When it comes to menu-tasting and planning for a corporate event, it’s best to take a tag-team approach – Meeting Planner, internal client contact, and Executive Chef fully committed to the “three Ps”.
Partnership, partnership, and more partnership.
If your dining guests are to savor a memorable culinary experience that leaves their tummies growling for more, you and Chef must pair well like a fine sauvignon blanc and tart but tasty goat cheese. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a menu that has all the half-baked inspiration of a Rotary Club luncheon.
Like all successful partnerships, open communication, a spirit of give-and-take, and a willingness to be pleasantly surprised significantly increase your chances of success (and you quite possibly being elevated to superhero status).
I recently chatted with Bernard Fiemeyer, Executive Chef (bio below) at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, about what makes for an outstanding dining experience at a corporate meeting or event.
Why Chef Bernard ..? Because this Frenchman stole my taste buds and darn near my heart a few years ago when he served me a waffle sandwich that, to this day, I dream about. It was that good.
I digress …
You as the Meeting Planner or key client contact, and Chef as gastronomic God or Goddess, must work together to create a delicate mélange of taste preferences, Chef’s specialties, courses, portion size, food allergies (sometimes foodie snobbery in disguise), group size and make-up, time window, seating arrangements, wait staff, your budget, and food costs. Even seasonality is a factor. (Pumpkin pie in March? I don’t think so.)
There’s a lot to be covered.
Out of respect for Chef Bernard, the Wizard of Waffles IMHO, I’ll let him share his thoughts first about how to successfully plan, prepare and serve up the best possible corporate event dining experience. Then I’ll jump in with a few thoughts of my own from an event management perspective.
CHEF BERNARD’S RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Successful Menu-Planning Is a Three-Step Process:
Step 1 – Conversation: Open communication and ongoing conversation between Chef, Event Manager, internal decision-maker and the hotel’s Conference Services Manager is an absolute imperative if you are to create a menu that pleases everyone’s palette and creates wonderful memories of a “delish” meal. This can be done via phone, email or in-person but everybody must understand the basics: group dynamics, nature of the event, available budget, time concerns, etc.
CB: “Expect me to ask you what you are looking for. What do you want in terms of taste, color and texture? I believe in always using the best ingredients I can buy. This is very important to me. A great culinary experience comes from quality ingredients, proper cooking technique, and great execution. We can only achieve that when we have great conversation.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of this first step!
Step 2 – Menu-Tasting: Understand what a menu-tasting event is … and isn’t. It is an opportunity for Chef to showcase his or her culinary talents by making recommendations and sampling, based on the info you’ve shared. It isn’t simply a freebie gourmet outing for you and a small army of your closest friends and colleagues who may or may not have a role in your program. Overloading the table can turn your food tasting into a food fight, not good. Or worse, it could “scratch” a great dish option because there are too many likes and dislikes. (Remember that “too many cooks in the kitchen” thing …? There’s wisdom there.)
CB: “This is my chance to express myself and to demonstrate my passion for quality ingredients and excellent preparation. Our good conversation will make me ready when you arrive. I cannot have good conversation when you put 10 at a tasting. I must talk with everybody. If you have more than three or four people at tasting, it is more difficult for me to give attention. Too many people and too many opinions are not good.
When we have conversation during tasting, I will be honest and tell you what can and can’t be done. I want you to try everything and tell me what you like and don’t like. I want a reaction of, ‘Yes, I love it!’ but we can only have that when we have great conversation and trust.
The menu doesn’t have to be complicated, just good. We want your guests to taste the food and say, ‘Wow, this is good!’ We will use the same techniques and great ingredients used at the tasting, and my staff will be trained to prepare the meal perfectly at your event.”
Step 3 – The Event: It’s meal time and, hopefully, you’ve upheld your end of the partnership with Chef. You’ll know very shortly.
CB: “Like I say, what you tell me you like at the tasting will be what we serve to your group. There will be no change, no difference in food quality, cooking technique, and preparation. You will know exactly what you will get because we have a good tasting. After that, it’s the passion for cooking and the ability to perform well that will make your group enjoy the meal. But it all must start with good conversation and a great partnership.”
BERNARD FIEMEYER is Executive Chef at Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. A native of France, Chef Bernard has international experience with culinary positions served in Japan, Thailand, U.K., Canada and the U.S. He has been with the highly regarded Orlando properties since their openings in 2009 and oversees a team of 22 talented culinary experts. Chef Bernard is a graduate of College Louis Armand in France and is well-known for challenging himself and his staff to continually seek new inspiration in the kitchen. He credits his success to an insatiable curiosity for new dishes, cooking techniques and artful presentation.
(NOT) CHEF JULIE’S RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Get your taste buds outta the way! Many (if not most) people don’t know how to do proper menu-planning for a corporate meeting or event because they can’t move beyond their own taste buds and personal faves. Remember, you’re sampling, discussing, designing and refining your menu on behalf of your group which could number 25 or 2025, or more. Yes, you should factor in those things that personally tickle your tongue but don’t let that alone guide your decision-making.
Chef Bernard admits he’s had to change his style of menu tasting and planning as TV cooking shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef, The Chew and Barefoot Contessa have grown in popularity. “People know more these days but sometimes they think they know more than they really do,” he said. “I have to respect what they know but, in the end, this is my world and I know more. It’s up to me to demonstrate that but my overall state of mind is it’s positive.”
Most people just want good food. Like Chef said, don’t overcomplicate things. Start with the standard-issue menu and customize to meet the needs and expectations of your group. Keep in mind things like diet-fad-of-the-month (i.e., Paleo, low-carb, vegetarian, etc.) and food allergies but remind yourself most people simply want their meat, chicken or fish to be cooked nicely and to be tasty. Having said that …
Challenge the Chef. Using a chef like a cook is like asking Van Gogh to be your house painter. A well-trained chef is an artist who works with food like VG did oils. Generally speaking, any chef worth his weight in Himalayan sea salt will welcome the opportunity to step up their game and prepare a meal with a special flair or tasty twist. Nudge them a bit and challenge them to come up with something unique. Your group will love you for it and Chef gets a chance to be a superhero, too!
Avoid the yuck stuff. Stay away from strong, oily fish that smells like the underside of a fishing pier on a hot summer day. Some may prefer that, ahem, robust taste but most do not. Also, avoid having too many sauces in multi-course meals and it’s best to steer clear of potent ingredients like olive mash on top of an item, anise or fennel.
I found it humorous and ironic that French-born Chef Bernard, when asked what never to serve at a meal function, said – wait for it – French fries. True story! Remember this when planning a lunch menu: If it’s impossible to get French fries that are anything but limp, doughy and room temp when you order room service, it’s going to be impossible to prepare fries that are crisp, hot and tasty when cooking for a large group.
(And on a personal note, if you include raw onions or mayonnaise and I’m a guest at your event, you’ll find me down the hall eating in the lobby restaurant!) Menu-planning is a bit like golf. It’s wise to take some chances here and there but, for the most part, play it down the middle or close to the middle and your meal event will be a hit.
Manage your expectations. If four of you had a wonderful menu-tasting event, cut Chef some slack when your event rolls around and there are 400 hungry souls waiting on dinner. That oh-so-fluffy and crisp salad you had at the tasting may not be quite as spectacular at the actual event because there is a difference between cooking for a few and cooking for a few hundred. Or a few thousand. It’s reality. You should still have high expectations but understand excellent and OMG! excellent are both plenty acceptable. It’s kinda like seeing your favorite band in concert for the first time. The live show might not sound exactly like what’s pumping in your ear buds but you can still get your groove on.
Timing is everything. Be very clear with the chef about timing between courses. It’s critically important to avoid lags between the first and last person being served for each non-plated course. Otherwise, guests at Table 1 will be twiddling their thumbs waiting on dessert while Table 35 is just receiving their entrées. This may require beefing up (pun sort of intended) your wait staff which adds costs but it’s worth it when your goal is for everyone to have the same wonderful experience.
Take intelligent risks. I was doing an incentive program in Cabo San Lucas for a software company many years back and challenged the chef to include the company’s logo that would top the dessert being served at the Grand Finale Dinner. The item would be made of white chocolate with the logo done in blue, edible ink (food coloring). The incremental cost was $5 per dessert and I had 200 guests so I was looking at another thousand bucks to pull this off. It better be good!
It wasn’t. In fact, it was horrendous.
Had he seen their sample test, Willy Wonka would’ve slapped the chef silly. Needless to say, we nixed the logo. (Fortunately, digital electronics make exact, edible replicas of such dessert accoutrements much easier and more affordable to produce these days.)
In the end, it’s all about the partnership between Event Manager and Chef. Ruth was nothing without Chris, and McCormick was nobody before Schmick. Even peanut butter never hit it big until jelly came along. Like all successful alliances, you and Chef must be equally invested in the success of your program. Open communication and ongoing conversation prior to, and during, the tasting will form the great partnership necessary to create an extraordinary culinary experience for your guests.
Partnership, partnership, and more partnership are the three key ingredients when it comes to menu-planning for a corporate meeting or event. The Meeting Planner and Chef must work as a team!
Bon appetit, y’all!