The New Culinary Creatives

Seems like everyone’s a foodie these days. Really, who doesn’t know about “farm-to-fork” cooking, small batch wines, and some celebrity chef’s favorite little haunt with five tables accessible only by mule train outside Hanoi? Then there are all the chef’s table cooking classes—once the province of mostly elite groups—which have now become ubiquitous.

That’s a good thing. When group dining is interactive and educational, it serves up great networking opportunities, healthier bodies and a more sustainable ecosystem. On top of that, restaurants are keeping pace with ever more creative designs inspired by the local fresh market, a global jetsetter hotspot, or maybe a media mogul’s industrial loft. So what’s next?

“This year especially, it’s about the butcher and the charcuterie,” says Ellen Burke Van Slyke, creative director of F&B for Loews Hotels, based at Coronado Bay in San Diego. While the focus on creative food continues to evolve, she says the menu also has to satisfy the preferences of three basic profiles in a group: meat and potato traditionalists, health-conscious diners, and the adventurous types who want their meal to provide a sense of place.

“Cheesemakers are also hot,” says Burke Van Slyke. “We find more and more farmstead cheeses and artisanal cheeses. And that all connects to the whole cultural shift about wanting to know what we eat and where it comes from. That’s the biggest trend that planners are hearing.”

Groups also want “experiential dining,” she adds, with action stations where diners interact with the chef as well as chef-lead classes and demos. “People really want to have that experience with the chef. They want to watch the chef, watch the techniques, watch how he or she picks ingredients and partners them.”

More current cuisine trends include international street food, microbrew “craft beer” and “sentimental sweets” like cupcakes and Whoopie pies.

Meanwhile, Loews’ branded meeting break and dinner experiences are signature events tied to specific locations, such the company’s “Adopt-A-Farmer” program—a company-wide initiative where each property supports at least one local farmer.

The newest restaurant in Loews’ stable is Eleven at the recently opened Loews Atlanta, featuring New Southern cuisine. The kitchen’s large brick oven is an intriguing visual while earthy browns, beiges and mood lighting create an intimacy and sophistication balanced by urban artwork from local artists. The menu is a combination of Southern staples with a Mediterranean twist with mainstays like collard greens, sweet potatoes and squashes accented with the rich and fragrant European spices of cumin, coriander, saffron and the like.

“It’s the farm-to-table concept. We’re supporting the regional, local food growers and offering organic simple food,” says exec chef Olivier Gaupin. “We’re responding to what the people want: healthy eating in a beautiful setting.”

Try the hickory smoked chicken with Parisian gnocchi casserole or Fudge Farm pork tenderloin lacquered in molasses. For groups, Gaupin says, “There’s a gorgeous breakfast bar, kind of like a breakfast nook, that can accommodate 20-30 people. It’s a great place for demonstrations and cooking classes. It’s just waiting to be used like that.”

NEW TEXAN ORGANIC SPORTSBAR The new 600-acre JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa is the largest JW in the world, where executive chef Ryan Littman chooses menu ingredients from local producers and the resort’s own 5,000-sf organic garden. That includes the bar food at the hi-tech High Velocity Sports Bar, equipped with televisions in the booths and one colossal, curvy 120-ft screen and sports score ticker. Think: NASCAR/NFL/NBA nirvana. The cuisine is just as creative with 24 local craft beers, a fresh juice cocktail collection and the group-friendly “Sample Tower.”

“The signature dish for all of our High Velocity bars in our company is the High Velocity Sampler Tower,” says Brian Marandola, director of restaurants. “With 24 wings, four beef ’n cheddar sliders, four barbecue pork sliders, cheese fries and onion rings, the plate sits about 20 inches tall!”

Hill Country cuisine is on the menu at Cibolo Moon, including barbecued brisket and the signature Bison Meatloaf. The main dining area seats 150, adjacent to the 138-seat patio and 84-seat Tequila bar featuring tequilas aged onsite. Three private and semi-private rooms host 24 each. And at the more formal 18 Oaks restaurant, prime cuts of Texas grass-fed beef are headlined by the fat Windy Bar Ranch Ribeye. Private dining options are the 12-seat Vintners and 50-seat Cherry Bark rooms.

Just down the road, Houston CVB launched a series “Where the Chefs Eat” culinary tours to provide groups an insider look at the locals’ favorite independent ethnic restaurants and artisanal grocers. Each tour includes four stops, where attendees will enjoy meals based on generations-old family recipes, as well as explore the unique food marketplaces whose selections influence the locally-driven menus of each chef.

The sold out 2010 lineup included tours such as “Taste of Asia,” “Grocery Stores & Ethnic Markets,” and the Mexican-themed “Tour-o de Mayo” with Houston Press foodwriter Robb Walsh and local chef Hugo Ortega. Other tours include the “Houston BBQ Trail,” “Southern Comfort,” “Chinatown” and “Momma’s House.” The 2011 slate of tours will be announced in September, or inquire about customized private group programs.

LET’S DO ITALIAN One of the nation’s most fascinating strongholds of Italian-American cuisine lies inside the historic Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence. It’s the kind of place where ravioli is still handmade by little old ladies every day and men twirl pizzas with physics-defying dexterity. Named for the romantic old Federalist manors lining the streets, this lively urban niche is home to about a mile of authentic Italian restaurants on Atwells Avenue.

“Our culinary scene is really what Providence is known for,” says Nadine Mollo, program manager for the DMC, Sullivan Custom Planning. “We have Johnson & Wales University, where some of the country’s best visiting chefs teach. Emeril Lagasse went there.”

The school is also home to the Culinary Arts Museum, housing Presidential china and 19th century wood-burning stoves.

“I’m into fresh and that’s the best thing about Federal Hill, everything is fresh,” says Mollo. “We taste a little from each spot. At Venda, we might try prosciutto and stuffed artichokes; at Scialo, we’ll have fresh bread and pastries and then watch them decorate elaborate cakes in the back.”

And at Geppetto’s on Depasquale Square, groups can go behind the counter to test out their pizza-making skills. Mollo says, “You can make your own dough, make your own pizza and then sit down with some wine and have it for lunch.”

SOUTH FLORIDA BEACH FOOD Just 20 minutes from Palm Beach International Airport, the little waterfront community of Delray Beach has become somewhat of a heroic local story about mid-century architectural preservation. The area looks and feels much like it was generations ago with a relaxing vibe and retro Main Street shops and restaurants.

The Seagate Hotel & Spa celebrates that classic Florida feeling one block from the beach. The 4-story, 162-room boutique is graciously designed with large balconies open to the breezes, 2,300 sf of meeting space and an 8,000-sf destination spa.

Last year, the hotel opened the striking British Colonial-style Seagate Beach Club directly on the soft sand, with all-white wood terraces for dining below large palm frond fans straight out of Key Largo. Executive chef Adam Gottlieb, formerly of the Palm Beach Yacht Club, serves a broad mix of fine dining cuisine from Maine lobster bisque to Nebraska tenderloin with bearnaise.

“The beauty here is you’re meeting in a laid-back, bohemian seaside town with all the amenities of a full-service beach destination,” says GM William J. Sander, III.

South of downtown Miami in the leafy ex-artist colony of Coconut Grove, The Grove Isle Hotel & Spa sits by the water ensconced in native flora that seals it off from the hustle of the city. For years, locals have come here to dine by the bay because you’re never rushed, service is unassuming, the cuisine takes center stage and the fragrant ocean breeze softens the humidity.

Groups can gather either inside the oceanfront Gibraltar restaurant or adjacent outdoors on the terrace. We like the organic chicken with spinach, bacon and mushrooms designed by exec chef Jeff O’Neill who previously worked for Donald Trump.

It took a little time but the The Palms Hotel & Spa in Miami has finally won its due. The 251-room beachfront resort just a few blocks north of South Beach was voted “Best Hotel” in the city by the locals last month, following a $20 million renovation that restored the classic Bahamian lines of the building’s bones to their original unadulterated beauty.

What’s the reason for the groundswell of local support?

More Miami, less MTV.

The overall ambience is that of the dream Florida beach house circa 1960s, with large hammocks hanging over wide open shaded terraces, sandy trails leading around the pool, and all kinds of natural woods and fibers minus any type of edgy South Beach designer this or that.

The organic feel especially lends itself well to the restaurant Essensia and one of the city’s most sustainable menus. Just a sampling of local food includes Florida yellow tail snapper with steamed baby bok choy, black Thai sticky rice and red Thai curry sauce. Also look at the sweet chili-glazed lollipop pork chop with boniato puree and granny apple relish. Outdoors seats 120.

NEXT GEN LAS VEGAS LUNCH Touting itself as “Discreet luxury right on The Strip,” the new Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas represents the next generation of the city’s evolution from ostentatious freewheeling indulgence to tasteful and graceful. If Prevue goes for lunch in Vegas, we’re making a beeline for MOzen Bistro and one of the 4-course tasting performances including: Thai crab salad in coriander, ancho chili and pork potstickers, and a Carolina barbecue “72-hour short rib” finished off with a red velvet apricot parfait, persimmon stone fruit tartar and mojito sorbet. Oof.

The industrial Zen mood of MOzen and the pale minimalist decor strike a touching tone of respite and restraint below the three circular glass and steel rod chandeliers. Quite the right place to quickly pop into for an easy epicurean escape from the fast pace outside.

There’s only one downside to eating lunch at MOzen. It will get you thinking about dinner upstairs at global grub god Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist and his Maine lobster in a cake of foie gras. Yep, there goes the budget. But check it out all the same, and if you do book, save us a seat.

LES QUEBECOIS + PROVENCALE If you’re flying your group 3,700 miles to Provence this year—bon appetit. If not, check out Osco! in the InterContinental Montreal, voted locally as the Best Hotel in Montreal. Part of the property’s recent $14 million renovation, Osco! embodies the down-to-earth, French brasserie concept with a warm country kitchen ambience, updated with a cosmopolitan designer decor filled with chartreuse banquettes and Chihuly-style chandeliers. The effect brings to mind the simple pampering around the pastoral south of France in chic towns like Arles and Aix-en-Provence.

“Osco! provides our groups with a true Provençale dining experience while enjoying a stunning décor and the view of Riopelle Park,” says executive chef Christian Lévêque. “Our signature dish, the lobster bouillabaisse is simply out of this world because we’re using only top quality local ingredients.”

Chef Lévêque adds that the new wine cellar holds 800 bottles, and it’s no surprise that a good chunk of the wines come from the south. He says the new 80-person InterContinental Club Lounge serves daily canapés and cocktails also featuring authentic Provençale flavors, and there’s a private room with a fireplace for quiet fireside meetings. Lastly, the new 100-seat Sarah B. lounge features “a fun, colorful and extremely tasty tapas-inspired menu that has had a tremendous success with our clientele.”

Be sure to ask about the “Gourmet Extravaganza”—a full day tour led by Lévêque of key Montreal locations such La Mer fish market, La Maison du Roti and the Jean-Talon Market. The event concludes with a private cooking class followed by dinner in the Salon la Rotonde—a circular private dining room with seating for 14 at the Murano glasstop table.

SUPPIN’ WITH THE SWEDES The Radisson Blu Strand Hotel is a historic Stockholm landmark property overlooking the city’s languid waterways. With its multi-story ceiling bringing in sunlight from the top floor and indoor balconies encircling the space, the Strand Restaurant creates the illusion of dining al fresco.

The menu is based on classic Swedish dishes updated for today’s palates, such as Beef Rydberg with mustard cream sauce, Toast Skagen with dill and baby shrimp, and a signature spring chicken with truffles and herbs.

Mostly unfamiliar in the States, the “Blu” brand is Radisson’s designer flag representing historic, design-savvy and/or boutique properties championing striking style and important settings. The Strand is a perfect base camp to explore the charming streets in the old Gamla Stan district, the Modern Museum of Sweden and Östermalm’s designer shops and food halls. Or hop aboard one of the must-do cruises for a long afternoon while sailing along Stockholm’s rivers.

Polar opposite to the Strand’s fare, the futuristic fusion food at F12 Restaurant “offers groups a new approach they have not met anywhere else,” says chef Danyel Couet. The dishes and flavors are elegantly delicate yet intense, with an artistic expressiveness like the langoustine with apple mint, or Basque duck liver terrine paired with white peaches.

The spring green and clubby modish decor is as ephemeral as the food. The designer Scandinavian furniture and contempo paintings from the local Wetterling Gallery blend sweetly with the premises, housed inside the ex-cafeteria of the Royal Art Academy. For private dining, book the F12 Salongen room seating 65 diners, followed by cordials in the F12 Terrace Night Club overlooking Lake Mälaren and the old city. F12 also caters elegant 4-course group dinners aboard the riverboats.

DINNER ON THE DANUBE “Budapest is a 19th century gem on the Danube and one of the most gorgeous cities in Europe,” declares Peter Gomori of the Hungarian National Tourist Office and with just cause. The capital of Hungary is a treasure trove of museums, churches and palaces dating back to medieval times, with many of the restored structures available for meetings and conferences. And running down its center is the Danube River, spanned by five graceful bridges connecting the two cities of Buda and Pest.

And since the country is not yet on the Euro, Gomori says, “Hotels, conference services, venue rental—everything that is necessary for meetings—can cost 15 to 20 percent less than other European capitals.”

Regarding the many cultural influences in the local menus, he adds, “Hungarians have been occupied by various nations for most of their history and that has left traces in our cuisine.” Such as Dobos and Sacher tortes, or somlói galuska—sponge dumplings with chocolate sauce, rum and whipped cream.

So we asked Gomori where he likes to go for dinner.

Alabardos Restaurant, he says, is a centuries old gothic palace offering a modern interpretation of old Transylvanian and Hungarian recipes. In addition to the Room of the Knights with seating for 42, Alabardos also has several smaller rooms: a 400 year-old Gothic Terrace, the Chestnut Garden and the Lower Terrace, with live classical music and candlelight further enhancing the medieval atmosphere.

The elegant Art Deco lines of the Baraka Restaurant in the Hotel Andrassy are resplendent in 1930s romance, with black wood furniture complemented by rich aubergine and charcoal tones and handcut silver mosaic columns. Its equally cosmopolitan menu features dishes such as beef carpaccio with goat cheese, New Zealand rack of lamb and an extensive dessert menu.

The ’30s come alive again in Dunapark Café with an Art Deco interior providing the backdrop for Mediterranean, Far Eastern and Hungarian selections: tagliatelle, baguette sandwiches, stir-fried pullet breast with jasmine rice and wiener schnitzel, to name just a few. Diners can round off the evening with a game of cards and malt whisky, like they’ve done here for 80 years, on the second floor gallery overlooking the café.

And inside a meticulously restored landmark palace, the 179-room Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest is one of the crown jewels of the city, embodying the essence of the Art Nouveau style with soaring winter gardens, sweeping staircases and vaulted ceilings.

The hotel is well known for one of its restaurants, the Gresham Kávéház (Gresham Café), which harkens back to the years preceding WWI when East European intelligentsia gathered here to discuss culture and politics. In the same true coffeehouse tradition, groups can meet here for up to 60 pax while taking afternoon tea and desserts below the magnificent glass cupola.

The cuisine of Gresham Café includes both Mediterranean-influenced offerings and new interpretations of traditional Hungarian dishes. Try the trio of foie gras: au torchon with strawberry jam; scallop with cinnamon roasted peach, and a tokaji reduction mille-feuille with red currant.

Following that, the hotel will arrange for customized group activities to the Széchenyi Bath, antique shopping and a tour of the workshop of leading Hungarian fashion designer, Katti Zoob. The hotel has 8,200 sf of conference space including several breakout areas offering views of the city: Pava, the glass-ceilinged Télikert (winter garden); Tárgyalo and Széchenyi.

MODERN. MAJESTIC. MONACO. The Buddha Bar restaurant conglom operates in a collection of 16 of the world’s most intriguing, powerful and trendsetting cities from DC to Dubai, with a decidedly sensual ambience and range of menu choices like the Japanese-Californian fare in Paris. Last month, Buddha Bar Monte Carlo opened in the Belle Epoque Casino de Monte Carlo, with a wildly eclectic decor and multi-culti demeanor aimed at bringing a new generation of out-of-town business folk to the glam principality.

The Zen ambience is created by a harmonious mix of materials, colors and works of art that unite the tranquility of the Far East with ultramodern elements of the West. The overall effect is designed to be serene and soulful for 160 in the restaurant or 100 in the bar, each available for private bookings. And the Asian-inspired fusion foods are accompanied by the karmic, mystical tunes typical of Buddha-Bars around the world.

For somewhat more traditional dining in one of Europe’s grandest setting, the Vistamar restaurant reopens this month in the 227-room Hôtel Hermitage that’s stood sentinel over Port Hercule, not far from the casino, since the turn of the last century. The absolute pinnacle of Old World finery, the Salle Belle Epoque pink marble columns and crystal chandeliers vividly complement the winter garden capped with an eye-popping glass and steel dome designed by the architect of the Eiffel Tower.

This is going to be one of the biggest restaurant openings of the year in Europe, so we’re going to help you get started with masterchef Joël Garault’s Michelin 1-star menu. We’d like to suggest the white truffles with either scallops and bittersweet mushrooms or breast of guinea fowl. With a nice Montrachet.

FOOD WITH A SIDE OF FOOSBALL You’ve never seen a cafeteria-style restaurant like The Campus at Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. The new events/dining venue is a replicated collegiate setting complete with a 140-seat Lecture Hall, a 60-seat Union Hall, the Shakespere-filled Reading Room, and The Cafeteria with live cooking stations ranging from noodle bars to hot dog stands. Visitors can also choose from upscale menu board offerings such as Cornish pastries and artisanal meat and cheese charcuterie plates.

“The Campus was conceived to evoke the nostalgia and romance of university life and inspire creative thinking, with the Einstein and Chopin photos in Union Hall, for instance,” says Sammy Carolus, marketing director. “It opened in May 2009 and we’ve already held over 1,500 events in there.” Carolus says that about 50% of the groups have been US-based, including those from Exxon, Hewlett Packard, Coca Cola and Citibank. “The forward bookings are very positive and the feedback has been incredible, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Part of the reason for that is the easy-going ambience where executives grab popcorn, roasted nuts and soft ice cream before playing a game of pool.

“We had a manager from IBM playing foosball here with his staff. I mean, where else are you going to see that?” asks Carolus. He says the value is another big reason for the popularity. Rooms run $150-$180 nightly and a full-day meeting package in The Campus is just $40, including all the ice cream you want.