Chef Puts Malaysian Touch on Tray Service for Groups

Author: Curt Wagner       

food service

Executive chef Leon Teow (upper right) explains the history of the planks used to serve hot and cold appetizers. Teow adapted his father’s plank idea for groups meeting at Leows Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando.

Planners can make their F&B stand out by going local, coming up with a theme, or by giving an event theatrical flare. Leon Teow, executive chef at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, drew inspiration from his childhood in Malaysia to create an unusual approach to serving small bites at group receptions.

During a May trip sponsored by Visit Orlando, I, along with a few fellow trade journalists, got to experience a taste of Teow’s upbringing in Malaysia. After touring the convention spaces at the Portofino Bay Hotel, we were ushered onto a balcony for drinks and hot and cold appetizers — all served from wooden planks suspended by ropes and held aloft by members of the wait staff.

food service

Leon Teow, executive chef at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando

When Teow was growing up in a small village on Malaysia’s Penang Island, his mother ran a small catering business out of their home. Her business was a precursor to the prepared meal service delivery companies that have proliferated in recent years. Teow’s mother would make each day’s meals and he and his sister would deliver them to people who don’t have time to cook for themselves, going from house to house with bags and boxes of food.

“It was very hard to carry a lot of food so we had to go back home each time and pick up the next houses’ food,” Teow told Convene.

To make deliveries more efficient, Teow’s father built a plank system. The food would go on a flat plank that was suspended by two ropes to another piece of wood (similar to an oar), which would rest on Teow and his sister’s shoulders. The system enabled them to more easily carry the meals for 10 families at once this way, he said.

On weekends, his family would go to tourist beaches with a larger plank that could hold a small burner and pot from which she would cook dishes and sell them to tourists. The ingenuity was driven by need: They couldn’t use a push cart in the sand, Teow pointed out.

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Teow said his mind went back to those days when he became bored with the usual tray service of hors d’oeuvres. He decided he wanted “to do something special,” he said.

“You never see this anywhere else,” he said, “and guests get excited when they see the planks.”

Now the planks are one option planners can choose for their events at the Portofino Bay Hotel. They deliver the biggest wow factor when used in a larger setting than the full balcony where my group gathered. Because we were crowded in — and still full from a large lunch — not many of us tasted the offerings on the planks that the wait staff held up for us.

I did try the Potato Nest with Fried Goat Cheese Stuffed with Apricot Grand Marnier — which, when I bit into the “egg,” the Apricot Grand Marnier looked like a yolk. The delicious app was as creative as its method of delivery.

food service

The hot plank held lamb lollipops with minted demi, lobster ravioli with lemon cream, eggplant purses stuffed with mozzarella cheese and ratatouille, crispy wonton  tacos stuffed with braised short ribs and cilantro slaw, home-style beef meatballs with tomato jam, and vegetable strudels with tomato sofrito.

food service

One of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel chefs makes potato and ricotta cheese gnocchi with tomato and olive sofrito on the hand-carry portable station similar to the one Leon Teow's mother used in Malaysia. 

food service

The cold appetizer plank held caprese skewers with balsamic glaze; antipasto skewers; baked goat cheese in Philly dough; almond-crusted Brie cheese; rosemary grilled crostini, and seasonal fruit skewers.

food service

The potato nest with fried goat cheese stuffed with apricot Grand Marnier (left) and citrus poached jumbo shrimp with cocktail sauce tube were on the cold appetizer plank.


Curt Wagner is an associate editor at Convene.

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