Gluten-free. Dairy-free. Vegetarian. Vegan. No nuts, no soy, no eggs. Everybody has a special diet these days, just ask the chefs who cater to them. Providing a banquet that also accomodates various special diets can be a challange.
"Gluten-free is the most common request we get now," says Manfred Steuerwald, executive chef at Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center.
But it gets tricky when you’re serving 1,200 people and there are many different special dietary requests among them, he says. So he deconstructs some dishes, placing the sauceon the side, for example, instead of on the entrée, so people can leave it off (sauces often contain gluten). Or he might leave the breading off a fish or chicken entrée. "Sometimes small changes make thedifference," he says."Some people just don’t like fish orseafood. Some won’t eat beef or pork. It’s not even a food allergy-it’s just a preference,"Steuerwald adds. Regardless, allergy or preference, it’s got to be addressed.
Scott Skomal, executive chef for Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, says vegetarian requests have dominated for years, but gluten-free is gaining ground. "Nut allergies, dairy-free, no pork … are quite common," he explains. "We also are seeing a wider variety of dietary needs that go beyond what was seen in the past: raw diet, paleo diet [and] onion/garlic/pepper allergies."
His biggest challenge, however, may have been in November 2011 when he had to prepare 13,000 kosher meals for up to 2,200 guests attending the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Denver. "We had to designate an entire kitchen as kosher, empty it, give it an extra-good cleaning… and do it all under the supervision of a rabbi," he recalls. "We had to buy new china and cutlery and find a kosher vendor to supply the food. We researched every product we were using to see which ones were kosher. It took weeks of planning and preparation, but we pulled it off."
Kosher meals are a religious requirement and follow strict guidelines. But other dietary requests are often for personal reasons. Many people tweak their diets to suit their own needs or tastes, and each person may define that diet differently. Vegetarian for one person might mean they don’t eat red meat. For another, they’ll eat fish. For a third person, it might mean none of those and interpreting the designation can be baffling, notes Martin Hammer, director of banquets for Hotel Boulderado in Boulder.
"Vegan is easy-at least you know what the guidelines are," he says. "Any single request is easily accommodated. The challenge comes when the same individual has multiple dietary restrictions. The less they can eat, the fewer options we have. We make a wonderful butternut squash ravioli as a vegetarian option. This does not work if they are gluten-free, as well."
Desserts provide special challenges because many are based on wheat or dairy, says Laurent Mechin, culinary director for St Julien Hotel & Spa in Boulder. For example, it can be difficult "sourcing a vegan whipped cream substitute for larger functions that can withstand the time it takes to plate a dessert and still look great when it hits the table," he says.
Hyatt Regency Denver at CCC changes its menus for group meals seasonally. "We try to incorporate some special-needs meals into the mix," says Monica Cheeks, senior director of catering and convention services. And, just to be safe, when buffets are presented, "we label everything," she says.
But if those chefs think they have problems, let them walk a mile in Jacque Hamilton’s clogs. Hamilton is the executive chef at the U.S.Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs. Her clientele includes athletes from dozens of different sports, coaches, staff and other Olympic guests, plus meetings and events.The athletes present the biggest challenges.
"Every single athlete has different nutritional needs," she says. When they arrive at OTC, they fill out a form delineating everything from food allergies to how many calories they need to consume daily and so forth. It varies by sport, weight class and how hard they are training.
"All our menus are performance-based," she says, adding that healthy food is key. "There’s no fat fryer here." But there is a grill for meats and veggies.
"We display all the nutritional information, so they can make educated choices," she adds. Gluten-free items are marked. Dairy is an obvious component, so it’s not.
"If I need to buy almond milk for somebody, I run and get that," Hamilton explains. "I make a lot of trips to the store because our suppliers don’t necessarily have the items we need."
Gluten-free is harder to pin down. Some do it by choice, and others truly have celiac disease. But Hamilton has gluten-free items for those who are truly sensitive-things such as soy sauce and many spices, which you might not suspect unless you’re on that diet.
"Sometimes, if you just change one small component of a dish," she says, "everyone can eat it."
Planning is Key
One thing most chefs can agree upon: advance notice makes all the difference. Nancy Thompson, who owns Nancy Thompson Events in Denver, says when she organizes an event, she tries to get a reading on what special dietary needs will be included.
Adhering to a gluten-free diet herself, she understands the concerns. "Everyone I deal with-hotels, caterers, chefs-all understand what is required and are very accommodating," Thompson says. "More and more, I find [providers] are familiar with special dietary needs and how to deal with them."
Cheeks agrees, "If we know what we’re dealing with in advance, we can accommodate anything."
Skomal says every banquet at the Sheraton includes a few vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free meals, in case of last-minute requests. But asking the server, "Does this have nuts in it?" just serves to terrify the kitchen staff.
And it can be really annoying when a guest who has no dietary restrictions eyes the vegetarian plate (which they did not request) and says,"That looks good. I’d rather have one of those."
In that case, Thompson says, they serve those who have an identified special need first, and if there’s extra, other diners can be served the same. "You can’t treat a banquet like a restaurant, where you can just order anything you want," she says.
Anticipating special needs is the key. Conundrum Catering in Aspen tries to steer clients into ordering a balanced and varied menu that will accommodate many special diets, says Owner Kip Feight. "Although only about 10 percent of people actually have food allergies, we are not doctors, we are cooks." Today, he adds, it’s necessary to "assume there will be food allergies among the guests."