F&B: How Sweet It Is

Chocolate can be lacy, swirled, structural, or molten. It can be a filling, an accent, or an entire meal. Whether it's the silken slather of decadence atop a perfect strawberry or slim sheets of dark, sweet taste formed into a logoed box holding pillow-gift candies, chocolate could well be the most versatile of gourmet foods. But that's just one of its virtues.

"People get so excited about chocolate," says Dana Zemack of Cambridge, MA, who educates chocolate lovers at tasting parties and whose website, www.thetastyshow.com, showcases her devotion to chocolate. "It's a very unusual connection, and one of the strongest connections to a food item we have."

"Everyone wants chocolate. Everyone can relate to it," says David Ramirez, executive pastry chef at Orlando's Rosen Shingle Creek Resort. "It's sexy, romantic, indulgent," says John Brazie, executive chef for The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center, near Houston, TX.

Another word that keeps coming up in relation to chocolate is "fun," so it's a great choice for any planner to balance a business-heavy agenda. In fact, many chefs say chocolate is more popular and appreciated than ever. For meetings, then, here are some uses.

Hold a Tasting
At microbreweries or wine bars, the tasting menu includes "flights" of beer or wine to allow a neophyte the chance to educate his palate. In that vein, a Chicago bar called ENO now offers flights of chocolate to those seeking to develop their appreciation of different types.

ENO opened in November, and Scott Harney, wine director, says there has been interest from meeting planners in tasting events that pair different wines with chocolates. "You can choose them in advance, but often people choose the wine first and let us choose the chocolates. We ask them to trust us a little."

Located inside the InterContinental Hotel, ENO is interactive and educational, featuring not just chocolate and wine, but cheese too. There are two featured chocolatiers: Gail Ambrosius of Madison, WI, whose chocolates are all handmade, using no preservatives; and Sarah Levy of Chicago, who "does more whimsical things," according to Harney, like "gourmet versions of haystacks." Because she is local, she's available to do educational sessions on what makes gourmet chocolate taste so good (the short answer: the higher percentage of cocoa solids versus sugar and vanilla, although bean quality and roasting time are also important). Meanwhile, Ambrosius' website, www.gailambrosius.com, provides a primer on the beans chocolate come from, called cacao.

Show Your Colors
Chocolate has a long history as a pillow gift, but what's different today is your hotel may well have the capability to do a special creation in chocolate just for your attendees. The building blocks of such confections are provided by companies like Chocolates à la Carte in Valencia, CA, but the unique creations are often finished by the pastry chef or executive chef at the hotel.

Chef Peter Laufer at the InterContinental Houston has done customized chocolate mints or a special truffle box as a part of the turndown service. For example, a trucking company wanted a mini dump truck made of chocolate; an arts group wanted a piano. Interestingly, a company logo can be screen-printed right on the chocolate, as if it were a T-shirt.

"People appreciate something customized but that doesn't mean they're going to eat it," Laufer says, "because everyone is so health-conscious. Also it's so nice to look at. Sometimes attendees take it home and put it on a shelf."

Monica Passin, a New York City artist, sells animal-print chocolate bars (packaged in hinged gift boxes) that would make for exotic pillow gifts. "They are patterned after actual animal skins," she says, and they're made from high-quality Belgian chocolate. Animal Planet on the Discovery Channel is one entity that's purchased them in quantity.

Passin also uses Scharffen Berger, one of the premium American chocolates, in her products. In addition to the animal prints, she has a product called Laissez Les Bon Bons Roulez, and gives the profits to art students in New Orleans. These come in cellophane bags, tied with ribbon. To order, go to www.paintergirlchocolates.com

Entertain with Chocolate
Chef Ramirez at Rosen Shingle Creek does chocolate centerpiece-building demonstrations for curious attendees. He does very intricate work, but intrepid bystanders can join in.

In fact, Ramirez is a champion centerpiece builder, having constructed structures six feet tall. His team even took first place at the 2005 National Pastry Championship. The World Pastry Championships, where he also competed recently, will run on the Food Network in March. For groups, though, Ramirez makes less intricate items. "The goal is to just make people smile," he says, "just to make them relax and enjoy the demonstration."

Often the centerpieces he does for groups include a logoed piece of chocolate. "I can airbrush it through a stencil, or order a silkscreen," he says. Either one is done with cocoa butter. He explains the techniques as part of the demonstration.

On the West Coast, Janet Rudolph runs a Berkeley, CA, company called TeamBuilding Unlimited that features a "chocolate challenge." She divides the group into teams of four or five people, furnishes chocolate-covered graham crackers, M&Ms, chocolate Gummy Bears, Hershey bars—"anything you can think of that is made of chocolate. We go for different shapes, sizes, and textures, not high-end chocolate."

Groups then compete to build a structure. One HMO firm had its teams build their ideal hospitals. Another group set its teams to designing resorts. The result "has to stand up on its own and, except for the white cardboard base, has to be completely edible," says Rudolph. Teams are given about an hour to design and build, and then they have to present the results. "Half the fun is explaining why they did what they did," she says.

From Soup to Nuts
Chocolate is a different sort of challenge for Chef Brazie of The Woodlands, who has unleashed his creativity in designing four-course dinner menus in which every course has a chocolate element. "Everybody says, 'I can do that.' " And they're thinking of something like a molé with chili peppers and chocolate, he says. "Well, that's one course." The entrée, he says, "is the easy one, the low-hanging fruit." The difficult part is the salad.

On one menu he shared with SM, the salad was garnished with chocolate mint. "It's a kind of mint, but the aroma is unbelievable—when you smell a piece there's an absolute chocolate sensation. But it tastes just like mint," he says. He served it with smoked pheasant slices and a mango slurry.

Creating a menu that uses chocolate throughout requires balance, he says. "Don't think of chocolate as a chocolate bar. Think chocolate as a spice." Meat, for instance, can be seasoned with a touch of cocoa. "You can use cracked cacao beans with a leg of lamb, in much the same way you'd use a coarse black pepper."

Chef Brazie has done the four-course chocolate menu with groups to great success. The first time, he had 25 Exxon meeting planners and staff, all women. "I was behind the bar making shooters and Mudslides with Godiva liqueur. It was a great event. We went over the top." One of the keys, he says, is having more women than men in the group. Why? Because of chocolate's "perceived sensuality."

Originally published Feb. 01, 2007

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