For the chefs, restaurateurs and caterers serving the group market, the meetings industry’s heightened awareness of the “F&B factor” has only made their role more influential, if not integral, to producing positive outcomes that whet attendee appetites and leave them craving a second helping.

Embracing this role are four top chefs who get it right every day, as L.A.’s Wolfgang Puck, Toronto’s Donna Dooher, San Antonio’s Johnny Hernandez and Tony Clark, executive chef at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Casino Resort, dish on customer engagement, culinary journeys and other recipes for success.

Customer First
With his eponymous catering operation in 12 major group markets around the U.S., including Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas and his home base of Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck is the consummate authority on F&B and hospitality for groups.

Wolfgang Puck

“Customers in the U.S. are generally better educated about food than ever before,” says Puck, whose pioneering “open kitchen” concept, which he introduced at his famed L.A. flagship Spago three decades ago, has contributed significantly to today’s savvier diners. “Chefs can no longer hide in the kitchen, and I think that has helped us, because now we have higher expectations and more discerning tastes to meet.

“For me, that has always meant serving my catering customers exactly as I do my restaurant customers,” he continues. “Whether for a party of 1,000 or a dinner for two, it’s the same Spago risotto or Chinois lobster, cooked restaurant-style.”

For larger functions especially, Puck believes the traditional F&B model at most major hotels must evolve.

“They know how to sell the rooms, the space and the event, but the faster, easier, ‘prepare beforehand and warm it up’ approach to the food is finding less favor with today’s customer,” he says. “I think we may see more outsourcing of catering to specialists as a result.”

Another shortcoming he sees is that hotel banquet chefs, typically distracted by meetings and paperwork, are not always on the scene.

“I tell chefs all the time, bring your stations onto the show floor, and be out there cooking, because customers want that interaction,” Puck says. “What better result than when people tell you directly that the food was fantastic?”

For Puck, the ultimate success is creating an irresistible experience that creates repeat business.

“Following my Oscar party one year, Michael Caine came to Spago and requested the same dish for him and his family,” Puck remembers. “That is the result you want for meetings and events.”