Culinary Curators

Engaging F&B isn’t just for guests at the James Chicago; it’s busting into breaks.

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The James Hotel Chicago on the Windy City’s Magnificent Mile prides itself on a “guest-centric” philosophy of catering to the body, soul, and mind of its clientele. Business travel, however, rarely allows visitors a chance to soak up those healthy amenities that Denihan Hospitality Group’s luxury boutique hotel excels in providing. To inject a little excitement, energy, and enjoyment into business guests’ days, the property’s F&B team has assembled a slate of cultural, instructional, and culinary activities meant to take meeting breaks to a more engaging level.

“The idea started as a way to translate the experiential components of the James stay into a meeting setting,” says F&B director Jacob Schwimmer. “Since many of the guests for meetings are traveling and aren’t able to explore the area, the curated meeting breaks are a way to experience our restaurant and other aspects of the hotel during their stay.” The list of meeting breaks offered is heavily weighted toward F&B, and most of it is contributed by in-house experts. “From an F&B standpoint,” adds Schwimmer, “it’s an ideal way for someone who may only be here temporarily for a meeting and isn’t able to dine with us to experience the hotel’s F&B options.”

BEEF, BOURBON, AND BEYOND

The culinary curated breaks, which accommodate 15 to 40 people and run 30 minutes, highlight those F&B options in intimate presentations from the knowledgeable staff of the property’s onsite steakhouse, David Burke’s Primehouse. The curators reveal to guests the world of exotic teas and chocolate or guide them through a tasting of Kentucky bourbons. Primehouse’s sommelier instructs groups on various styles of Cabernet Sauvignon in the “Uncorked” break and challenges them with a blind tasting.

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From tastings of Kentucky bourbons to tours of the Primehouse beef aging room, the curated breaks allow meeting attendees to truly experience the hotel’s F&B options.

The most popular break is “The Art of Beef,” in which Executive Chef Dino Tsaknis teaches guests about the beef dry-aging process and takes them on a tour of the restaurant’s aging room. This is not a mere walk through a meat locker; the Primehouse aging room is temperature- and moisture-controlled and tiled with Himalayan salt to produce tender, perfectly marbled meat—including a 55-day aged ribeye and a 20-ounce bone-in filet mignon—and to intensely concentrate deep beef flavor. At the end of the session, Chef Tsaknis offers tastes of dry-aged mini-burgers, charcuterie, and “beef sashimi.”

Sinisa Srdic, director of catering and conference services at the James, works with groups to choose which breaks are appropriate and to tweak what’s available if they so desire. “All of the meeting breaks are customizable through our catering team when booked in advance, so we are able to adjust a break to better suit a client’s interest,” says Srdic. “For instance, instead of the Bourbon Tasting curated meeting break, we could do a cocktail class or a different specific spirit.” Srdic says organizers often try to select offerings that are more interactive and engaging to enhance the refreshing and refocusing aspects of the break.

THINKING ON THEIR FEET

Besides the F&B-related topics, some breaks offer the aspirational and inspirational. Through The James Cultural Collection program, the hotel tries to foster a strong relationship with local artists, performers, historical organizations, and artisans. The curators might be representatives from the community showcasing topics in their area of expertise, such as the famous Second City improvisational troupe promising to teach business guests how “to use acting skills to be a better listener, think on your feet, create and innovate quickly, and communicate powerfully.” The hotel partners with worthy causes as well. Their “Break to Give” break allows guests to learn about their local non-profit partner, Common Threads, which teaches kids and their families healthy eating habits.

To keep things fresh for return bookings, Schwimmer and Srdic and their team update the options every spring based on feedback from previous groups and ideas from any new partners they are working with, says Srdic. With the success at the James Chicago, the James New York offers its own menu of out-of-the-ordinary breaks. “The Cocktail Experience,” an introduction to mixology, continues the F&B theme, but yoga and massage therapy sessions are also available.

Organizers have come to see that the curated breaks are well worth the small additional price over that of the ubiquitous coffee-and-pastry-cart break at other hotels. The cost to organizers for the curated breaks runs between $19 and $25 per person. Schwimmer points out that the breaks are not actually profitable themselves but do affect the bottom line.

“[The curated breaks] occasionally provide additional revenue, but it’s more about providing an engaging experience and allowing our talented F&B team to show its skills,” says Schwimmer. “We find that groups who book the curated meeting breaks do return for multiple visits.” Input from organizers and individual feedback from attendees have been positive and share the perception of being reenergized while at the same time being intellectually or creatively stimulated by the presentations.

Denny Lewis is a Hotel F&B veteran based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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