CLEVER caterers know: One of the best ways to get event guests up and interacting is not to bring the food to them, but to bring them to the food. That's why the food and beverage experts at busy event properties are serving up stations.
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With his 23-year tenure with Marriott, food and beverage director Frank Schveninger, CMP, now with the Overland Park Marriott in Overland Park, Kan., has learned a thing or two about station presentations. And one of those things is just how much a smart station setup can move guests.
Schveninger recalls an event that his catering staff created for repeat client Sprint, where food stations were incorporated into product exhibits on the event floor. “People had to mingle around,” he says, and the stations “nicely persuaded them to move through the room.” To foster good flow, “We looked at the popular items and made sure they were spread evenly through the room,” he adds.
On the topic of popular options, the F&B director notes that intriguing platings, whether warm or cold, are hot for corporate event stations. On the cool side of Schveninger's offerings is a sliced duck breast cornet filled with a bouquet of greens and cranberry glaze, presented on a painter's palette, and a chilled curried carrot soup with coconut milk and avocado cream, served in a shot glass. Warm bites might include pan-seared crab cakes with remoulade sauce, served on a sizzling platter, tilapia filet wrapped in banana leaves, or jerk-rubbed pork loin with habanero salsa, offered in an Asian spoon.
Following the current restaurant trend is his clients' increased demand for “small plate” stations, Schveninger notes. To satisfy the hunger for diminutive dining options, he puts together plates that represent a smaller version of full sit-down meals. Presentations such as a little plate of grilled beef tenderloin and basil salmon roulade served with creamy polenta and asparagus doesn't just give diners a chance to sample a variety of flavors, but ensures those flavors are enjoyed at their ideal temperature. With conventional setups, where starch, vegetable and protein are served at different stations, “By the time the guest is finished standing in line, everything is cold,” Schveninger explains. With small plates, food is served at its proper temperature, and guests get “smaller portions, with larger variety,” he says.
Another catering veteran — Karen Curley, CMP, of Atlantic City, N.J.'s bustling Tropicana Casino and Resort — notes that the leisurely pace of buffet dining is an advantage for special events.
“A buffet style of service allows the guest the flexibility to dine at their own pace rather than being served on the timed schedule of a plated meal,” says Curley, the hotel's director of catering and convention services.
But make no mistake — an easy pace does not mean a plodding party. On the contrary, action stations are big winners with the property's corporate clientele, Curley notes. Among the Tropicana's most popular are a chef-in-attendance station featuring assembled plates such as foie gras-filled braised short ribs on a bed of cheesy grits with fresh herbs.
Making a memorable dining experience also is the impetus behind the Tropicana's striking “Trillion's Buffet.” The setup includes a sumptuous vodka and caviar bar, a seafood station — complete with “mermaid” — featuring shrimp cocktails and lobster tails, and a server-attended short ribs station, where guests can get small plates of braised ribs wrapped in pepper bacon and crispy potatoes with foie gras demi-glace.
Other elegant station presentations at the Tropicana include individual lobster pot pies in a demitasse cup or soft-shell crab over Asian noodles served in a miniature Chinese take-out container with chopsticks. Thoughtful wine pairings — California Chardonnay with the lobster, and German Riesling with the crab, for instance — further raise the buffet bar, the catering director adds.
At Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel and Resort, where giant guest counts are the norm, station service makes a big impression.
According to the property's executive chef for banquets and catering, Jason Harrison, stations “are typically chosen for the interaction with chefs, whom we place in the room to cook the food a la minute.” Harrison keeps staff levels and station counts high; a cadre of chefs working many stations “gives us a chance to provide custom menus, and the freshest possible food to each guest, even for events in the 2,000 to 3,000 range,” he says. “Stations are set throughout the rooms, and the guests can experience different cuisines in different areas of each event, with decor at each station to match the style of food.”
And high style is a hallmark of Bellagio stations. An Asian-theme station dinner, for instance, may include chilled items such as tiger prawn pad thai served in whole coconuts, vegetarian summer rolls, and shredded green papaya salad with beef, all presented on ice tables with ti-leaf bases — no platters, Harrison notes. The requisite action element might be a Peking duck station, where a chef assembles moo shu crepes filled with julienne duck, cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce.
But just because the Bellagio's buffet presentations are beautiful doesn't mean they're pretentious. Indeed, Harrison's stations — whether serving up summer-truffle risotto with fresh chervil and thyme oil, asparagus and shaved prosciutto salad with fresh figs and Meyer lemon dressing, or lavender-crusted rack of Colorado veal — create comfort for guests, he says, allowing them to “mingle, be social and network with more people than they could at a plated event.”
Bellagio Hotel and Resort, 702/693-7111; Overland Park Marriott, 913/451-8000; Tropicana Casino & Resort, 609/340-4000