Convention Center Chef Proves Big Meals Aren't Bad Meals

It's an oft-held belief that in the world of food, big quantities equal sub-par quality.

Craig Bianco,who was hired as corporate executive chef this summer by the RK Group—a San Antonio catering firm that oversees the San Antonio Convention Center and other venues—is doing all he can to eliminate that perception.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and a four-year stint at a leading San Francisco property, Bianco knows a thing or two about turning out a good meal.

MeetingNews listened while he worked.

Q: You've been changing the menus at the San Antonio Convention Center (SACC). What can you share about the new offerings?

A:
We have basics, like plated lunches and Mexican-themed receptions, but we added some gala dinners and a wider variety of salads, steak, and seafood.

A meeting planner may not have the budget for filet mignon, so we have skirt and flatiron steaks. In fish, I'm looking for whitefish alternatives, like Barramundi and Baja sea bass instead of Chilean. These are more economical options.

We're also swapping out big fruit or cheese platters for smaller plates we can replenish. This allows us to provide something fresher.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with these new menus?

A:
We need to be able to provide a nice meal for different tiers of service. For a group of teachers, we did lasagna, Mexican buffets, and things like that, but then in the past few weeks, we had some high-end groups in, so we had action stations (where guests have options for what a dish can be, like an omelet station) and sushi.

We hosted a gala for Wendy's, and I did a lobster salad, a morel-crusted steak with roasted fingerling potatoes, melted gorgonzola cheese, and a tomato, asparagus, and corn medley for 1,200 people, plus a seasonal dessert.

But the next day, we did 2,000 boxed lunches.

Q: Clearly, you are able to do many different types of meals, but how do you get potential customers to seriously consider having a banquet at a convention center?

A:
We want to prove that we can compete with River Walk hotels. So we're making our own stocks, and we're using vegetables and other items that are indigenous to the area—it's more flavorful and economical. But it's up to the salespeople, and us, to say, "This is how it looks, tastes, etc."

And then, we host site visits where we offer a tasting room right off the kitchen. I get really interactive with customers so that everyone in the room is in agreement. And we take pictures of everything so we can duplicate what was made for the tasting.

Q: Are you seeing smaller budgets or planners expressing more concern over cost?

A:
We're seeing full breakfasts go down to continentals, and we've noticed the receptions before dinner getting shorter—things like that.

Q: How are you dealing with those situations?

A:
When someone wants something, we do everything we can to make it work.

Q: Can planners request items that are not on your banquet menus?

A:
Yes, we're trying to customize more and not just push out a menu.

Q: You worked at the Westin St. Francis, where you did some cooking with celebrity chef Michael Mina (his signature, eponymous restaurant is there). What did you learn from him that's now in use at the SACC?

A:
I helped facilitate banquets based on his menus. So the business there was very similar to here.

Q: How can you make items from a restaurant menu, which are meant to be cooked a la minute (to order), in a banquet setting?

A:
We rethink how it's done, and we do it in steps versus one fluid action.

Q: As meeting and convention planners' budgets get further squeezed, what can they do to save money while providing quality?

A:
Ask questions in the tasting. I ask my purveyors, "What else do you have in this price range?" Planners can do the same thing with us.

Q: What's your favorite food?

A:
A simple pasta with a simple steak, or a roast chicken, and some seasonal vegetables. If they're cooked well, they're eaten right away.

Originally published Oct. 20, 2008