As restrictions ease after two years of ups and downs, hotel chefs are adapting a new perspective to menu planning. As their doors re-open for business, the demand for healthy menu choices continues to grow, whether plant-based and organic, or gluten- and dairy-free. At the same time, foodservice operations are facing a new world of supply-chain delays, rising food costs and staffing shortages.
Their efforts to strike the right balance range from going the hyper-local route to secure food supplies, to streamlining menu options, to simplifying prep protocols.Whatever the strategy, tuning into the diverse demands of discerning health-conscious guests remains
the top priority.
Adjusting to a healthy demand
Chefs are having to re-think their menus as restaurants re-open, says JW Foster, executive chef, Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. “We’ve had to up our game with the shift to wellness. A lot of clients are increasingly asking for plant-based and other healthy alternatives. Gluten- and dairy-free requests are on the rise as people are changing their diets, so we have to keep adjusting to meet and exceed their expectations.”
The mix of demands can range from luxury dining and special-diet needs, to elevated comfort food, he says. “Every guest is looking for different experiences and healthy choices. We’re also seeing more and more allergy or dietary concerns or preferences.”
In response, vegan and vegetarian options are gaining a larger share of the menu page, notes Foster. “Whereas we used to have two or three vegan or vegetarian options, we’re up to four or five. Guests want a well thought out and balanced meal that has all the pieces – not just a chunk of tofu. We’re thinking more and more in that direction, even in banquet offerings.”
Foster admits supply can make for a tricky balancing act. “We have to shuffle and adjust and be very nimble based on what’s available in the market,” he says. “Availability could be a problem for a number of reasons, including lack of supply or increased pricing. Instead of filling fridges, we have to adjust on a day-to-day basis. One good thing coming through COVID is that it makes you even more curious and creative with what you have to work with.”
Making it simple
Since COVID-19 hit, regional executive chef D. Dinesh Jayawardena at Radisson Hotel Group Americas in Minneapolis, Minn. has streamlined the catering and banquet menus at the FireLake Grill House considerably. “We looked at the most demanding items and kinds of [foods] parties were looking for and simplified our processes for preparing food because of the labour shortage. In that way, we had to get creative to make it happen without compromising the quality of the food.”
With the growing demand for plant-based and gluten- or dairy-free meals, he standardizes where possible to ensure items can meet all demands. “Even when we make a soup normally with cream, we use a plant-based alternative. It’s not because we don’t like dairy.”
When facing multiple dietary demands, Foster has also found ways to streamline the workload in his kitchens. “For example, we can make a vegan base for a corn chowder, then the chefs can add what they want depending on a guest’s concerns. It takes a bit more in the planning stages.”
An added bonus is a reduction of food wastage, says Foster. “It has helped us adjust to bringing in only what we need and utilizing it better. You can take beets from a main course and make a red-velvet cake. There are many ways to get to the finish line.”
Catering to a captive crowd
Executive chefs at destination inns have enjoyed some advantages since they draw a captive audience, says Jason Bangerter, executive chef, Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. “We tend to be built for social distancing. The pandemic really helped us focus on the kitchen and our team. The food became the best it’s ever been and our relationships stronger.”
In the absence of large groups, the culinary team stripped down to á la carte only, dispensing with tasting and other specialized menus, he says. “The first menu we wrote coming out of lockdown, we had to be hyper-local because of the supply-chain challenges,” he says. “We couldn’t get seafood from Vancouver, so had to dig deeper within the local farming community and think about what to do next.”
While customers visit Langdon Hall for a luxurious meal, there is a shift to healthy, veg-forward eating. With the growing demand for raw, vegan, pescatarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian menus, Bangerter has worked on forward-thinking dishes that are free of gluten and dairy that guests still love. “But it’s not just about plant-forward food. Some guests also love lots of butter and richness. It’s a balance.”
Ned Bell, executive chef and partner, Naramata Inn, in Naramata, B.C. has the good fortune to be located in the heart of a district that is rich in produce, seafood and wine, therefore going hyper-local isn’t a challenge. The only ingredients sourced outside of the region are coffee, chocolate, and tea, he says.
Sustainability has become the watchword of the day for guests, he says. “Over the past few years, people want to know where their food is coming from, how animals are raised and how food is harvested. They are caring about animal and protein consumption now more than ever and understand about grass-fed meat, and wild-caught or farm-raised seafood. Rather than eight ounces of protein from anywhere, they prefer four ounces of a high-quality nutrient-dense protein ingredient that they know where it came from, and how it was raised and harvested.”
At a time when seating is limited, cancellations have been a problem at times, so reservations for the Inn’s pre-set menu must be pre-paid, he notes. “Now more than ever, we have to protect the business and keep some consistency.”
Rolling with the changes
The one good thing during COVID-19 is that guests are generally understanding when items are not available, says Foster. “We may have to sub out a menu item with a different entrée, but the clientele is very supportive of that.”
“They know we’re all in this situation together,” says Jayawardena. “If you go to an establishment and feel welcome, and you have more natural food on your plate – that’s what clients are looking for today.”
By Denise Deveau