Perhaps nowhere is the group dining scene more competitive than in Las Vegas, where mega properties with scores of F&B celebrity-chef-branded restaurants vie for the attention of delegates and individual diners alike.
“Every celebrity chef has a space here in Vegas, and they all want to say they went to Julien Asseo, and all these guys, and we have Guy Fieri at the Rio,” says Leticia Eagle, executive banquet chef at Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino, of how consumer tastes have gone decidedly upscale in Las Vegas in recent years. “But in the convention service, when we’re doing these big receptions we challenge any celebrity chef to do a better job than we do. We would throw down with Bobby Flay or anybody with our food.”
Eagle, who hails from Oaxaca, Mexico, and worked with such celebrated chefs as California Cuisine innovator Alice Waters, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Annie Roberts at Robert Mondavi Winery, and master Mexican cuisine chef Rick Bayless, learned early on that no matter how many “covers” are coming out of the kitchen at any given time, the watchword is always “fresh.”
“Everything that I do now is based on that foundation of keeping everything fresh and organic,” Eagle says. “We as chefs have to go above and beyond to assure the food quality is as fresh as we can do it. From preparation to service time there’s only a window of about 40 minutes so our food doesn’t sit in a hot box. So those are the challenges that we face every day.”
Besides Rio, where she can serve as many as 10,000 meals per week, Eagle has also been pressed into duty at many of the other Las Vegas Caesars Entertainment F&B operations.
“I’m fortunate that they move me around to do large events throughout the company,” Eagle says, such as being part of the opening crew for Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace, where she was in charge of the Mexican station and helped with the Italian station, and working with Guy Fieri at Rio’s El Burro Borracho.
According to Eagle, group dining trends to watch out for include interactive stations, tapas and other small-plate fare, along with energy snacking, sustainanble/healthy meals and pairing, whether it be beer, wine or cocktail combined with a complementary tapas bite.
When it comes to working with meeting planners, Eagle stresses the need to know the profile of one’s group, and especially any religious, cultural or food allergy necessities.
Adding that she can massage a banquet or other menu with group profile and individual needs firmly in the fore, Eagle says modern consumers now come to the table with all manner of preferences and restrictions.
“There are some very strict vegan groups,” she says. “We’re doing breakfast, lunch and dinner for 1,500 next week for five days. It’s a Humane Society group, so we have to have all non-animal products—not even honey—so we’re using silk milk, almond milk and lots of fresh vegetables.”
Eagle says her signature entree is the Tomahawk ribeye, which features a mole sauce informed by her native Oaxaca, where learning how to perfect the bittersweet chocolate-based delicacy is practically a birthright.
“My grandmother trusted me enough to cook for the family when I was little,” Eagle says. “It’s just been engraved in my soul.”