Burger King is serving an Impossible — vegetarian — Whopper. A new survey finds that 63 percent of millennials are trying to add plant-based foods to their diet. And a 2020 F&B trends forecast says that by next year, many restaurants will have dedicated plant-based menus. The growing consumer demand for plant-based foods has resulted in greater options at grocery stores and in restaurant menus, but how is that reflected in the F&B offerings at convention centers?
Convene recently spoke via email with Desiree Neal, executive chef for Distinctive Gourmet, the Virginia Beach Convention Center’s (VBCC) on-site caterer, to learn about the plant-based dishes — some of which are cultivated from the venue’s on-site garden — she creates, as well as trends she sees.
Are you being asked more frequently to provide vegetarian/vegan options on your event menus?
Yes, [in addition to] gluten-free options. And while I have been asked to prepare plenty of vegetarian options for events, I would say in the past few years I’ve received more vegan and gluten-free meal requests.
Some examples of such entrees are: a grilled vegetable stack with a balsamic reduction and fresh basil oil. (This is the most popular, because it can be a vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free option.) A truffle mushroom strudel, with fresh chopped herbs, Parmesan cheese, a drizzle of truffle oil and baked in a golden flaky puff pastry (vegetarian). And vegan lasagna rolls, with vegan ricotta cheese, red peppers, and thinly sliced zucchini and yellow squash all rolled in a brown rice lasagna noodle topped with a mushroom Bolognese sauce. And for breakfast, stuffed caramelized baked pears.
Has there been a particularly noteworthy event menu request?
Last fall I had a request for a 100-percent plant-based menu for nearly 1,000 people for a nutritional conference. That menu consisted of chickpea and sweet potato curry stew, Caribbean jerk cauliflower, rice and peas, baked plantains, quinoa pineapple citrus salad, and vegan chocolate mousse. It [was] flawless! I was very pleased.
How do you help planners who today are getting so many special meal requests?
I am always prepared. I stay up on trendy foods, I’m always experimenting with fresh produce in season, and I try to stay ahead of the game so when I have to react quickly I already know what I have in house. A zoodle (zucchini noodle) pasta with a pesto sauce is one of my quick go-to meals. It is vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free. So when you run into a big group that sometimes doesn’t preorder special meals, zoodles with zucchini, yellow squash, and red and yellow peppers tossed in a pesto sauce is a big lifesaver.
I also have recently started keeping kosher meals in house for an emergency. I don’t get many requests, but you never know.
With attendees interested in local cuisine, how do you bring Virginia into your menu mix?
We are a LEED Gold-certified convention center, so anytime we can be sustainable and buy local we do. We have a few signature items on the catering menu that represent Virginia fare. And I also created a local menu that represents more of what Virginia has to offer — like the different fruits and vegetables — and not just seafood and peanuts.
Examples of those dishes are Smithfield bacon corn chowder garnished with fried Chesapeake Bay oysters; grilled chicken breast seasoned with VBCC garden-grown rosemary and served with sweet potato puree, Smithfield pancetta-seasoned crisp Brussels sprouts, and finished with a rich blackberry balsamic glaze; and blackened seared catfish accompanied by cheddar polenta and grilled asparagus, topped with a bourbon crayfish and Chesapeake Bay crab cream reduction. And for dessert, homemade bread pudding topped with caramel sauce and garnished with Virginia-peanut brittle.
What is trending in event F&B and what do you see further into the future?
Farm-to-table has been a very big hit. It gives us a chance to create a menu with items we can get locally. And clients have requested sustainable/compostable plates and utensils for events.
And for the future, I feel West African, Peruvian, and Brazilian cuisines are on the rise. There will be more plant-based options like Impossible meats, creams, snacks, and desserts. There will be healthier break options such as smoothie bowls. And there will be more requests for nutritional values printed on the event menu.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Cristi Kempf is executive editor at Convene.