Cuisine, Make It Healthy

Pancakes with fresh fruit toppingJacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, dined with her husband at Maurice Chevalier’s country home where an elegant but extremely small-portioned meal was served. After the delicious but insubstantial meal, the party retired to the host’s study where Chevalier asked, “What would you like to drink, Jacqueline, ma chere?” “Maurice,” she replied, “I never drink on an empty stomach.”

Had Susann’s dining choice been at The Peaks Resort & Spa, the meeting haven situated in Telluride’s Colorado Rockies, her hunger would have been satisfied. Additional benefits are that she also would have received a boost to her energy and a bonus to her health.

The 177-room mountain resort offers Peaks Performance Spa Cuisine, described by spa director Gayle Brady and executive chef Eamonn O’Hara as an assortment of energy-boosting, low-fat dishes using local produce and resulting in the creation of healthful cuisine with a regional flair. In testimony to its universal appeal to the tastebuds, half of The Peaks’ restaurant patrons order the spa cuisine.

Each Peaks Performance menu item is very low in fat – deriving less than 20 percent of its calories from fat – and is prepared with no butter, oil or cream, with calorie and fat grams specified on menus.

In addition to optimizing guests’ mental energy, especially those in attendance for business meetings, these nutritional food samplings are also designed to provide the physical energy boost necessary to participate in the variety of activities only a Rocky Mountain resort can provide – from skiing and snowmobiling in winter to horseback riding and whitewater rafting in summer.

Kelly Stratton, consulting manager/meetings services with Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, OH, believes the popularity of spa resorts, accompanied by their nutritional yet tasty spa cuisine, has helped meeting planners implement the healthy-eating concept.

In Tucson, AZ, Loews Ventana Canyon’s restaurant spa menu is reflective of this philosophy in its imprinted mission statement: “The Flying V spa selections provide an innovative balance of food created from high quality, healthy ingredients. Selections are prepared from combinations of organic, local and other products.”

Showcased on this menu are selections such as scallop ceviche with mango, lime and serrano chiles; grilled salmon burrito with black beans, goat cheese and cucumber salsa; chilled orange and tomato soup and roast breast of mango chicken with Arizona greens, quinoa and cucumber, topped with tropical-fruit-chile vinaigrette.

But beyond providing healthy eats, Flying V’s chef Rich Koby offers additional suggestions toward making meeting meal functions both fun and healthy:

Rick Adams, the resort’s spa director, adds a couple of tips for healthwise meeting functions:

Offer chair massages for each attendee. Provided by licensed therapists directly in the break area, the stress reliever can last between five and 20 minutes. This break can be complemented by ordering the Fitness Break menu. The healthful menu includes fruit yogurts, assorted granola bars, whole fresh fruit, sodas and mineral waters, regular and decaffeinated coffee, tea, herbal tea and Knudsen nectars.

Incorporate 15-minute stretching breaks into meetings, billing them as the seventh-inning stretch. An additional benefit is that attendees can use these same techniques in the office upon returning to work.

Even New Orleans, America’s best-known gastronomic meeting headquarters, is attuned to the meeting industry’s newfound health scene, says Carling Dinkler, founder of Custom Conventions, a locally based destination management company.

“You may laugh because down here everything is so rich. People do come to eat the food. But there are probably a dozen classic New Orleans dishes. We’re just lightening their preparation,” says Dinkler.

A health-conscious group of 1,500 representing the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) incorporated this New Orleans-style cuisine into its opening party. Designed to re-create the excitement and fanfare of a World Series, the function used two floors of historical Gallier Hall, New Orleans’ first city hall, featuring nine food stations designated The First Inning, The Second Inning, etc.

Healthier food items include flavored flour wraps filled with grilled shrimp and seasonal vegetables, lightly pecan-battered trout sautéed in a light lemon butter and grilled chicken and pineapple with a sweet-and-sour glaze.

Even restaurants are following this healthier lead. “They’re [restaurants] still going to do crème brulee but we’re seeing more pastas, more salads. Everything’s gone lighter,” says Dinkler, New Orleans’ meetings-industry veteran.

Meeting planner Brian Robinson, vice president, sales and marketing/meetings and conventions with Expert Travel, notes that within the past several years meetings have been going lighter. “Clients are opting for healthier foods – fruits, vegetables, salads, non-fried foods and chicken and fish as opposed to beef.”

At a recent golf tournament for the healthcare group MedImpact, San Diego’s Sheraton Hotel and Marina served turkey burgers, meeting Robinson’s request for a healthy yet hearty lunch for the sports-prone group. The meeting planner emphasizes, however, that healthier dining is more easily accomplished with sufficient lead time rather than planned at the last minute.

There is an unexpected bonus for incorporating healthier cuisine into a meetings venue. “From our experience,” says Robinson, “lighter eating usually goes hand-in-hand with lighter budgets.”

Monetary benefit is also noted by Shelley Kluwin, catering manager of Tampa’s Saddlebrook Resort. “In recent years, I’ve noticed that half of our bar setups do not include hard liquor. We have more requests for virgin daiquiris and alcohol-free smoothies. When it comes to the bottom line,” says Kluwin, “it does help.”

With respect to the healthier eating habits of today’s corporate and incentive groups, Kluwin adds, “They still want the special dessert at the end of the last night’s awards dinner but lunches, breaks and other meals are going lighter.”

Along these lines, Kluwin notes the resort’s catering team is requested to cut back on many traditional food items like red meat, mayonnaise-based salads, cheese and heavy sauces. Energy foods are popular break choices, along with refreshing spritzers and bottled water (many cases are served daily).

Surrounded by the excitement of New York City and in conjunction with the 627-room executive-class Millennium Broadway hotel is the Millennium Conference Center, a 100,000-square-foot, five-floor meetings complex with dedicated food and beverage service provided on a separate dining floor.

“As chef for a conference center, I recognize that our guests are usually attending a conference for a full day and frequently for several days,” says Peter Bellisario, the center’s executive chef. “We need to provide food that will power our guests through their day, as well as give them food that’s exciting to eat.”

When creating menus for the conference center, Bellisario strives to provide variety. For each of the center’s buffet lunches, five hot entrees and 10 cold salads are offered. This variety is to ensure that there is something for everyone. “I also take great pains to be sure that no one menu item is repeated during the week, so guests staying at the conference center have a varied selection throughout their visit. And if a group stays here for lunch and dinner an entire week, that’s 100 salads,” says Bellisario.

Menus for breaks are based on the same philosophy. No one item is repeated. And the same rules for the types of foods being served apply – heavy foods, even as a quick mid-morning or afternoon break, are banned. “Upon returning to a meeting, an attendee should feel recharged. That’s why we provide light cakes that aren’t too sweet, such as our Valencia orange loaf, light and airy with just the right amount of sweetness,” says the chef.

Capable of rising to the challenge of working within somewhat restrictive food parameters is executive chef James Boyce, Loews Coronado Bay Resort in Southern California, who was recently responsible for catering the food needs of a group of 400 attending a seminar conducted by fitness and wellness guru Deepak Chopra. The food rules were simple: vegetarian and low fat.

To accomplish this culinary feat, Boyce, who has worked at such noted properties as The Phoenician and Caesars Palace, used non- and low-fat cheeses, tofu and several varieties of baked polenta. He also created curries with no cream and devised several Southwestern-style meal items where good taste was achieved with peppers and chilis as opposed to the use of salt and oil.

“Vegetarian is no longer steamed vegetables and salad,” says Chef Boyce. Two of his favorite vegetarian dishes are crabcake-style couscous with tomato and vegetable lasagna. Final tips the chef shares with the meeting planner to preserve the taste of healthy cuisine are: 1) Defat classic recipes and 2) Don’t resort to steaming everything (alternatives include sautéing and grilling).

Rob Pounding, executive chef of Oregon’s Salishan Lodge, assists the meeting planner in making every dining opportunity a healthier one. Chef Pounding offers planners the same tips he uses himself.

In conclusion, Chef Pounding says the move toward healthy eating is reflective of dining tastes in general. “The conference market mirrors the nation’s eating trends,” he says.

With the research and attention to detail modern chefs are putting into decreasing fat and calories – using fresh herbs and creative ingredient combinations to increase flavor and eye appeal – today’s meeting attendee is far more likely to anticipate and savor each healthy meal than to fear starvation or secretly order pizza.

Editor’s Note: Since the time that the above pieces have appeared in print, it is possible that the status of the periodical, personnel, contact information, pricing and other details may have changed.