Discover the Top Food Trends for 2014 Meetings

A key ingredient at any great meeting is the food. Breaking bread, after all, is a universal icebreaker. But food and drink can play a powerful role in other ways too, so Meetings Imagined chats with Brad Nelson, Marriott International’s award-winning corporate chef. As vice president of culinary, Chef Nelson oversees food and beverage strategy for 15 brands and 3,700 hotels in 73 countries.

Q: How important are food and drink choices and services in terms of affecting the overall experience of a group at an event?

The emotional aspect can’t be underestimated. The food has to be fresh, and it’s got to taste good, but it also has to tie in the quality of the organization. Food and beverage has a direct role in the outcome of a meeting.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions meetings planners have when it comes to serving food and drink at a meeting?

I think there’s a misconception about what people say they want and what they actually select to eat, but you cannot discount the importance of having choice and variety. Often, the belief is that people want to eat healthy, but given the choice, they don’t always select it. Another misconception is that people want to be adventuresome. I think they do want to try new things as part of the adventure of traveling, and that works best with passed hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. This is one reason we see so much success with cooking stations based on unique and authentic preparations, call it “street food” if you want. Something like dim sum would be more adventurous. You could go with potstickers, but probably not chicken feet.

Q: Last year, you said that designer maple syrup and QR codes were on the “in” list for food and drink. What do you forecast as the top culinary trends for 2014?

There are a couple of macro trends happening. First is local, organic and seasonal. The next would be wellness attributes—food that satisfies both allergen and dietary preferences. We used to see 5 percent saying “I’m gluten-free” or “vegetarian.” Now we’re seeing as much as 20 percent saying that. Gluten-free is such a big deal that in a lot of conference hotels, we’re just designing the entire menu to be gluten-free. The focus is on cleaner labels, more transparent ingredients and foods that carry perceived or intrinsic health benefits, like blueberries and Greek yogurt. We’re also seeing more cage-free eggs, steel-cut oats, quinoa, and spices such as turmeric. The overall trend is people want to know more about what they’re eating.

There’s a misconception about what people say they want and what they actually select to eat.

Q: What are some of the most surprising food choices you’ve seen served at your meetings or events recently?

Some of the most interesting things I’ve seen are items like Buffalo cauliflower, a flavor profile that people recognize (everyone knows Buffalo wings), but inverting the idea from a protein-based center to vegetable-based. I’m seeing a lot of pickled vegetables and a lot more kimchi. There are more Mediterranean-style foods, more flatbreads with interesting toppings, and anything in a taco shell—you can thank the food trucks for this trend. Tacos have taken on a combination of Latin and Asian. I’ve seen Korean tacos, portobello tacos, and even octopus tacos.

Q: Everywhere we go these days, we see kale on the menu. Is this just a fad or is this leafy green here to stay?

My theory on kale: It’s easy to grow, and it grows all year. We’re just seeing more uses for it. Kale chips are a great example. I don’t see it going away, but I don’t think it will always be the center of conversation.