1. The sharing trend
Rather than a traditional buffet, organisers are more often opting for shared plates and grazing menus where dishes are scattered along the table and guests can help themselves. But more and more the food is becoming part of the event styling, like in the case of Gold Coast catering business Your Platter Matters. Owner Megan Fernandez started her business after putting together a medieval-style food platter for her own birthday party. Now she creates platters for all types of events, sometimes for 200 or more guests, and her creations are both delicious and oh-so-Insta-worthy.
Fernandez says people are choosing the platter option over traditional catering as it’s cost effective and allows for more social interaction.
“These days, people want to reconnect over good food and they are opting for a less formal style of dining and socialising,” she says. “This type of catering gives people the variety to please almost any guest and to eat as much or as little without feeling obliged to finish the plate. It’s usually much cheaper than the formal, sit-down dinner style and people can keep going back for hours.”
Fernandez says there are a few rules to follow when styling platters for events.
“Always take your dips, olives and other goodies out of the original containers and be sure to swap them for something a little nicer,” she says. “Add as much colour as possible and chocolate, don’t forget the chocolate!”
2. Food gets interactive
Interactive food stations that allow guests to decorate their own desserts or watch their meal being prepared is another big trend in the conference and event space. The Star Sydney Event Centre offers an extensive range of interactive stations, from live sushi bars to waffle carts with endless choices of toppings. The Star Sydney executive chef Jason Alcock says many organisers opt for a sit-down entrée and main, followed by a stand-up dessert with a variety of food stations, giving guests the opportunity to interact with other guests and even the chefs.
“With the amount of cooking shows and the growing media around food, I think more and more the guests want to see the chefs at the front and being involved in their event,” he says.
“We see a lot of clients having live stations for a dessert as they find that’s a better way to end their night, especially if they have live entertainment, to get everyone up, roaming and interacting.”
Alcock says with the amount of dietary requests that large events often bring, live stations give guests the flexibility to choose what they want.
“Interactive stations give guests that choice and flexibility, and it gives them the ability to go up and identify what they can or can’t eat,”
he says. “Then if they’re unaware, I think they feel a little bit more confident to ask the chef because they know that’s the person that has prepared the food, so they have that underpinning knowledge.”
3. Ask the dietitian
Many venues are enlisting the help of professional dieticians and nutritionists to guide their menus. Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre (BCEC) partners with accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist Kerry Leech to help build menus and seek advice on how to best fuel conference delegates. One part of her job is to help educate people on how to make healthy choices, which can be especially difficult in buffet situations.
“Buffets and shared plate types of meals can give you great options, but they can be really risky at the same time,” says Leech.
She says the way in which buffets are arranged is critical.
“To make it easier for people to make healthier selections, you put the salads and vegetables out first and that’s what people put on their plate,” says Leech. “Then they can top up with a source of protein and then if they need it, a source of carbohydrate for a bit of fuel. It’s those small things that we can psychologically change how people do things.”
The International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney) joined forces with nutrition scientist and dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan to help guide the menus ahead of the centre’s opening late last year. McMillan says she is proud of ICC Sydney’s focus on delivering balanced menus and supporting local suppliers.
“I love that they were so forward thinking about recognising the role that nutrition plays not just in our long-term health but in our day-to-day ability to use your brain, to concentrate, feel energetic and to feel good,” she says. “What you’ll find at the ICC is restaurant quality cuisine but much lighter, higher-protein meals, like ceviche, sushi and salads, that actually help you to concentrate through the afternoon.”
4. Dietary requests
While dietary requirements aren’t anything new, what’s new is the approach venues and chefs are taking to ensure these special meals taste just as good as the real thing. Alcock says The Star Sydney aims to create “inclusive” dishes that can be tweaked for certain requirements, rather than serve a completely different meal to someone with a dietary request.
“The new menu that we’ve created is focussed on how we can incorporate that dish to be gluten free, or alcohol free, or lactose free,” he says. “We look at how we can create an amazing dish and make it relevant to all of our diners.”
BCEC’s solution to the growing trend of dietary requests was to install a dedicated dietary kitchen, to ensure care and consideration goes into every meal. The centre has also made 75 per cent of its entrées and mains gluten free to address increased demand.
McMillan says the gluten free trend is something we probably won’t see the end of any time soon.
“It’s a major problem for convention centres, for restaurants, cafes, for any of us holding a dinner party,” she says. “Growing up I hardly remember anybody ever having a special diet, other than the odd vegetarian. And now chefs are faced with it every day.”
She says chefs can tackle the issue by equipping their kitchens and developing their knowledge about nutrition.
“[ICC Sydney executive chef] Tony Panetta works very carefully to make sure the same dish can be adapted more or less to suit several different diets so that’s quite a clever move forward.”