Clever Carly: Creating a Culture-to-Table Experience

Carly sits down with Chef Brad Nelson at Marriott to get the scoop

Hi Planners! It’s Carly here.

As humans, there are a number of characteristics that separate us from our mammalian counterparts. But of all those differences, the fact that we view food as a rich sensory experience––rather than solely as fuel––might be the most pronounced. As an event planner who likely pours hours of planning into a single meeting menu, you’re probably already privy to this. But while a rousing food presentation is a surefire way to dazzle attendees, if you want to truly engage them, you’ll need to turn that menu into an actual story––one that marries the surrounding community’s culture with the unique tale behind the chefs themselves.    

I sit with Chef Brad Nelson, VP of Culinary Discipline & Global Corporate Chef at Marriott International, to discuss this “culture-to-table” concept, and how planners can incorporate it into their own meeting agenda. 

First things first. What exactly does the term “culture-to-table” mean? 

“It’s an expectation from guests that the dining experience being offered is reflective of the surrounding area. By crafting a culture-to-table menu, you’re incorporating ingredients and flavor that is culturally significant to the meeting.”

Simple enough! In the event a planner wants to inject local flavor and culture into their cuisine, what are some key considerations to keep in mind? 

“There’s not necessarily a particular formula. However, the idea is to encourage attendees to experience a new idea or theme that fits into a genuine, authentic framework. You can’t exactly say you’re going to do a themed dinner without actually having some sort of personal connection to that theme.”

So it sounds like the goal is to avoid stereotyping. 

“That’s correct. It’s absolutely necessary to have a representative of the culture you’d like to feature––you need to be absolutely genuine. For example, maybe you have a chef on staff originally from southern Italy. He or she might be able to conduct an interactive station that spotlights pasta-making or another culinary skill.”

Although incorporating a genuine tie to a community is critical, how does the individual factor into the “culture-to-table” concept? 

“Again, the central focus is on genuineness. Oftentimes, our team will source for local artisans to come to a specific property or meeting to share their product or philosophy––whether that’s a charcuterie maker, local farmer or seafood worker. The individual just needs to illustrate how those ingredients being used tell their particular story.” 

Could you share some notable examples of properties telling a unique story with their menu?

“Plenty! We’ve tapped into the talents of a local pottery shop in Charlotte, North Carolina called Haand. The company designs modern, high-quality pieces that we’ve put on display––alongside the company’s story––at our Charlotte Innovation Center. At our Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, there are actual honeybees on the roof! Our JW Marriott in Venice is situated on the secluded Island of Roses, the youngest isle in the Venetian lagoon. There you will find a very unique cooking school where the chef loves to give customized classes. And the JW Marriott in San Antonio has relationships with several nearby farms and ranches to source local produce and meats. But even for those properties that don’t have their own private islands or bee hives, the key remains: keeping the menu as real, legitimate and pure as possible. 

Making a “real” and “genuine” meeting menu experience is probably easier said than done. Any tips for planners on actual application? 

“Make sure you sit down with your team and the culinary team to try to craft a unique experience that incorporates multiple perspectives. You have to consider: Is there something you’re proud of doing? Don’t just rely on numbers to justify what you’re doing. It’s more about personal interaction with a culinary team to create something genuine. Above all, there needs to be a story, cause or purpose behind the meal. Attendees want to feel like they are a part of something real.”