Six Ways to Wow Attendees with International Cuisine

Incorporate global elements into F&B by putting a new spin on a traditional dish or selecting unfamiliar recipes to delight attendees.

Spending time in a different city during a conference adds extra excitement to the occasion. But meeting planners can take that a step further by also introducing attendees to another country—by offering international cuisine at their event.

You can go big and focus on a country’s national dish for a dinner—or you can start small and make tweaks to sit-down dinners and receptions that will still wow your attendees. Indianapolis culinary experts say the key is to have a few ideas—choose a few regions or countries—then partner with your catering staff to see what they are skilled at and what ingredients are available.

“Meeting planners should contact the catering team as soon as possible when creating something unique and special for their event,” says Josh Vaught, director of catering at Centerplate—Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium. “This allows the catering teams to research, test and create unique ideas for the clients to choose from.”

And while custom items and menus might have a higher cost depending on the availability of items, there are ways you can stay within your budget and present extraordinary meals. Here are six ideas to consider for your next meeting:

1. Choose a part of the world that your guests are unfamiliar with.

Most Americans are familiar with Italian, Mexican and Chinese food. While all delicious options, think bigger and choose a region unexplored by most of your attendees.

Sven Hildebrandt—the new executive chef at Conrad Indianapolis, a high-rise luxury hotel downtown—is a fan of Central and South American cuisine. “The food has so much tradition,” Hildebrandt explains. “There are so many countries, and it’s so diverse. There are so many flavors and colors. Just think of all the chilies they have.” One option is a Guatemalan dish called jocon chicken, which is presented in a vibrant green sauce created by tomatillos and cilantro.

Hildebrandt, who is from Germany, recently explored food throughout Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary. “The unique thing about these places is you will see dishes you will not see anywhere else in the world.” Eastern European features a lot of rustic food, but you can lighten it up for your audience, if necessary.

And no matter where your host destination is located, perceived limitations can be easily overcome with the right partner. “Centerplate has a vast network of catering and culinary professionals that we use on a daily basis,” Vaught says. “We have a large presence in the U.S., Canada and Europe so if the local team doesn’t have specific knowledge of a certain cuisine, someone in our network will. We also work locally with different partners to ensure we are providing the best experience for our clients.”

2. Put a new spin on a country’s traditional dish.

Chicken Pepian is considered the national dish of Guatemala. This spicy, meaty stew is an old recipe that blends Spanish and Mayan cultures. Instead of beef, Hildebrandt has made it with chicken breast, giving it a lighter feel.

Guatemala has its own version of chile relleno, a stuffed pepper that originated in Mexico. In Guatemala, the peppers are often stuffed with minced meat, carrots and spices. It’s covered in egg batter and fried. Chefs can eliminate the meat to create a vegetarian version that will still be a filling main dish, Hildebrandt says. They can also bake it, instead of frying, for a healthier version. “Just with a quick, little change, you can do so much with your dish,” he says. “I know budget is always a concern.”

3. Go light on the spices and foreign flavors.
With all international cuisine, consider the palate of your attendees. Be careful with unusual or spicy flavors. “If you go too far out of the box, you might not get the response from your people you are expecting. You have to keep your audience in mind,” Hildebrandt says. “It’s helpful if the recipe is more adaptable.”

4. Introduce new foods in small doses.

In the Czech Republic, Hildebrandt enjoyed a beef stew with a potato dumpling called a “knedliky.” For a conference, Hildebrandt says he might create a version of that as a small plate, which gives guests other options if they’re not fond of the dish or only want a small portion. “That would be a good place to introduce that dish because you allow the guests to try it,” he says.

More fun options: authentic Mexican street tacos or a ramen noodle station.

5. Get creative with serving ware.

You can also be inventive with serving dishes to add a bit of flair, without breaking your budget. If you’re offering cuisine from Southeast Asian, for example, you could serve it on plates made out of palm trees or bamboo. “Bamboo just makes everything pop, and it’s sustainable,” Hildebrandt says.

6. Go bold with desserts.

Dessert offers a lot of opportunities to wow guests and stay within budget. Hildebrandt is a fan of serving warm desserts family-style, like a platter of homemade beignets.

Last year, a client told Centerplate they wanted to showcase an authentic French-Canadian dessert. “The culinary team worked very closely with a local French baker to come up with the perfect French-Canadian dessert for their event,” Vaught says.

You can even get creative with the bread basket at dinner receptions by providing naan bread or focaccia, along with the more standard dinner rolls—unique options that will surprise guests while staying within your budget.

So, start brainstorming on parts of the globe you can introduce your guests to. You can create a unique world tour of culinary adventures while staying in the heart of Indianapolis.

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(Kelley Jordan)