Convention Center Cuisine goes from ordinary to outstanding
Sponsored by Calgary Telus Convention Centre
We are undergoing a food revolution: Everyone is talking about food, watching it on TV and trying to cook it. Over the past few years, the Food Network and TV shows such as Top Chef have made haute cuisine more accessible to the everyday diner, and as a result, everyone is becoming a foodie—with strong opinions on what constitutes “good eats.”
This culinary awakening has changed the way we approach food when we cook, dine out and meet. Hotels earlier revamped their restaurants to reflect the new sensibilities, and convention center chefs are now joining the revolution as well.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the demise of the old banquet fodder—“rubber-chicken dinners,” those meals where you needed a steak knife and a pound of salt just to get through them. Convention centers are readjusting to meet the demands of their more sophisticated clients and competing with the dining group experience already mastered by many hotel restaurants and kitchens.
“Food is an experience, no matter where it is served, and convention centers are no exception. The creativity and quality that is coming out of convention center kitchens recently is very impressive,” says Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and events for the Professional Convention Management Association. “I think that ‘rubber chicken’ is just not acceptable to planners today, and convention centers realize this. Meal selections are tied into the budgets available, but chicken dishes are being served with creativity and flair.”
Molly Baer Kramer, development director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, agrees that convention centers are moving away from serving the infamous chicken: “Hooray!” she laughs. “People say that nobody comes to these events for the food. But why should it be an afterthought or a detractor? When the food is actually good, it will help to bring people back for next year,” she says.
The new convention dining experience is quickly heading toward a culinary experience reflective of the new consumer. Now convention centers are taking group dining to the next level by incorporating culinary trends, utilizing high-quality ingredients, serving cuisine that pays homage to the location, and meeting the needs of the client.
Raising the Bar
The transition from traditional, mass-prepared meals to restaurant-quality cuisine for a mass audience is not an easy one. There are many challenges that come with serving crowds, including food preparations that are too complicated to produce for a group of 3,000 people, or will not hold up well on chafing dishes or under heat lamps.
These roadblocks are not stopping some centers, however. For example, Aramark, a top convention center management company, is investing in continuing education for its executive chefs, and has partnered with New York’s Culinary Institute of America to certify them at Pro Chef levels. “We have seen huge benefits from this partnership. It is a very long-term relationship, and we have helped develop the curriculum,” says Aramark’s Western Region Executive Chef O’Brien Tingling.
Some convention facilities are tapping chefs from diverse ethnic backgrounds, such as Jamaican-born Tingling, and others with varied industry work experience to head up kitchens and contribute to menus. We are also seeing the advent of celebrity chefs and James Beard Award-winners at the helm.
Centerplate, another first-rate hospitality company, collaborates with well-established chefs when creating menus to keep them up on regional and national trends. They work with such high-profile chefs as Ethan Stowell, a famous Seattle-based chef and author, and Donald Link, the New Orleans-based chef/owner of Herbsaint and Cochon restaurants. “They help inform us on what food is popular in their part of the world and how we can source that from local purveyors, thus capturing local flavors along with the solid foundation of a national purchasing program,” says Kay Towner, vice president of sales and marketing for Centerplate.
While planning events and attending them for PCMA, Peacy has noticed an increased attention on quality ingredients and presentation. “Recently, I’ve seen a big trend toward locally grown and sustainable products, as well as interesting serving pieces that more or less frame the food’s presentation—a shallow bowl to serve an entree, for example, rather than a regular white plate,” she says.
Emphasis is also being placed on the meal and how beverages amplify this experience. “Beverages are such an important part of the experience. In our 250 accounts, we are seeing trends toward using aromatics such as basil, lavender and lemongrass in beverages,” Towner says. The San Diego Convention Center is a perfect example of this. Executive Chef Jeff Leidy is well known for his innovative cocktails and has won an award for his cranberry mojito. In addition to cocktails, Towner has seen more venues introduce local wine and craft beer.
Special Needs & Requests
As planners have become more knowledgeable and discriminating about cuisine and gastronomic trends, they have also become more demanding. Banquet chefs have seen a flood of special requests to meet the dietary needs, limitations, preferences and sustainability wishes of attendees and organizations. Increasingly popular requests include low-calorie, gluten-free or vegetarian meals, as well as hormone-free meats and sustainably harvested seafood.
In the past, convention centers were known to poorly accommodate these requests. “While I definitely think convention centers are understanding more and more that attendees are watching their diets, and are preparing quality meals for these individuals, what I am hearing, as well as experiencing, is that the delivery and execution of these special entrees in a mass-quantity [setting] can be challenging,” Peacy says.
While accommodating special needs is more difficult for large groups, many centers and catering staffs are addressing the issue. “Our chefs are better prepared to handle these requests than in the past,” Aramark’s Tingling says.
One venue, the Quebec City Convention Center in Canada, implemented a program two years ago that briefs staff on the ingredients used in the meal. It has been successful in honoring attendees’ dietary needs and allergies, says Andre Beauchamp, assistant general manager of the center’s caterer Capital HRS.
According to Centerplate’s Towner, signage listing ingredients in a buffet is important to meeting planners, who want to know what the ingredients are that may cause people with sensitivities to react. To accommodate last-minute requests for plated events, Centerplate oversets 3% in alternative meals with vegetarian, fish and gluten-free options. “Alternative menus need to be treated with the same respect and care as the main meal...I am very proud of what Centerplate does with respect to that,” she adds.
The Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu also makes it a priority to accommodate special requests. “All conventions bring diverse palates, with tastes influenced by ethnicity, regional upbringing, religious practices, medical conditions and personal preferences,” says the center’s Director of Food and Beverage Brian Allen. “[We] provide a variety of meals tailored to specific dietary restrictions or preferences.” The center offers meals that are vegetarian, vegan, kosher or halal, and free of seafood, nuts or gluten.
For its meetings and events, PCMA works with chefs to create one alternative entree that satisfies both vegetarian and gluten-free needs. “This helps with our overall budget and service. In addition, we’ve been asking for as much organic and locally grown and sustainable food as possible [at our price point],” Peacy says.
For OLCV’s Kramer, sustainable cuisine is an important request because it ensures that events remain true to the organization’s ideals. Its Annual Celebration for the Environment—unofficially known as “Eco Prom”—has been hosted at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, and the organization’s request for a sustainable menu was difficult to accommodate in the past. But when the center’s new executive chef, Stephen Marshall, came on board, he was very responsive to their needs. According to Kramer, “They really went all out to get it for us. We had truly wild salmon from a sustainable fishery, and that means the world to us. We had a meal that reflects our values. That is huge.”
From Farm to Facility
The biggest food trend now is connecting the meal to the location, a premise shared by planners and chefs for a variety of reasons. We are returning to our roots in the days before planes and trains shipped in produce from all over the world, and ingredients from regional farms and purveyors was the only food available on a seasonal basis. Consumers now want to know where their food comes from, and these self-described locavores are becoming more diligent about tracking food miles.
“You will be able to tell which convention center you are at based on the food that you are getting there. Regional flavors are very important in today’s world. It is not one-size-fits-all anymore,” Tingling says. “We have to be innovative from that standpoint. Every event is different. We make sure that the food is connected to where it is farmed, and focus on how it comes through the door and how it is experienced, to wow our guests.”
Towner seconds this by saying that there is a distinct interest in offering authentic and locally provided foods. Planners want to know where the ingredients for the meal were harvested, and some take it a step further by including information on menu cards to establish a meaningful connection to the cities and convention centers, she adds.
In addition to connecting with the location, rising fuel costs and the desire to support the local economy have chefs and staffs looking for ingredients closer to home. Because sourcing 7,000 pounds of locally grown spinach is a tall order for most small farmers, many chefs are taking agriculture into their own hands—literally. At the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the culinary staff works a four-plot garden where they grow tomatoes and other seasonal produce, and herbs such as basil, oregano, purple sag, mint and lemon thyme.
Chefs like Jesus Cibrian, Aventura executive chef at the Phoenix Convention Center, works with farmers to specially produce ingredients to meet their mass-quantity demands and create menus around what is available locally. For the US Green Building Council’s Green Build Convention, Cibrian was able to use 51% local products—the center’s highest percentage to date. “We worked with farmers in the Phoenix area months in advance to have [the produce] available on time for the convention. The clients were very happy that they were able to be part of the [procurement] process,” he says.
The Proof is on the Plate
The revolution is underway, and the following convention centers are on the front line:
Anaheim Convention Center
As the largest convention center on the West Coast, the 1.6 million-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center is a convenient choice for large-scale Southern California meetings. The LEED-certified facility features 51 meeting rooms, 130,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a 38,000-square-foot ballroom. When it comes to F&B, the venue focuses on offering “a taste of Anaheim,” contemporary versions of classics that showcase the culinary flavors of SoCal. Chefs also draw from its new herb garden.
Austin Convention Center
Located in the heart of Texas’ culinary capital, the Austin Convention Center has 246,097 sq. ft. of column-free space, 54 breakout rooms and an in-house green team. The center offers contemporary cuisine with some Austonite classics: For breakfast, groups can sink their teeth into Texas-size biscuits with country gravy, pork carnitas con huevos and breakfast tacos with salsa. Attendees can also expect the likes of locally made spinach tortillas, green chili, grilled Texas Angus rib eye, and chorizo-spice-rubbed, slow-roasted pork.
Calgary TELUS Convention Centre
Even colder-climate convention venues like Calgary, Alberta’s TELUS Convention Centre (with 122,000 sq. ft. of meeting space) are participating in the farm-to-table movement, weather permitting. “We do offer 100-mile radius menus, but the window of time we can do this is very limited due to [the short] growing season in Alberta,” says Heather Lundy, the center’s director of marketing. Year round, however, the center incorporates other trends such as healthy meals and action stations to bring the cuisine closer to guests. “We will be launching a la carte dining menus for events this fall, starting with groups of up to 200 and expanding as demand increases,” she says.
The center approaches group dining as an experience that will stand up against restaurants and hotels. “We ensure that the meal is balanced in flavor and eye appeal. Our meals would be at home in a stand-alone dining room in the presentation and quality; the difference is we can do 6,000 of the same plate for one event,” she adds.
Hawaii Convention Center
This airy, white-beamed glass structure features towering palm trees in the lobby and 103,610 sq. ft. of meeting space in the heart of Oahu’s Waikiki.
Integrating Hawaiian products has long been part of the SMG-managed center’s philosophy; one third of its produce is local, and its culinary team is working on increasing this to one half. The center is also rolling out a new, hyper-local section to its menu: 808 Island Selections. “These offerings will cover all meal periods and feature ingredients that are almost exclusively (about 90%) sourced from Hawaii. This will expand our offerings of locally raised and farmed beef, pork and dairy, as well as more specialty products, including nuts, olives, coffees, beer and wine,” says Allen, the center’s director of F&B. “These initiatives will allow our visitors to lessen their carbon footprint, support local agriculture, promote sustainability and further enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer.”
According to Allen, guests are frequently impressed by the wealth and variety of local fruit. “They marvel at the varieties available, and are happy to experiment with the often-new tastes of apple bananas, guava, lychee, starfruit, kiwi, rambutan, Korean pear, dragonfruit, kiwano melon and more,” he says. Meals often include seafood from the internationally recognized Hawaiian waters and are never frozen. Integrating local Hawaiian fare such as shave ice, pipikaula, loco moco, taro chips, dim sum and haupia is also a crowd pleaser.
In a city as obsessed with food as San Francisco, the convention center has some pretty fierce competition in the group-dining arena. But instead of being intimidated by the local chefs and gourmet purveyors, the immense Moscone Center (divided into three buildings: North, South and West) collaborates with them. Its culinary team is inspired by Bay Area talent, and sources some of its offerings from top restaurants, such as crab cakes from Scoma’s (a local seafood institution) and sushi from Ozumo (a leader in Japanese fare), says Murat Eskicioglu, regional general manager for Savor, the center’s F&B provider. Moscone also offers a culinary “sight-seeing” menu with tastes of such neighborhoods as North Beach and the Mission.
The venue’s approach to group dining is reflective of the Bay Area in another way, too. The center offers zero-waste events, sustainable cuisine and simple, yet flavorful food with a focus on fresh ingredients that speak for themselves. It offers a food mileage program and will calculate the food miles of all the ingredients in a meal. The staff will ask planners “What is your goal? What are the items that you are willing to compromise on?” Eskicioglu says.
Not many convention centers can boast that they have ocean and beach views, but Ocean Center can. This waterfront facility, situated in the heart of Daytona Beach, Fla.’s Ocean Walk Village (a shopping and entertainment district) recently completed a comprehensive renovation and expansion, bringing its total to 36 breakout rooms and 164,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space. The proximity to the water is a big selling point when it comes to sampling local fare. When people come here, they want to eat seafood, says Matt Dye, catering sales manager at Ovations, the center’s caterer. “We did a crab boil for a recent event with oysters and stone crab. It really showcased the food that comes out of our ocean.”
In addition to seafood, Ovations focuses on crafting fresh cuisine made in-house and getting away from the institutionalized dining of convention centers past that focused on the three pre’s: prepackaged, premade and precooked. “Meeting planners do this all over the country, and they really know what to look for and what they want. So if we can get away from the dry chicken at the convention center, that’s what we do,” Dye says. The center is phasing out chafing dishes and replacing them with more cooked-to-order food, such as meals prepped at carving and action stations.
Orange County Convention Center
In the center of Orlando, Fla.’s Tourism District, and nearby to 113,000 hotel rooms, the Orange County Convention Center has 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, 74 meeting rooms and a 2,643-seat theater. The OCCC is considered to be one of the most cutting-edge and innovative convention centers in Centerplate’s portfolio, Towner says. In late January 2010, for example, the center switched to all biodegradable food serviceware.
In addition to the venue’s sustainability efforts, chefs offer a taste of Florida with such options as citrus breaks featuring key lime cheesecake bars and seasonal whole fruit. The OCCC also takes trends like sliders and revamps them for a more sophisticated audience. These hand-held eats are a popular group option in flavor combinations such as ahi tuna, cucumber, tomato and wasabi aioli on a whole-grain bun, or beef tenderloin, hoisin ketchup and scallions on a sweet bun.
Oregon Convention Center
With a new chef in charge, the Oregon Convention Center—with 50 meeting rooms and 255,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space—has become a pioneer in group dining in the Pacific Northwest. Chef Stephen Marshall is a great example of the new breed of convention center chefs, as he is the winner of the 1997 James Beard Award for Best Resort Hotel Series and most recently served as the executive chef at the former Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas.
“The Oregon Convention Center is right in front of the movement—sourcing food locally. We partner with our supply-chain management team to ensure that it is coming from a safe environment,” Aramark’s Tingling says. The OCC offers Northwest Fresh menus and is eager to make connections with farmers. “We do have a ton of growers in Oregon. Why shouldn’t our convention center reflect the culture of the place?” OLCV’s Kramer says.
The chef and his staff recently partnered with Kramer’s team to create a sustainable event with great food and fun touches, such as amuse bouche in martini glasses and a dessert bar. “It was really exciting for me to get such positive feedback from our guests,” she says.
Palm Springs Convention Center
Recalling its desert surroundings, California’s Palm Springs Convention Center’s look and feel were inspired by its colorful environs. The 261,000-square-foot facility has 112,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.
The center is the annual host of the star-studded Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala, a glitzy multicourse, sit-down dinner and awards reception with guests like Sean Penn.
“We do a lot of lunches and receptions in the Exhibit Hall, so we often present food in smaller tapas-style portions that attendees can consume while standing or walking around,” says Lynn Toles, director of catering for Savoury’s, the center’s exclusive caterer. The catering company relies on molecular gastronomy to create liquid-nitrogen ice cream stations—a fun and tasty dessert trend.
Sustainability is also important to the staff. “We use all compostable, disposable products and have started a food-composting program as the pilot program for the rest of the city of Palm Springs. We use organic ingredients whenever possible, as well as purchase from local vendors,” Toles says.
Phoenix Convention Center
Adjacent to the 1,000-room Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel, the Phoenix Convention Center has a sleek and modern look, and more than 900,000 sq. ft. of event space. Executive Chef Cibrian relies on Arizona’s warm weather for seasonal crops and says that, even in the summer’s heat, he can locally source items such as root vegetables. The center also has an aggressive sustainability program that includes buying ingredients in bulk, serving with biodegradable flatware and using a food-waste decomposer to break down organic waste and collect water for on-site irrigation.
In addition to working with area farmers to source ingredients locally and reduce their environmental impact, the chef works to incorporate trends and groups’ ever-changing demands. He is serving more tapas-style cuisine and cooking in front of guests. Clients can preview the menu before it is served, in his on-site Innovation Kitchen, where Cibrian hosts tastings and “plays with the food” to give planners the presentation and taste of dishes.
Quebec City Convention Centre
Overlooking historic downtown Quebec City, Quebec City Convention Centre hosts about 150 events annually in its 30 meeting rooms. The center is a top option for food-centric groups; in fact, it tracks the satisfaction ratings of past clients and has received overwhelmingly high scores. The Capital HRS’ Beauchamp focuses on creating a dining experience while keeping in mind the nature of every event. “Each major event has its specifications,” he says.
At the same time, “local food is very important for guests to try,” he adds. “We can go with any kind of meat that is raised in the region, such as veal and ham. It is all about the season, the time and the presentation. We showcase both the region and Canada.”
The center takes its environmental responsibility very seriously. It has adopted an overall sustainable development policy, which spans to food service through the use of water pitchers; bulk dispensers for condiments, sugar and cream; biodegradable or recyclable flatware for snacks or lunches; an organic waste collection system; and the donation of excess food.
San Jose Convention Center
This expansive facility in downtown San Jose, Calif., is connected to the 506-room San Jose Marriott and within walking distance of 13 other convention hotels, such as the 353-room Hilton San Jose. The center, with its checkered facade and 425,000 sq. ft. of exhibit, ballroom and meeting space, will soon be undergoing a $120 million expansion and renovation that will add cutting-edge technology and 125,000 sq. ft. of function space. The center will remain open during the improvements, which are slated for completion in late summer or early fall of 2013.
The new space will showcase the center’s unique F&B offerings, which Team San Jose (the city’s CVB and center manager) took in-house a year ago, with Executive Chef Vince Lai heading up the kitchen. (Lai, who is a Mandarin Oriental Hotel alum, constantly says, “There is no rubber chicken here!”) Lai likes to work with groups to craft menus that utilize the natural bounty of the region, as well as incorporate culinary influences from the diverse residents. Lai creates fresh, interactive and customized experiences for guests that work with the needs and the demographic of the group, says Diana Ponton, VP of sales of Team San Jose. “Chef Lai is one of our selling tools.”
Shaw Conference Centre
The Shaw Conference Centre, located in downtown Edmonton, Alberta with close proximity to more than 2,000 hotel rooms, can host groups of six to 6,000 with award-winning cuisine and service to match. The center has also seen a shift in clients’ requests for higher-quality, sustainable fare, and accommodates these requests by focusing on local products and using modern techniques to preserve the integrity of the ingredients.
“Presently, 20% of food products are local. We also switched from farmed salmon to wild salmon, and are looking at using only fish and seafood products that are sustainable and have the Ocean Wise certification,” says Simon Smotkowicz, the center’s executive chef. The venue now sources 60% hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and exclusively local greenhouse tomatoes.
St. Johns County Convention Center
Adjacent to the newly renovated, 301-room Renaissance World Golf Village Resort and Convention Center in St. Augustine, Fla., the St. Johns County Convention Center is a newly renovated, mid-sized meeting option surrounded by everything golf. The Renaissance manages, and is the exclusive caterer for, the 40,000-square-foot center, which features a 30,000-square-foot ballroom.
The resort recently hired a new chef, Brett Smith, who is passionate about the farm-to-table movement, bringing the restaurant dining experience to groups, and creating as much of the menu as possible in-house (including baking his own bread). Smith has worked around the country, from Napa, Calif., to Boca Raton, Fla., and has been given the American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year Award by the Pacific Coast Chef’s Association in San Francisco. “Our new catering menus will be the first in the area to feature a la carte entree service, and will be highlighted with local micro-flair food and beverage offerings. Menus for breaks will be interactive and chef driven, and will include team-building components and great takeaways,” Smith says.
Tinley Park Convention Center
The Tinley Park Convention Center—located 30 miles outside of downtown Chicago—has made a conscious effort to meet the needs of this new breed of clientele. Case in point: The center is wrapping up a comprehensive renovation project this month that will double the size of its space to 75,000 sq. ft. and add state-of-the-art amenities. Mid-Con Hospitality Group, which manages the facility, also hired new staff from various backgrounds to elevate the experience and provide a customized and attentive convention package, says Daniel Fitzgerald, the center’s director of sales and marketing. To complete the transformation, last fall the group hired a new executive chef, Steve Poskin.
Chef Poskin specializes in contemporary American cuisine and relies on regional growers to tie the cuisine with the region and season. As a result, he says, “We are really able to customize menus for the demographic of the group and match the menu to their needs. We have noted a tremendous difference in client satisfaction.”
Vancouver Convention Centre
The award-wining Vancouver Convention Centre has a superb reputation for both its F&B and its sustainability efforts. The center focuses on regional cuisine and offerings such as Vancouver Island mushrooms, Fraser Valley duck, Hecate Strait halibut, Okanagan goat cheese and Salt Spring Island lamb. This commitment also extends to the accompanying libations. “We no longer purchase wine from outside of British Columbia,” Centerplate’s Towner says. Local wine was the jumping off point for including some of the other wonderful beverages created in the area, such as cider, she adds. The facility has also branched out from the traditional food and wine pairing to match B.C.’s own Merridale cider with housemade apple sorbet.
One example of the center’s ability to marry sustainability with cuisine is its infused water. Instead of serving it bottled, guests can sip house-infused water with real-fruit essences.
The convention-center culinary revolution is well underway. So the next time you encounter a rubber chicken, it will be in a joke shop, instead of on your plate.