Food and beverage, like many other elements of your event, can be a great way to connect with your guests and leave a lasting impression. However, like many other parts of the planning process, price increases, longer lead times and changing preferences can make it a challenging part of the process. Midwest Meetings was able to sit down with Ethan Smith, executive chef at West Baden Springs Hotel, part of the French Lick Resort property in West Baden, Ind., to learn more about what planners can do to create better relationships with their catering managers, save budget and stay on top of industry trends.

[MM] With the high costs of food/beverage, what are some ways planners can stretch their budgets for their events?

[ES] Breaks and receptions are both very controllable, and a lot of people just don’t think about that process. For coffee breaks, you can designate specific amounts of product — start with two gallons of coffee, increase only if needed. That way they control the quantities instead of the venue, because the venue will just continually replenish unless they’re directed otherwise.

If you’re doing a welcome reception or a reception of any kind, you could schedule it for non-meal periods such as 5 to 6 p.m. or 8 to 9 p.m., versus that 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. timeframe, because people are going to expect to eat heavily over the dinner hour. You can cut back on your F&B needs if you’re just adjusting your time frame.

[MM] Are there any trends within the industry that you are seeing, in terms of types of food requested/popular, serving style, etc.?

[ES] Food changes, times change, people change, tastes change, so we’re continually evolving with it. Right now, bison is so popular that I can’t get a bison filet mignon at all, across the entire country. Something we’re also seeing is that guests want their food to look like it came out of a magazine.

Food is similar to fashion, because things that were popular 20 years ago are trending again. There’s numerous classic dishes that people do, whether it’s a Beef Wellington or Coquilles Saint-Jacque. There are dishes that I’d forgotten about and then you check out someone else’s menus or look in magazines, and “Hey, I remember doing salmon pinwheels, I remember doing cucumber rolls.” Baked Alaska, very popular in the 60s and 70s … you’re starting to see a trend of that coming back.

Still, there are the staples that people know and that’s what they expect, and that’s what we deliver. A lot of our groups, it’s the same menu every year. It’s like a tradition: “Hey we’re going to West Baden, they had an awesome stuffed chicken, we loved it, I can’t wait till we go back, we’re going to have that chicken again.” They want to recreate that memory and the experience of being here before, and they look forward to those things every year.

[MM] How can food be used to impress guests?

[ES] At our hotel, from the time a guest steps into the atrium and sees the huge dome overhead, there’s that “wow” factor. That’s the No. 1 reason why people come here. It makes it difficult to match that or top that from a culinary standpoint since the wow factor is already here when they walk in the building. It sets that standard very high. There’s always the ability to up the wow factor, whether it’s the serving vessel — I’ve served French onion soup in a colossal onion bowl for 800 people. Not very many venues would do that. It’s a lot of work, a lot of labor, but we definitely try to impress our guests.

Another way we have elevated that wow factor is our new Table One experience. It’s a true chef’s table in a private dining room located just off the kitchen. For each group, we customize a five-course menu — it’s like reading a story to the guests, with every chapter being a different plate of food. You don’t know exactly what’s on the menu until each plate is served — so the main course could be anything from rack of lamb, to a sea bass with yellow pepper coulis and a jicama microgreen salad. It goes beyond a fancy dinner to a full-fledged dining experience. If you’re looking for a way to impress a group of executives or celebrate a special occasion, this is it.

[MM} Any tips for planners as they begin to work with a F&B team?

[ES] For planners, it’s good to be familiar with the menus and come in with an idea of what your agenda is and what your goals are for the meeting. That helps start the communication and conversation about how things should flow. For example, we get smaller groups that want to eat lunch at Ballard’s in the Atrium, but they only have 45 minutes for lunch and that won’t be enough time. A working lunch buffet might be a better option in that case.

There are groups that come in and will want Coquilles Saint-Jacque or something that could easily be pulled off for a smaller amount of people, but their group has 800 people. When you do a lot of volume, quality can sometimes suffer. Clients might ask for certain things and we always try to say yes and deliver what they want, but I want to make sure that it’s going to work and be a good experience for the whole group. It’s definitely a give-and-take of finding that right balance.

[MM] How can a F&B manager bring value to an event planner?

[ES] An experienced manager can guide planners on how to select food and beverage and how to control their quantities. And if you’re needing something budget-wise, they can definitely work with the chef and kitchen, and direct you into, “Hey, this is a better value, or we could substitute this for this and bring your cost down, if we’re in a pinch.”

Ethan Smith began his culinary journey at French Lick Resort hotels in 1998, as a college student when he would drive back and forth on weekends to work at the former Jack’s Steakhouse at French Lick Springs Hotel. After college, he spent time in the Indianapolis area, at Westin and Marriott hotels, as well as private country clubs. Eventually he returned to French Lick Resort and then a promotion took him to sister property West Baden Springs Hotel, where he now serves as executive chef.