Sure, cooked-to-order service for banquets is a profitable upsell from buffets and can pull groups that buffets would not. But the reality is that unless a la carte or cooked-to-order menus are executed just right, they might actually present lower quality food than would a well-executed buffet.
Overseeing menus for banquets and functions in 80,000 square feet of event space at the Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, Executive Chef Russell Sleight believes he’s found the right method to deliver impressive a la carte food and cooked-to-order presentations—allowing the hotel to attract higher-price-point clients.
Many of Sleight’s banquets feature restaurant-quality, cooked-to-order menus, with dishes not placed in hot boxes. It’s critical, he says, to put food out right before doors open and not leave it sitting long in warmers. The result is a “cleaner way of eating,” says Sleight, who reports his team can execute for groups up to 1,500 and 2,000 at that same level. “It doesn’t take any more staff to do it the right way, just more organization and dedication to making sure everything is done precisely to what the guest is looking for,” he says.
Popular a la carte banquet dishes include blackberry-smoked duck breast on hickory wood (perceived to have a “cool look,” Sleight says) and different seafood items on individual plates with a “glassy” look on the plate that “looks like ice.” He’s also starting to “really hone in” on a lamb riblet with a spicy peach BBQ sauce. “It’s a one- or two-bite appetizer. It’s nice. It’s clean. It’s more of a refined, upscale Southern appetizer and gets a great reception from the guest.”
And guest expectations in banquets, Sleight observes, require moving in this direction. “You should be able to give the customer as high a quality food in a banquet as you do in a restaurant,” he says. “To do this, it takes a little more coordination with your FOH staff and a little more flexibility with your culinary team. If you can get those two to hit on all cylinders, it’s a very easy task. There are so many times hotels will have the bad reputation of having banquet chicken that’s rubbery or has been sitting in a hot box too long. I try to get that restaurant feel in my banquet arena by doing this. A lot of it has to do with menu choice—giving the guest a menu choice that doesn’t particularly take an execution time that’s going to be too long a wait between courses. Or enhancing the cooking in the room itself, with the people, as they’re eating their salads or first course.”
Sleight doesn’t think buffets or by-the- numbers plated menus have a stigma. He sees the decision on those falling on financial lines. Cost-conscious groups will lean toward a less expensive menu item or a buffet. “You can still execute it with excellence, but your choices may be less elaborate.”
Here are the hotel’s keys to success in pulling off the higher-priced affairs.
1. Assess the Type of Event
First, Sleight looks at the group’s program—is there a presentation, or is it an awards banquet, etc. “The program dictates how much time we’ll have to do particular things,” he says. “A lot of things we do may not be particular to a guest ordering off a menu versus doing it right in front of them or right there when the function goes off. If you have a super-large group, to execute by giving them a menu would be impossible. But to execute while they’re doing it, so that it comes from the oven to the plate to guest, that’s our main objective. We don’t put it into the hot box to hold the food, just to transport the food.”
The biggest group they’ve done “true” a la carte menu for (letting them choose an entree before they sit down to eat) is up to 300 people. “We let the individual people choose what they wanted between two proteins. Because they had two courses before that, we were able to do it a la minute.”
For much larger groups of 1,000 people and up, they cook to order. “We’re not going to fire anything—cook the food—until everyone is in. As it’s plated up, it goes right out into the ballroom.”
2. Timing is Everything
Sleight says this approach for larger events does not necessitate more labor; it’s the timing between BOH and FOH that matters. “You may need two or three more people for stewarding, but the culinary execution and waitstaff is the same number of people,” he says.
3. Technology is Your Friend
Two combi ovens are key for Sleight. “You download the recipes, pre-sear some items, then put them in the oven, and it finishes automatically,” he explains. A blast chiller helps at the beginning of the process. “When we’re blanching or searing, we can chill it down instantly and hold the quality of that product as if you just seared it and went to the table.” Emergent circulators hold food at a constant temperature for a long time without diminishing the quality of the product.
Sleight says the combi ovens are efficient and produce a higher quality food. “The size of the oven allows us to cook more food at one time, instead of batch cooking. We can cook up to 350 pieces of chicken breast or steaks at one time. The ovens have performed extremely well for us. We really enjoy using that oven.”
4. Go Into Action
For larger groups, they cook all food in the room in front of the guests, using action stations, to order. “An example is we may have someone making the ravioli at the pasta station and then another guy cooking it,” says Sleight. “We’ve taken the hot box aspect of a la carte out of the equation. We’ll prep everything and then set our stations in the ballroom and cook to order.”
5. Critical Collaboration
“The collaboration between the banquet department and the culinary team has to be stellar,” Sleight says. “Every person in the operation has to do a job, and if one person doesn’t meet the expectations, then the whole team is going to go down. It’s about holding people accountable and teamwork. Our collaboration between the FOH and BOH is stellar.”
“We are in constant communication to execute our shared vision,” Director of Banquets Steve Grayson says. “From pastry to culinary to banquet to event management teams, we meet to review all banquet event orders every day. This applies to our client relationships as well. Our banquet team checks in with our clients to ensure we are exceeding their expectations. We even plan pre-events before the actual event with all key players, including the client, hotel management, and leadership.”
Tad Wilkes is editor of Hotel F&B