“Please pass my compliments to the chef,” is a phrase event planners love to hear from their corporate dinner or banquet guest. Sadly, it rarely happens. Food feedback only tends to occur following a dining disaster.
Post-meal inquests are common: the food wasn’t correctly prepared, it was served too slowly or too quickly; the wine didn’t match the main course; the dessert was too heavy; the vegetarian options were too limited.
These are just some of the common complaints event planners must greet with a smile and an apology.
Preparing lunch or dinner menus is a multi-layered process. Each menu must consider a range of interests and often involves a committee of decision-makers.
The heavy red wine favoured by the sales director is disparaged by his deputy, the client’s conference manager, who advocated the foie gras appetiser and cannot understand why it would be unsuitable for the vegan keynote speaker. The CEO’s assistant calls to remind you that he never eats pasta after a long flight. And so the drama continues.
Tastes, flavours and dining etiquette in Asia are extremely diverse and creating a suitable menu will depend on many key variables, including the time of day (is it breakfast, lunch, brunch or dinner?), the theme of an event, the number of delegates, the range of planned dining experiences before, during and after an event, and the quality and availability of local produce.
Input at an early stage from the chef and the venue’s food and beverage (F&B) director is also crucial; their experience can help pre-empt any unwanted food faux pas.
“I enjoy eating around the world and I love to play with ingredients to find dishes with different tastes and textures,” says Justin Quek. The Singaporean celebrity chef is one of Asia’s leading interpreters’ of French cuisine, and earlier this year he opened Le Platane, a two-level lakeside restaurant in Xintiandi, Shanghai.
“My cooking is a journey through cooking techniques. Everyone brings a different taste, whether it is cold, pan-roasted, seared or from a cast-iron pan. But the result is always very simple, natural modern French cuisine. I like to be flexible, not old school.”
Quek also co-owns Le Petite Cuisine in Taipei and is author of a new cookbook Justin Quek: Passion & Inspiration. Menu preparation, he believes, is a learned art and one that considers all aspects of dining.
“For me, the wine always comes first and the food second when I am preparing a menu,” he says. “Food and wine matching is very important. For example, a lot of Chinese people love French food, but they don’t know how to start. As a fluent Mandarin speaker, I can explain each dish to them and the wine for which that dish was created. Personalised service is very important in this regard.” Though born in Singapore, Quek has a rich knowledge of French cuisine, garnered through training with Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche and cooking in some of France’s finest kitchens. But when it comes to food preparation, Quek prefers to go back to basics. “My seasonings are very simple: rock salt, olive oil and big peppercorns but not soy sauce, as that kills the taste of the wine.” Refined cuisine served in small dishes is Quek’s speciality, but with “very little butter and absolutely no ‘make-up’. The food should be very natural.”
The garrulous gourmet chef loves to discuss food just as much as he enjoys preparing it. As we talk, he points to some freshly-delivered chunky white asparagus on the bar. “These could be from Spain, but they are grown in northern China. They are fabulous,” he says, with a glint in his eye.
“Already, I am thinking how best to cook them; maybe with some Yunnan ham and potato. And the morel should be arriving soon, too. I love to cook with ingredients that are fresh and in season.”
International fine dining can be a menu winner in certain circumstances. But regional Asian food is also popular with delegates, particularly in a local setting.
Surrounded by hills and tea plantations and located beside the spiritual Xi Hu (West Lake), Hangzhou is one of China’s most evocative cities.
On the Map
Located 150km south of Shanghai, Hangzhou’s natural assets have long made the city a popular tourism destination; now, increasingly, it is an “on-radar” location for corporate meetings and events.
“Hangzhou is very strong for corporate events. Business meetings are really helping put the city on the global map,” says Betty Li, director of food and beverage at the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou.
Two years after opening, corporate events account for a significant part of its business.
Louis Vuitton hosted its Asia-Pacific conference here in 2005. In April, the CEO of a world-famous cola brand was spotted dining at its signature 28 Hubin Road restaurant and one of China’s highest profile businessmen, Jack Ma, president of Hangzhou-based Alibaba, often drifts through the lobby where his company holds regular management seminars.
As the city’s profile rises, menu planning for banquets and events has evolved, says Li. “We now focus on tailor-made event dining. Banquet menus used to focus on big bowls and large portions, but that has shifted to an emphasis on freshness,” Li adds. “If possible, we like to put a live cooking station into the ballroom, so guests can see the chef in action and appreciate that the food is fresh.”
The 28 Hubin Road restaurant specialises in Hangzhou cuisine, as well as dishes from neighbouring cities such as Ningbo, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shaoxing.
Li says the executive chef is the “secret weapon” for tailor-made menu planning.
“He talks to the clients in advance, and they appreciate his advice and experience, giving them more confidence. He also develops the menu so that the dishes can be pre-tasted.”
Shoots and Leaves
“Compared to Cantonese or Sichuan cuisine, Hangzhounese is more home-style. It uses only fresh ingredients and includes no colouring,” says Li. The dishes also incorporate Zhejiang’s multiple varieties of bamboo shoots. “There are so many types, and they work particularly well with chicken and meat. Bamboo shoots are used in many of our soups and braised dishes.”
Signature Hangzhounese dishes include Beggar’s Chicken, filled with bamboo shoots, mushrooms and pork wrapped in a lotus leaf and baked in clay; and Dongpo Pork, marinated in soy sauce and Chinese herbs then steamed to remove much of the fat, and served with chestnut pancakes.
Corporate-event menu planning can successfully adapt the flavours and tastes of regional cuisines, Li says, but there are key considerations – such as whether the menu is for lunch or dinner. “Lunch menus should be lighter and the meal shorter, because mid-day dining is usually a break between working sessions. Usually, most people have to go back to work in the afternoon,” she says. “Dinner planning needs to consider that guests will be more relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves. Evening dinner requires more consideration for pairing of wine and food.“
White wine, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, pare well with Hangzhounese cuisine, says Li, noting that wine sales now account for 68 percent of the hotel’s beverage revenue. These figures represent an ongoing shift in Chinese banqueting, which has traditionally been associated with strong liquors, such as fiery bai jiu, which is gulped down in synchronicity, following rapid-fire exhortations of gan bei (empty the cup).
The concept of multiple shared dishes is central – but not exclusive – to Chinese dining. Spanish tapas is a form of dining that has soared in popularity around the world in recent years, and Asia is no exception. Creating a tasty and diverse tapas menu for event delegates, however, requires considerable pre-planning.
“You must always search to see what ingredients are available in the market before you create the menu,” says Jose DaSilva, co-founder of Indalo, a fine Spanish tapas restaurant located in a two-storey villa in Shanghai’s French Concession.
Indalo’s Barcelona-born chef and co-founder, Albert Servalls, has worked with, among others, Ferran Adria – ranked by Time magazine as one of the World’s 100 Next Wave Innovators – at the legendary El Bulli restaurant in Cala Montjol, Spain.
Such experience of cooking for high-profile guests is beneficial for all aspects of hospitality management, says DaSilva.
“Celebrities are very sensitive, so preparing menus for them sharpens your awareness of seeking to be perfect. It also teaches you to pay attention to the smallest details,” he adds. “You become better at anticipating what people want.”
Indalo’s name hails from Andalucian, but the restaurant’s menu is largely Catalan, with complementary flavours from across Spain. Since opening in 2006, Indalo has regularly catered for small private groups, and has hosted a series of special wine dinners. “Wine dinners are great. That’s where the real creativity of the chef comes out to develop a special menu to complement the different wines,” DaSilva says.
“For group dinner or lunch menus, we listen to what our clients want and then create a sort of shrunken tapas selection.
“With tapas, there can be a variety of dishes and flavours. It has some parallels with Chinese dining,” he says.
While wine is consumed liberally with tapas in both Spain and Portugal, DaSilva recommends an easier match: Sangria.
“Our red wine sangria has red wine, gin, cherry brandy and orange juice, and the white version has white wine, triple sec, rum and apple juice. Both match well with tapas, and, of course, both have lots of fresh fruit, which makes the sangria taste very fresh,” Da Silva says.
Betty Li – Hangzhou is very strong for corporate events, business meetings are really helping put the city on the global map taste, perhaps the most intimate of the five senses, has traditionally been considered beneath the concern of philosophy, too bound to the body, too personal and idiosyncratic.
Mix spoke to Carlos Monterde, Hotel Manager of Raffles The Plaza, Singapore for his advice to organisers.
1. Talk to the hotel
In planning the menu for an event, event planners should work hand-in-hand with the hotel’s banqueting team. Menus should be painstakingly planned to match the cuisine to the event and to the tastes of participants.?
2 Set the agenda
Consider the requirements imposed by the location (such as availability of equipment) and personal needs such as vegetarian food for the health conscious. Once this is decided, our chefs may style the cuisine and presentation to set the mood and fit the theme, if any.
3 Buffet or sit-down meal?
In deciding whether to have a sit-down dinner or a buffet, event planners may decide depending on the type of event they are hosting. A sit-down dinner is more formal and makes the participants feel more pampered, while a buffet tends to be more casual, akin to an outdoor atmosphere of fun and a terrific way to decompress and enjoy one another’s company.
Buffets offer a bountiful and rich presentation, with varied selections for different lifestyles, while allowing participants to interact with one another easily as they move along the line-up of delicious food.
4. Think about your theme.
For a special theme, we will suggest a menu that perfectly reflects the essence of that particular culture or region. We may suggest serving whole roasted pig, baked macaroni and cheese and pineapple upside-down cake at a Hawaiian-themed “Pig Roast’ party, or grilled steaks served with sautéed mushroom, onions and peppers, baked potato, butter and sour cream for a Tropicana-theme event.
5. Wine: red or white?
The rule of thumb of red meat/red wine applies on most occasions. However, sophisticated customers, who are well travelled and knowledgeable, like to pair old world chardonnay with veal or softer pinot noirs with turbot.
6. Always communicate.
The most common source of problems is the lack of effective communication between the event planner and the customer prior to the event.
7. Special diets
We have special kitchens, which cater for religious dietary preferences and, as far as possible, we try to accommodate our guests’ requests. We try our best to obtain information such as allergies, diabetic, lactose intolerance, or other dietary restrictions of participants from the organisers before we decide on what food best to serve at the event. However, as a precautionary measure, we make it a point to inform the guests of the ingredients used.