Green salad, chicken, two veggies and a starch—that might have been a reasonable meal to serve group attendees in the last century, but it won’t cut it in 2020. Today, guests expect that a growing range of dietary needs will be accommodated, whether they’re eating keto, vegan, paleo, gluten free or some combination of all four. And, in a time when tech employees enjoy gourmet in-house commissaries on the job, it takes some serious culinary pyrotechnics to impress them.
Fortunately, California chefs and food and beverage directors are more than up to these tasks. Here’s how some of our state’s top meeting properties are developing new recipes and stagecraft for feeding groups of all sizes.
The Los Angeles Airport Marriott may be less than a mile from the fourth largest international airport in the world, but when it comes to group food and beverage offerings, it keeps things local. The “Culinary Swap Meet” is one option that’s popular with groups. Various interactive stations highlight LA’s diverse food scene and feature regional ingredients. At one recent gathering, the sta- tions included: “Awe Shucks,” with a variety of raw oysters, including the Kumomoto variety from Northern California; “Herbivore—A Vegan Delight,” a stunning display of sea- sonal greens from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe and fruits like jackfruit, local stone fruit and coconuts that were carved on the spot; the “Boca” station, featuring authentic sandwiches with Latin flavors, like chorizo Pamplona, pan con tomate and jamón serrano; and “Shake It Up Baby,” a dessert and beverage station where guests chose among offerings like horchata milkshakes, Oaxacan chocolate malt, mangonada fizzle, kumquat faux-mosas made with kumquat juice from Fallbrook and hand-pressed Temecula Valley grapes, and cast-iron baked snickerdoodles. Needless to say, attendees were both well fed and very happy.
Hotel Indigo Los Angeles Downtown
Kevin Harry, Director of Food & Beverage
“From a group perspective, we've always put a large focus on food with a local angle, sourcing most of our ingredients from purveyors very close to the hotel. We’ve partnered withlocal bakeries and local farmers who come right to our loading dock with their produce. Over the years, we've aimed to evolve that local food experience for groups by not only using neighborhood vendors, but by creating menus that authentically represent the neighborhoods that surround the hotel. We want guests to get a true sense for the diversity that is available in Los Angeles and showcase this from a culinary perspective.
“We also want to shake things up. Traditionally, the evening meal is when group dining is the most creative and when attendees are the most social. We felt there was an opportunity to flip that narrative on its head and offer creative and social experiences in the morning by breaking the mold of the typical breakfast buffet. So, we offer breakfast mix-and-mingle receptions with passed breakfast bites. Instead of traditional seating we have comfortable soft sofas and high-tops. Butlers pass items like cinnamon roll skewers and pigs in a duvet—breakfast sausage in puff pastry. We have candied bacon hanging on a clothesline, oatmeal creme brûlée in espresso cups, and a bar with items like watermelon juice and fresh lemonade with berries that’s mixed up in a cocktail shaker.
“For evenings, guests will walk into a ballroom and there’s no food there. Then we slowly roll in stations on mobile carts, staggering them so guests are waiting for what’s next. These little action stations might include small plates of beef Wellington, tuna and beet tartare, ceviche, or, around holiday time, a mini Thanksgiving feast—a small dish with mashed potatoes, stuffing, caramelized carrots and turkey.
“We’re really having fun in the beverage space. For example, we’ve started providing groups with a ‘craft cocktail crawl,’ where the cocktails come straight to them on a rolling cart and guests never have to lose the social element of an event to line up at a bar. We’ve also hosted group events where we give passwords to guests, allowing a selected few at a time to find us for an exclusive speakeasy experience. We lead guests through the back of the house, onto our freight elevator and into our generator room, where they discover we’ve trans- formed the room into a secret bar with a variety of cocktails being made.”
With nearly 170,000 square feet of venue space that can accommodate more than 3,500 guests, the Anaheim Marriott, which sits just steps from the Anaheim Convention Center, has become deft at feeding large groups with panache. “We have more options than ever before with fresh items prepared à la minute,” says Alex Shotwell, Marriott’s area director of sales for Orange County and San Diego.
Among the property’s innovations is its Farmhouse Table Salad Bar. It’s a gorgeous array of seasonal ingredients: mixed greens; vegetables like charred pencil asparagus, teardrop tomatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled radishes and roasted butternut squash; along with proteins (chicken, skirt steak, shrimp and blackened shrimp) that are grilled on a cooktop; assorted cheeses; toppings like housemade croissant croutons and various nuts; and a variety of flavorful salad dressings, including blackberry balsamic vinaigrette and basil emulsion.
Another option is the Lazy Susan service, which can be thought of as a tabletop buffet. Room temperature, cold items and desserts are preset, and once the guests are seated hot dishes are rolled out. Up to 5,000 people can be served in an hour, with dishes like a seasonal vegetable risotto, seared salmon and spinach with warm Mediterranean vinaigrette, and roasted chicken with kalamata olives and artichokes.
For coffee breaks, giant Lego blocks hold fruit and parfaits, chips and dips, while dessert might include serve-yourself doughnut trees. Did anyone mention conversation starters?
Pechanga Resort Casino
Hunter Gonzalez, Catering and Banquet Chef
“At Pechanga our food and beverage group offerings are constantly changing. From set and décor to food preparation and presentation, we’re always looking for new and fresh ideas to bring the ‘wow’ factor to our guests.
“One group client in real estate had a week-long company meeting for about 250 attend- ees. On the final night in our new Summit Ballroom, we provided an immense display of all kinds of offerings from cultures around the world. We had more than 15 Pechanga chefs bringing their talent, ideas and creativ- ity to the event, and had everything from vegan foods and Mediterranean stews to tenderloin carving stations.
“We like to get playful. In that vein, we do something I call ‘aroma forks.’ A fork has a circle cutout where we place a small tablet that contains a liquid aroma that goes well with the bite that’s offered. For example, a savory macaroon is paired with a scent tablet of black pepper and parmesan cheese, a mini lamb chop with liquid mint instead of the traditional mint jelly. We present the fork to the guests and ask them to take their time identifying the aroma for a full sensory experience of tasting.
“For our Chocolate Decadence & Wine Festival, we featured chocolate lipstick. That’s exactly what it sounds like—lipstick made out of chocolate—and it was a huge hit. We also had mannequins dressed in chocolate dresses while servers on wheels circulated wearing giant hoop skirts that held small bites that guests could help themselves to.
“For our Sushi & Sake Festival we created a 16-foot sushi roll. It took nine chefs to make that roll, which was a beef roll, spicy tuna roll, salmon and avocado roll, California roll, and yellowtail and jalapeño roll all in one.”
At Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, chef Luca Moriconi leads small groups in pizza making. The amateur chefs gather at the crudo bar at restaurant Culina and in the hour-long session go from tossing dough to spreading toppings that include tomato sauce, various cheeses and fresh herbs. They then place their creations on a pizza stone that’s put into the brand-new Italian rotary pizza oven in the garden just a few feet away. Ninety seconds later—yes, it’s that fast!—guests sit down to enjoy their artisanal pies, along with other offerings from Culina’s menu.
In 2019, THE ROW, Reno, hosted a Magician’s Table for a group of 100. The event featured the cast of the Broadway show “The Illusionist,” which was playing at the mega-resort. “The cast went around a U-shaped table and entertained our guests during dinner, but the real magic was the food,” says executive chef Ivano Centemeri. “The appetizer, ‘Foggy Day at Hog Island,’ was an oyster served in a glass vessel with edible sand and dry ice, so that when the vessel was opened, the oyster slowly appeared through the fog. The main course was a deconstructed beef Wellington, where the meat was caged in a puffed pastry, Houdini-style, instead of baked into it, to make it more elegant and unique.” At another event, “liquid pizza” was served. “It started with a cream of toasted bread as the base,” Centemeri says, “added in high quality ingredients like tomato confit, fresh mozzarella, anchovies and fresh basil. Then guests topped it like a pizza with their favorite ingredients and ate it with a spoon. If you closed your eyes, it tasted exactly like a pizza!”
At Rosewood CordeValle, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Midnight Munchies offering for groups includes food trucks, a chocolate station, petite pastries, donuts, crepes and an ice-cream tricycle dispensing frozen treats. Earlier in the day, activities like bocce ball might be accompanied by a craft cocktail experience, with tastings of infused spirits and specially selected barrels of Jack Daniels and Casa Noble Organic Tequila.
Hyatt Regency Indian Wells
Questions and answers with the hotel’s executive chef, Eric LeClair.
How have your F&B group offerings changed over the last couples of years and what's led to this change?
We’ve moved toward more fresh and healthy offerings with a heavy focus on buying local and sustainable ingredients. We’re finding that nearly 15 percent of our group guests have some sort of dietary need or preference. When writing menus, we accommodate this by incor- porating as many gluten-free, vegetarian, and low-calorie options as possible, while still keeping in mind that sometimes a guest loves a good hamburger. We’ve just reworked the classics to move away from heavy, high-calorie options, carb and starch-heavy sides and large portions. Our goal is to keep all of our offerings clean, energizing and as creative as possible. Beyond the ingredients, we’ve found a great opportunity to provide more sustainable F&B group offerings by eliminating single-use plastics whenever possible and opting for biodegradable flatware and plateware. This has been a huge focus for breaks and receptions.
What are a couple of the most inventive things you've done for group dining?
We’ve recently done three parties featuring whole pigs cooked in a Caja China roasting barbecue box. The pigs were taken out of the box as the guests were approaching the stations for an extra “wow” factor. We’re able to use the meat for tacos, Cuban sandwiches, bao buns or pulled pork dishes. It has been a huge hit every time.
We also have a “hosted dinner” configuration, which is one of our favorite takes on a plated meal. The setup for this one is a table of 10 people total, which is broken down into groups of two people each who are then assigned to be in charge of a certain part of the meal. The pairs of two are responsible for visiting their assigned station around the room to gather their designated food or drink items. For example, one pair goes to the bar to get a round of drinks for the table, another goes to the carving station for the meat portion of the meal, yet another to the salad bar to make a large salad for the table, and a fourth pair is in charge of the starches and veggies. All of the groups bring their portion back to the table and the meal becomes family style. At the conclusion, the final pair visits the dessert bar and makes dessert platters for the whole table. This configuration is very interactive and unique, which is a big hit for group dining, and it can be arranged in any of our wonderful spaces. From lawns to tennis courts to the pools, if you can get there, we can throw a party.
What are you doing in the beverage space that's new?
We have a proprietary tequila, custom made for the hotel from Herradura tequila. We feature this in our signature tequila cocktails at the bar, and on Thursdays alongside over 50 tequila and mescal drinks paired with our taco menu. hyatt.com
InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown
Daniel Fennessy, Executive Chef
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in groups moving more toward reception- style service as opposed to plated service. We’re seeing that mobility during events is becoming more and more important to groups; it gives them the opportunity to increase networking and interact with different people throughout the experience.
“On the food service side, we’ve increased our offerings to include more creative-themed reception stations, tray-passed offerings and action station buffets. This change helps us embrace more diverse types of cuisine and different lifestyle needs. I’ve created a variety of themed offerings that represent different cuisines and cultures with vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options incorporated as well. For example, instead of serving a standard rack of lamb, we offer a Korean-style baby lamb chop with kimchi risotto and charred petite bok choy from an action station, with the dish finished in front of guests. This gives them a feel for the freshness of what we’re serving and adds an element of interactivity to the experience. We might also have a poke station, where guests can build their own poke in a martini glass; a station devoted to the spicy coconut soup, laksa; perhaps a station with deep-fried Cajun turkey complete with dirty rice and jambalaya; and a street taco station. “With four to five different themed stations like this, attendees get a wider range of offerings that translates into a full meal while still being able to interact and network with the other attendees.
“We’ve seen an increased demand for dietary-specific offerings at all events and to meet the needs of these guests, we’ve started to incorporate vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free offerings into every area of our banquet and catering menus. To help satisfy the needs of these guests while also keeping things operationally efficient for our staff, I’ve developed offerings that incorporate our three most common requests into one dish. Take, for example, our “Wild Forest Mushroom and Tuscan Kale Ravioli with a Roasted Eggplant Caponata drizzled with White Truffle Oil.” I make the ravioli dough using rice flour, which makes the dish gluten free as well as using all plant-based and vegetarian ingredients. By offering these types of dishes, we help reduce the number of menu items needed for each event, as well as decrease the amount of work for the event planner when it comes to the guaranteed breakdown between the main course and the special dietary requests.” dtla.intercontinental.com
The Palace Hotel, San Francisco
Benjamin Leblond, director of catering and event management at The Palace Hotel, San Francisco, notes that the interest in healthy food at group meetings goes far beyond kale and quinoa. For a large pharmaceutical group, he developed a “Blue Zones” menu, featuring dishes that originated in the five areas of the world where people live the longest. In another twist, this one for a tech group, the culinary team offered a gluten-free purple yam noodle shabu-shabu. Guests cooked the veggies of their choice in cast-iron pots of steam- ing hot broth, while a hotel chef prepared the purple noodles in front of them.
Meanwhile, a server rolled an elegant food cart among guests and served a luxe take on canapés, scooping honey from a live honeycomb, pouring it over cheese-curd fritters and offering a shave of black truffle. A server on a second cart scooped freshly made tuna tartare onto gluten-free rice chips infused with black garlic.
In the beverage space, the hotel offers an “Extraordinary Gin & Tonic” bar in which potted herbs are brought in. “It looks like a botanical garden, and immediately all five senses are engaged,” says Leblond. “Guests order their drink from a bartender while the scent of fresh herbs and florals wafts through the air. Then they pick their fruits and herbs—mint, basil, whatever—and finish their drinks. It’s a fun and interactive experience.”
Also new at the hotel are healthy gourmet lunch boxes, with options like black sesame seared ahi with beet poke and sambal aioli, and a grilled “carne asada” eggplant steak with chayote squash ceviche and tomatillo pepita salsa, “entirely vegan and gluten-free!”