BY DON DOULOFF
Planners are always looking to dazzle their groups, especially when it comes to the all-important food and beverage component. To help you assess the culinary lay of the land, here’s a window into current f&b trends.
“Small plates and tapas are making a strong presence on our menus,” says Debra Lykkemark, CEO of Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events, based in Vancouver. New to the caterer’s menu are seven tapas-inspired hors d’oeuvres featuring regional and sustainable ingredients—say, candied sockeye salmon with apple slaw and pea shoots.
Lykkemark says groups, particularly the under-30 demographic, are requesting dishes catering to special diets and allergies—gluten-free, celiac, lactose intolerance, nut and seafood allergies, vegetarian, vegan, no red meat, no pork, no garlic or onions. An example of the catering company’s vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free dishes include an hors d’oeuvre of coconut kaffir lime-scented rice cake with julienned vegetables and chili peanuts.
At Toronto’s L-eat Catering, food stations are still trending big time. Fashionable, for instance, are build-your-own-salad bars displaying fixings such as romaine, iceberg and mixed lettuces, croutons, edamame, sunflower seeds, beets and tomatoes, says L-eat Catering’s Suzanne Dunbar.
Dunbar says seafood stations offering mini-alcohol shots are also popular—for example, oysters, lobster, shrimp and octopus served with mini-shots of dark ale, pepperoncini-infused vodka and Prosecco and Riesling wines. Another crowd pleaser is taco and tequila stations, “driven by the influx of new Mexican-themed restaurants,” says Dunbar. L-eat has served tacos stuffed with fish (crisp fried pickerel, red cabbage slaw and avocado crèma) and smoked pulled turkey (with mustard barbecue sauce and dill-pickle slaw).
Late-night milk and cookie stations are “quite the hit for meetings and events that run into the wee hours of the night [when] guests are craving something sweet,” says Dunbar.
A good way to add drama is to bring liquid nitrogen to the table, she says. At the 10th anniversary of Toronto’s Carlu venue, the L-eat team chilled fennel-crusted tuna using liquid nitrogen. “It’s not only effective at keeping the fish cool, but also creates a bit of a spectacle at the event,” she notes.
Bones-as-cups offer another novel presentation, says Dunbar. “It might sound a bit odd, but it works incredibly well on the plate,” she explains, citing, as an example, roasted beef strip loin and port-braised short rib duo with yukon gold potato served in a bone cup.
At the International Centre, in Mississauga, Ont., executive chef Tawfik Shehata says “groups are looking for healthy options.” Voila—the venue’s Caesar salad made with baby kale, hard-boiled egg and roasted-garlic vinaigrette, and Moroccan-marinated chicken with quinoa tabbouleh.
The other strong trend is homey fare—“comfort foods that people are familiar with,” says Shehata—at cocktail parties. Fitting the bill is the International Centre’s mac ’n’ cheese croquettes, and open-faced tacos (ground beef, grated cheese, salsa and sour cream stuffed into a tart shell).
South of the border, Chicago-based Technomic reports that, in the U.S., hybrid foods and atypical flavour pairings are trending. Examples include the cronut (croissant-shaped and flavoured like a doughnut), pizza-wrapped burger, chicken and waffles, and salted-caramel flavours.
Of course, with food, there must be drink. At Trump International Hotel Toronto, the trend “has moved away from traditional cocktails and more into the fresh and clean approach,” says Chris MacNeil, general manager, restaurant and beverage operations. “We do still see a strong following for some of our infused cocktails like the ‘I Smoked My Side Car’—cognac infused with cigar leaves—and also for our barrel cocktail program.”
For that program, MacNeil blends spirits, flavours them with spices and ages them in 10-litre oak barrels he chars and soaks himself. Barrel-aged spirit blends include rum with peppercorn and chili spice mix and cigar leaves.
But the hotel’s latest trendy drink, he says, is the De-Stress cocktail (vodka, fresh lemon juice, agave nectar, fresh mint, fresh cucumber and fresh lemon zest). Launched during September’s Toronto International Film Festival, the drink was a hit with Hollywood A-listers, he says.
Also reporting from the beverage front lines is The Martini Club International, based in Toronto.
The consumer craves drinkability—delicious and well-balanced cocktails—over complexity, according to The Martini Club’s trend report. In the U.S., whisky, led by Irish whisky and Scotch, is one of the fastest-growing spirit categories. American whisky is enjoying a renaissance, as consumers (and distillers) look beyond bourbon to their whisky-producing past.
Canadians are looking for more health-conscious cocktail alternatives, substituting, for example, juice for pop and chilled tea for sweetened juices, notes The Martini Club.
And the emergence of beer cocktails into the mainstream seems inevitable. “Beer is the most chemically complex alcohol, and as such, the variations are boundless. Programs that incorporate beer and food pairings and aim to educate consumers are also receiving attention as beer varietals continue to expand.”
Furthermore, people “are looking for fun,” as confection vodkas, sorbet vodkas, boozy milkshakes and flavoured whiskies grab attention.
—Don Douloff is a food and travel writer based in Toronto.