Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Creating a Wonderful Dining Experience on a Budget

So, you’re on a limited budget but need to create a menu that will blow your attendees away? The hotel’s set menu just doesn’t cut it for you? And with so many food and cooking shows on TV nowadays (and whole channels devoted to them), it seems as though everyone has become a food critic and more meeting attendees are expecting more from meals at the events they attend. So what can you do about it?

I have just four words for you: Work. With. The. Chef.

The Chef can design a menu for you, based on your budget and your group’s dietary needs, which will impress your guests while providing a balanced meal – but you have to ask. By bringing the hotel’s Executive Chef into the discussion early, you can get a fabulous meal for your attendees that is within your budget. The key items to share with the Chef are your budget, the “goals” of the meal, and any special dietary restrictions for your group.

Sharing your budget is simple (but may not be easy!) and can be given to the Chef either as a per person cap or as a total amount that you can pay for the entire meal or event. He (or she) can then give you some preliminary ideas of what meals he can create within that amount.

The goals of the meal can include food themes (Southwestern, Asian-Pacific Rim, Locally Produced Foods, etc.), what you want people to feel (full, satisfied, impressed, etc.), or your event themes. I also include in this category the types of people who will attend. Are your guests used to steak and potatoes or do they prefer certain kinds of fish, or are they epicureans who prefer new flavors and combinations? All of this is useful to a creative Chef.

In terms of dietary restrictions, the most common one for a general audience is vegetarian and the Chef can easily include vegetarian options in the menu. But what if your group is predominately vegetarian? You need to make sure the Chef knows that, as he will plan a different meal for you than if only a few of your guests are vegetarian. Other meal concerns that I have incorporated into or used as the basis for menus include: vegan, diabetic, gluten-free, food allergies, organic, and kosher. Occasionally, certain food groups might be “off the table”. [For instance, one group I worked with could not have any grapes anywhere in the food or used as garnish. This was to protest the use of pesticides in the production of the grapes, which was harming the field workers.] You must let the Chef know of any such restrictions before he begins planning your meals or you will not be happy with the outcome.

Working with the Chef is just one way to get a provide a wonderful dining experience for your attendees - but it is probably one of the most important ones.  Remember, too, that this is an interactive process. You need to be willing to take the time to sit down with the Chef to go over options, discuss your wants and needs, and listen to the Chef’s concerns and ideas as well.

- Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises