Cover Story: Veggie Power

For decades, the idea of a vegetarian entree at many resort banquets has been an afterthought or an alternative to the more exciting carnivorous dishes. The best a vegetarian attendee could hope for was a simple pasta dish, or the main course sans protein, or, if they were lucky, a good salad. Now, riding a wave of demand for organic, sustainable, and locally-grown produce, vegetarian entrees are taking center stage at many resorts' food and beverage service for groups.

Resort chefs say they are adding many options for vegetarians to their menus, with a new focus on taste and variety. These new dishes are anything but boring, and fuse together the spices and ingredients from a variety of world cuisines.

Vegetarian options are so much more [elaborate] than they used to be, where you used to just take the protein off the plate and send it out," says Gavin Kaysen, former chef de cuisine at Rancho Bernardo Inn near San Diego, current U.S. representative at the prestigious Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine Contest, and one of Food and Wine magazine's 10 best new chefs for 2007. "Today, vegetarians can enjoy just a great a meal as anybody else."

The Art of the Meal
The new vision of vegetarian entrees approaches an art form, with the food designed to look as good as it tastes, and equaling or even surpassing the attention paid to the protein courses.

"We did one vegetarian option that we called 'herb paint' where we took nine different herbs and made them into a pesto," Kaysen says, "and then on the plate we made a variety of textures of different vegetables—baby green zucchini, baby yellow zucchini flowers, baby eggplants, tomato confit—a bunch of different cooking methods on the vegetables. We try to showcase the vegetables for what they are."

In August, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts rolled out a brand-wide initiative to offer sustainable, locally sourced and organically grown food and produce to guests, giving a healthy boost to its vegetarian options for banquets. Brad Parsons, executive chef for The Fairmont Chicago, helped to shape the chain's new focus on "green" food.

"On our banquet menu we don't have any [set] vegetarian items," Parsons says. "What I do in the spring and summertime is go to the farmer's market and pick out some produce. Like yesterday, I went to the market and got some beautiful eggplant from one of the organic farms that we use and then we made a zucchini-wrapped eggplant and stuck it on an heirloom tomato with chopped basil and pesto for garnish."

Using locally grown produce benefits everyone, Parsons says, from the local farmers, to the chefs preparing the food, to the guests eating it.

"We like to support our local farmers, that's very important to us," Parsons says, adding that with fresh ingredients "the flavors are so much more intense and natural."

Small groups of up to 10 can also accompany Chef Parsons on his trips to the local markets, participate in cooking demonstrations and enjoy a specially prepared lunch using local produce. Other Fairmont properties, including the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto and the Fairmont Le Manoir Richeliu in Charlevoix region of Quebec, also offer this "Shop with Chef" option, along with other food-related activities.

Rancho Bernardo Inn also focuses on locally grown produce in its menus. "A lot of the banquet menus we have are derived from the produce we have down here in Southern California," Kaysen says. "We're very fortunate to have an abundance of beautiful vegetable entrees as options."

Balancing Act
At the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, FL, Executive Chef Earlest Bell and Sous Chef Hamid Salas take a more scientific approach to vegetarian food. Each dish is carefully balanced to provide complete nutrition for guests. Menus change seasonally, Chef Bell says, and a weekly calendar system helps chefs to incorporate local produce at their peak freshness.

"Every day we go over the vegetarian options for that day, and they range from risotto and pasta dishes to Mediterranean dishes with whole grain," Bell says. "The whole grains have more protein value in them. All of our vegetarian dishes have complete proteins, because we mix and match with legumes and beans."

Bell says the property has focused on offering seasonal, healthy options for vegetarians for the past four years, following customer demand for a greater variety of meatless dishes. Vegetarian options must now fulfill all senses, he says. Dishes must look good on the table, smell delicious with a variety of spices; texture is important and obviously the taste has to be superb. Exciting all the sense creates the "wow effect," he says.

"In the old days we were just making pasta dishes, like fettuccini or lasagna, and steamed vegetables. A vegetarian option was just something to get full off of," Bell says.

Now, the property employs chefs from a wider variety of culinary backgrounds, Bell says, and vegetarian menu options are inspired by the diversity. For example, one staff member from Morocco inspired many of the Mediterranean-style options and another two employees from Jamaica provided expertise on Caribbean flavors.

"We match our culinary skills with what guests want. You name the region, and we've got somebody from there," Bell says.

Staying Seasonal
Focusing on fresh, organic produce for vegetarian banquet options requires planners to be a little more flexible when arranging their event, chefs say. When Fairmont's Chef Parsons does a tasting for an event months in advance, he creates a menu that focuses on produce that will be in season during the time of the banquet, so it could be difficult to know exactly how a dish will taste until the ingredients are at their peak. Using locally grown produce also means that a chef might not use certain ingredients when they are out of season, though chefs will certainly revert back to non-organic, imported produce if a customer demands a certain dish.

"Some of the meeting planners are willing to adapt and most of them think that as long as you have the vegetarian option available, that's their main concern. Our convention managers work with the chefs to let planners know that the chefs are creating something for their specific group based on the seasonality of the product," Parsons says

If the banquet includes a menu card, it will indicate where and how the produce was grown, letting attendees know that the food on their plates is the freshest and healthiest options available.

Meeting planners should also allow the chefs a little extra time to prepare for the volume of produce needed for an organic banquet. A banquet would need at least five to 10 business days lead time for the chefs to contact their local partners and arrange for bulk purchases, Parsons says.

Chef Kaysen says he would need a little extra time to arrange an all-organic or locally grown feast for a group.

"Probably 80 percent of it is local anyway, so to find 20 percent more of the products wouldn't be such a big deal," he said.

Organic Development
While attendees and planners seem to appreciate a commitment to local, organic food, the Fairmont initiative is more proactive then reactive to market demand, Parsons says. Most meeting planners still do not ask for "green" banquet options, but interest is definitely growing.

"About eight months ago I had the first client ask if any of the products were organic," Parsons says. "At that point I started to talk about the organic products we were using whenever we did the tastings.

Chef Bell also stresses food origins when doing pre-banquet tastings with meeting planners, and explains his scientific approach to balanced amino acids and nutrition in vegetarian options. A group of 50 would need a lead time of 10 to 15 working days for special requests such as organic menus.

Many resorts are developing partnerships with local farmers or organic brands to meet the growing trend toward green food options. The Gaylord Palms tries to use local purveyors when possible, and incorporates many of the region's food festivals into its menus, such as the annual strawberry festival.

"My menu is all based on the area around here, so we do use local providers the best we can. Most people know that about 75 percent of produce comes from California, but we have greenhouses here that we work with," Bell says, adding that Florida citrus is a mainstay of the property's menus.

Fairmont has partnered with organic wine producer Bonterra Vineyards and The Metropolitan Tea Company on a chain-wide level, and has a multitude of partnerships between properties and local farmers. Parsons says he contacts his local partners before they come to market with an idea of what the property needs for the week, so that he can ensure the right produce is available.

Chef Kaysen says he also worked with many local farmers to obtain fresh ingredients for banquet service. One of the largest farms Rancho Bernardo Inn works with is just 10 minutes from the property".

"I think it's a growing trend for people to watch what they're eating and it's also a growing trend in Southern California for people to really enjoy the amazing produce that we have," Kaysen says.

Looking ahead, Fairmont's Chef Parsons said he expects the trend of organic, locally grown food to expand beyond vegetarian ingredients to meat courses.

"People are going to push more toward organic products. Right now, organic protein is a little bit pricey, but I see that coming down because of supply and demand. When that starts to happen, people will not only use organic produce but they are going to start using grass-fed beef and organic, free-range chicken," he says. "And there is already a push to use all wild fish rather then farm-raised fish."

Gaylord's Chef Hamid says he foresees a growing trend toward a greater diversity of vegetarian options for banquets, with more cuisine inspired by Indian or Asian dishes. Many chefs are taking those inspirations and creating new fusion vegetarian dishes for their banquet menus, he says.

"We use different flavors from each region," he says. "It's unique."

Originally published January 01, 2008

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