Variety is the spice of life at Doral Arrowwood, a Benchmark Resorts & Hotels conference resort that takes full advantage of its 114-acre expanse set in the incomparable beauty of New York’s Hudson Valley.
And doling out that variety plate by plate is Michael Schmutzer, the Austrian Alps-born executive chef at the IACC-accredited standard bearer of the conference center concept.
“Meeting groups these days are looking for what’s unique; how can you make my meeting interesting even though my meeting may be a bit dry and monotonous,” he said. “And pretty much everyone wants to customize their menu. We’re lucky because we have a lot of repeat clients who ask, ‘What can we do this year?’ It’s challenging, but it really keeps us on our toes and keeps us relevant, and local. Farm-to-table definitely plays a big role—the Hudson Valley plays a big role, along with the farms of Upstate New York.”
Besides a diverse food offering, some of the tactics he and his team employ include holding Iron Chef-style competitions that pit attendees against each other, with Arrowwood chefs holding court as judges.
“It’s a teambuilding activity with real-life consequences—because that’s their dinner,” Schmutzer joked.
Mixing themes and locations for meals is also a popular way to break out of the typical conference F&B mold, and since Arrowwood offers so many options, groups can mix and match to their hearts’ delight.
“We have a sports bar, a steakhouse and an outdoor restaurant that opens Memorial Day weekend on the golf course,” Schmutzer said. “There’s also an executive dining room where we make specialty menus that are local farm-to-table offerings. Clients are also opting for stations vs. buffet lines, and each station has a unique little plate in each.”
Other favorite formats include a food court set-up in the ballroom or out on the lawn.
“They’re definitely always asking for [food stations],” he adds, “and in winter a dozen people once wanted to do s’mores in a fire pit, in lieu of their dessert.”
Being acutely aware of the growing number of attendees who have very specific dietary concerns is also something that is of great importance to Schmutzer.
“May it be an intolerance, a personal choice or a medical condition, there are many scenarios that require us chefs to be in tune with our guest on a one-on-one basis,” he said. “In turn, the appreciation that everyone expresses once put at ease is very rewarding.”
When it comes to planner interaction with chefs, Schmutzer advises to not narrow down a meal to exactly what they want, but instead get the chefs involved in the process, which will result in fresher, more destination-relevant meals as well as save on the budget.
“I like to learn what the meeting’s about,” he said. “How often does it happen, where are they from, can we do an international buffet, is it a feeding or a full-fledged social event where it’s entertainment? And then tell me your budget so I can customize it for you from the get-go. Everyone is on a budget, so that helps us get creative and not just do cookie-cutter events.”