Food and drink are essential parts of event design. Here, event professionals share hot tips.
An event is remembered for many things — the venue, the programme, the keynote speakers, the atmosphere, and of course the food and drink.
F&B plays an important role in guaranteeing the success of any gathering, and each year organisers tweak their gustatory spread. They refresh offerings, rework menus, mastermind service techniques, try new ideas for canapés or banquet events, and offer new drink concoctions to make sure delegates aren’t subjected to the same old same old.
But such innovation is challenging, with food trends differing across markets in the APAC region, and planners needing to cater to all dietary requirements while delivering a memorable food experience within budget. What are the trends for this year, how are they being implemented, and within what constraints?
“Live and interactive food and drink bars are becoming increasingly popular,” said Lynell Peck, director of culinary at ICC Sydney. “Multi-sensory food and beverage experiences, such as live gin or whisky bars, and sashimi or seafood stations, give delegates the opportunity to watch their food being prepared right in front of their eyes and taste some of the finest spirits from local craft distillers.”
Healthy and sustainable food choices are at the forefront of organisers’ and delegates’ minds, with a preference for small portion sizes and less sweetness in dishes, and a focus on the fresh flavours of seasonal produce. This jibes with the rise in attendees requesting special meals, whether guided by medical conditions, lifestyle choices, or religious beliefs. “Plant-based and whole-food cuisine are now regular requests and our culinary team is able to create the finest of dishes that are equally delicious as well as being good for health and the environment,” Peck said.
Fermented drink is another growing trend notes Peck, with kombucha a popular choice for non-alcoholic beverages. The libation, believed to have originated in China, is tea based and usually fruit-flavoured with a balance of sweet and sour. “Our sommelier is known to serve it after lunch as a low/non-alcoholic digestive.”
Spicy cocktails, with ingredients like turmeric, is a trend that Mark Taylor, director of Belle Laide Events in Australia, has noticed.
Vegetables, once perceived as a forgettable side-dish, have now been elevated to hero status. “Many chefs are turning their talents towards creating signature dishes built around the adventurous use of vegetables,” Taylor said. “In some instances, this is called ‘root to stem’ where entire vegetables — skins, stems, flesh — are prepared differently and served as a prominent part of one dish.”
To complement the menu, presentation and service of the dishes have evolved. “Food courses across seated events are now accompanied by tailored sensory hits for moments of surprise and delight,” Taylor added. “We’re seeing more theatre being included and delivered to food and beverage service — from hidden messages on the table, UV menus with invisible ink to discover the dishes, and digital food stations where content is presented under the food selection.” Taylor also points to “mood food” — an awareness of flavours, combinations, and menu design that influences mood and emotion at the table.
While weaving drama can result in plaudits and praise, keeping food costs within a budget is key and can be achieved only by spending time with the culinary team, poring over options that will sate both the delegates’ palates and any accounting departments’ watchful eyes. “Memorable food doesn’t need to blow the budget … ever,” Taylor said. “We’re lucky enough to work with some of the best chefs and venues in the country, many of whom will always rise to the challenge, some even thrive on it! Event producers present challenges, not problems, and having strong relationships will ensure the ultimate result.”
Special diets also should not break the bank. “Delivering for dietaries does not mean taste, innovation, or cost have to be compromised and we have a wide range of dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian dishes,” Peck said.
A heightened awareness of food waste will also help to rein in costs, with menus designed to address any food waste in preparation and disposal.
While trends do vary between regions and cultures, Peck said the biggest influence in terms of food and beverage at events is driven by the demographic of the delegates, not the location where the event is held. “Understanding the demographic profile of our clients’ guests is one of the first questions we ask when we start preparing menu options for events. For example, the serving sizes, style of food, and manner in which it is served is often guided by their profile.”
For Taylor, “everyone is looking for uplifting, interesting and intriguing moments within the food service of live events. We are bound by this common thread” across the Asia-Pacific.
“Food and drink, Taylor added, “is an essential part of event design, in many cases more important than decor and entertainment. A good menu will respond to the brief for a particular event and is part of presenting a custom solution for clients. There’s storytelling at every level.”