levy prides himself on making each region’s coffee the way they do. That means espresso for guests from Italy and flat whites for guests from Australia or New Zealand. Levy has also offered café con leche and Cuban or Turkish coffee for events.


Creating menus to accommodate a wide variety of dietary restrictions has become an increasing challenge in recent years, as more people abstain from certain food items due to health concerns or other reasons.

Typically, planners put together a menu that’s primarily for guests without dietary restrictions, with some limited options for those with restrictions. But there’s a simpler solution that can save you money and headaches.

Myles Bosack, director of marketing at Jewell Events Catering, says his company has developed allvegan menus for clients. “All-vegan menus are popular, and I think are much more commonplace in today’s market,” Bosack says.

When exploring whether to offer an allvegan menu, Bosack says your guests should drive the decision. Some of Bosack’s corporate clients, for instance, have requested all-vegan meals because animal rights advocacy aligns with their mission.

To plan an all-vegan menu that also pleases nonvegans, Bosack recommends choosing a hearty and flavorful entrée, so no one will be missing meat. Jewell’s eggplant, zucchini and roasted red pepper tower or globe eggplant crudo are good options.

Other popular vegan dishes that combine vibrant flavors and colors are Jewell’s beet and roasted vegetable salad with fig jam and vegan cream cheese, and pearled couscous in a roasted red pepper cup with seasonal vegetables.


Incorporating popular local foods is a great way to help out-of-town guests experience more of Chicago’s unique flavors if they don’t have time to leave the main conference venue.

The catering staff at InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile works with several local favorites—including Garrett Popcorn, Stan’s Donuts and Molly’s Cupcakes— incorporating them into the overall dining experience. Randy Reed, executive chef at the InterContinental, works with vendors to decide how their logos should be displayed near their products.

Bringing these vendors into hotels is a “trust relationship,” says Reed, because “they want to ensure their product is being stored properly so it doesn’t go stale.” Reed also partners with local companies Alliance Bakery and Gladstone Bakery to bring in pastries.

When it comes to sourcing ingredients for his own dishes locally, Reed says that the focus has evolved from broadly local to “local, as long as it is fresh and sustainably sourced,” he says. He works with Slagel Family Farms, located about two hours south of downtown, to source meat products. Since researching individual farms and business to source specific ingredients is time consuming, Reed partners with Midwest Foods, a company that works with local farms to get their produce into restaurants.

Planners can demonstrate to guests that ingredients are locally sourced by highlighting on menus the origin of a few key ingredients came from, notes Reed.


Food and beverage bars are a familiar concept. Chicago-based Limelight Catering, however, thinks about them a little differently, encouraging guests to get outside their comfort zones.

The bar setup works well, says Devon Brennan, associate director of Limelight Catering, because instead of offering guests a lot of options (read: a lot of expense and food waste), you’re offering them options on a smaller scale that still allows them to make the selection themselves.

Limelight has used several fun concepts for bars. At a gala at Ravinia Festival Gala, Limelight integrated a cocktail and food bar, offering gazpacho served in individual glass shooters with spirits poured over the top.

“The acidity came together nicely, and there was also nice color blocking,” Brennan says of the item.

To mix up continental breakfast, Limelight has offered a toast bar where guests could choose from toast toppings like avocado, beetcured salmon and fruit. “Instead of just a continental breakfast, the presentation is themed and everything is cohesive,” Brennan says.

Limelight has also served ancient grain bars; a Korean taco bar; and an onigiri (rice ball) station, where guests chose filling and sauces to be added to their steamed rice pocket.


Food action stations for Catering by Michaels are all about showcasing chefs and providing an exciting visual for guests, says Jeffrey Ware, director of operations.

“Stations are the hottest trend out there,” Ware says. “Chefs are such celebrities now, and everyone wants to interact with them.”

One popular station is ramen, Ware says. Chefs use a tea siphon to infuse the ramen broth with mushrooms or herbs in front of guests. Then guests can choose from more than a dozen mix-ins like Sriracha or sesame seeds to add to their bowls.

Catering by Michaels also offers a duck fat fried chicken station. The chef uses a mini fryer to fry breaded chicken in duck fat in front of guests, then serves the chicken on a base of cheddar-bacon popcorn and tops off the dish with Sriracha ranch aioli. For an added wow factor, the chef uses a dome to infuse hickory smoke into the dish.

“It’s a super fun presentation,” Ware says. “When the dome is pulled back and smoke billows out, it creates a cool visual and gives guests the aroma of the dish.”

Any action station that involves a flambé is also popular among planners, says Ware. That includes the company’s Flaming Donuts station. As chefs heat up butter, bourbon and brown sugar, guests get a fiery show as the alcohol burns off. At another station, chefs use a blow torch to sear wagyu beef before adding sauce and serving it to guests.


* bellyQ will close for events in March 2019.