Familiar, hearty, comfort food is as popular as ever with meeting and event groups.
Gourmet cuisine certainly has its place on meeting and event menus, but attendees are still ravenous for the familiar, often hearty, foods they grew up eating. Comfort foods are as popular as ever, for reasons that go beyond familiarity.
“It’s one thing for people to experience more exotic foods when they personally dine out at a restaurant, but when people are in a conference environment, they are focusing on the business or education at hand, networking, and getting back to the program after a meal,” says Heidi Wilker, CMP, principal of Brampton, Ont.-based Blessed Events, which specializes in event planning for religious and non-profit organizations. “To be able to simply have familiar, but healthy and delicious, foods means they can concentrate on what they are there for.”
Practical considerations also come into play. “As usual, [opting for comfort foods] primarily comes down to cost for my clients, as they are all non-profit organizations,” notes Wilker.
Recognizable foods are especially important with Blessed Events’ groups, whose demographic includes teens. “Youth delegates LOVE anything pasta — pasta bar, lasagna, mac ’n’ cheese — or hamburgers. Adults find comfort in stir-fries, stews with beef, chicken or turkey, and pasta dishes,” says Wilker.
As with any culinary category, certain comfort foods fall in and out of fashion. “I think that the youth have had enough of chicken fingers. Adults aren’t necessarily happy with shepherd’s pie,” observes Wilker. “But a good chili that uses chicken or turkey, mixed beans instead of just kidney beans, and some updated flavours like cumin and Sriracha (hot sauce) served with basmati or jasmine rice as opposed to the usual white rice, is a hit.”
At the Halifax Convention Centre, comfort foods often reflect local traditions. A staple item, for example, are donairs, Halifax’s official snack food, consisting of heavily spiced ground meat stuffed into a pita with chopped onions and tomatoes and slathered with a sauce made of evaporated milk, honey and garlic. The kitchen makes both the ground meat and the sweet sauce for its donairs, which are a big hit with attendees. “They love it,” says Christophe Luzeux, the convention centre’s executive chef.
Locally caught haddock is transformed into fish ’n’ chips garnished with tartar sauce and served in an easy-to-eat cone. Three other comfort food classics, poutine, mac ’n’ cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches, also receive a Halifax-style twist. In the poutine, the kitchen substitutes locally sourced crumbled blue cheese for the traditional curd, while grilled cheese sandwiches, built on apricot sourdough, highlight locally made smoked cheddar, which also adds depth of flavour to mac ’n’ cheese.
The convention centre’s kitchen also serves up raclette, a lesser-known cheese dish that originated as a European Alpine tradition and which, by any measure, qualifies as comfort food. Served at action stations, the dish involves scraping melted raclette (a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese) onto a plate and accessorizing it with boiled baby potatoes, cured meats, frisée salad, cornichons (tiny, sour French pickles) and pickled vegetables.
“Attendees are willing to try anything,” says Greg Smith, the venue’s director of food and beverage. “Every day, Christophe gets asked, ‘give me something different.’”
Attendees can finish a meal with that most traditional of Nova Scotia desserts, blueberry grunt. Similar to a cobbler, the dessert involves blueberries and sugar cooked in a pot along with steamed dumplings (as the dumplings cook in the blueberries, they are said to make a ‘grunting’ sound). The dessert is served piping hot and garnished with ice cream or whipped cream.
Locally themed comfort foods also abound at Fairmont Le Château Montebello, in Montebello, Que. The most elaborate option is the Sugar Shack menu that’s served family-style and requires a minimum of 40 people, who receive a crash course in traditional Quebecois fare: Game terrine; cretons (similar to pork pâté) and head cheese; pea soup; Chicoutimi tourtiere (meat pie); meatball stew; trapper’s baked beans; pan-fried potatoes; a pitcher of maple syrup; maple ham; pork grills; maple glazed carrots; maple mousse cake; maple bread pudding.
Traditionally served in early spring, the Sugar Shack menu is “really popular,” even on days when the temperature reaches 30˚C, reports executive sous chef Yann Gauthier.
Le Château Montebello’s groups can avail themselves of midnight build-your-own poutine buffets, where attendees customize their own creations with garnishes both traditional (cheese curds) and non-traditional (barbecue sauce, smoked meat, duck confit, black pepper-spiced vegetarian gravy).
Another of the resort’s large-format menus is the BBQ Dinner. Requiring at least 30 people, this feast dishes up chicken breasts in Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce; sausages and sauerkraut; grilled veggies; roasted potato wedges; six salads; and desserts that include s’mores squares, semi-sweet chocolate tart, garden berry pastry, and raspberry and fresh cheese mousse. For an additional per-person surcharge, add-ons such as pork ribs and fried chicken are available.
On a more modest scale, the resort’s kitchen brines and smokes its own meat and layers it on an all-dressed pizza; deep-fries bite-sized, panko-crusted mac ’n’ cheese croquette canapés; and sets up make-your-own soup stations offering chicken, beef and vegetarian broths and garnishes that include beef, chicken and diced veggies, rice noodles, edamame and orzo pasta.