Magazine article Marketing

A Taste of Things to Come

Magazine article Marketing

A Taste of Things to Come

Article excerpt

Some venues still offer sausage rolls and chicken drumsticks for lunch. But these days clients expect more. Sue Bryant discover conference catering's culinary revolution

With long, boozy lunches a thing of the past in the meetings business, many conferences now work straight through. But the food at a conference is still the event's most emotive and remembered feature.

"We always phone our clients after an event and if the food wasn't good, it's the first thing they'll mention," says Paul Hussey, general manager of venue-finding agency Banks Sadler. "Food seems to assume a priority in delegates ahead even of the content of the course."

There's no question that the British are more interested in food than ever -- just look at the proliferation of cookery programmes on TV. But uninspired lunches are still a feature of British hotel cuisine, with buffets of unadorned cold meat and boring salads still one of the most common offerings.

Forget cold cuts at London's QEII Centre: caterer Leith's lunch buffet might include chicken with chervil and tarragon vinegar, pork and prunes with cabbage, vegetable Wellington with green tomato chutney, or a spiced, sweet potato strudel. `Comfort' food, too, is slipping back into menus. Leith's fisherman's pie is very popular, as is vegetable lasagne. "There's a trend toward Oriental cuisine now as well, so we might offer something like spiced Malaysian chicken," says Martin Dibben, manager of Leith's at the QEII Centre.

"People are expecting more value for money, but combined with creativity," adds Dibben. "Usually we get asked for an international theme, or for something that reflects English food. We look through traditional cookbooks for recipes like gooseberry relish, old-fashioned pies and sticky toffee pudding -- in smaller quantities, of course. We always try to use English food -- for example, air-dried Cumberland ham with figs, rather than Parma ham."

Buffets are also smaller and simpler nowadays. "A groaning buffet is old fashioned," he says. "It's slower and the delegates' plates look disgusting, with inedible combinations of food on them. If you're offering good quality food, people are happy with: a smaller choice. A lot of top restaurants now will have six starters, six main courses and six desserts. `Simply better' is Leith's motto."

Eric Bruce, executive head chef at the Belfry is seeing a similar trend to more adventurous catering. "There's much less of sausage rolls and chicken drumsticks now and more samosas, dim sum and spring rolls," he says. "People are travelling more and they want these things."

Using their loaves

To accommodate the working lunch, one London hotel, the Regency, has introduced a new concept: the Delegates' Deli. Order forms for deli-style lunch are placed in the meeting room and collected at the coffee break.

"We're trying to listen to what our clients want," says Richard McGuckian, sales manager corporate. "Come summer, I think it will be very popular, especially as a lot of people are working right through lunch now." Choices are served on a selection of breads, from Provencale loaf to a baguette or an onion roll, with 27 fillings varying from smoked salmon and cucumber to roast beef and horseradish, all produced in the hotel kitchen daily.

Venues are also having to cater for the growing number of vegetarians, now estimated to be 15% of the population. Yet some still seem to have no idea.

On a good day, vegetarians will get tasty strudels or wild mushroom and cream pasta, or melt-in-the-mouth tomato and basil tart. On the other hand, one Oxfordshire country hotel resorted to cold quiche and a lettuce and tomato salad, while carnivorous guests devoured a hog roast with all the trimmings.

"People are very conscious of vegetables now, especially the way they look," says Bob Peters, catering services manager for Birmingham's International Convention Centre (ICC). …

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