When it comes to dining trends, one of the biggest continues to be an increased focus on healthy and sustainable foods. More restaurants and caterers are opting for locally sourced (or sometimes even self-grown) herbs and vegetables, as well as meats from local farms and seafood caught off nearby shores.
Part of this trend is about helping the environment, another is about eating healthier, and still another is about working with and helping local businesses and the surrounding community.
According to the culinary staff at Normandy Farm Hotel and Conference Center and its on-site restaurant the farmer’s daughter, located in Blue Bell, PA, supporting local businesses, promoting ingredients that are available locally and to the regional climate, and promoting the importance of a healthy eating lifestyle are top reasons that restaurants and caterers are embracing the farm-to-table movement.
This also can be called "Green Eating," as it is good for the planet, too. The closer the source of products utilized in food preparation, the less impact there is on the environment during the shipping and receiving phase of production.
The Normandy Farm culinary staff notes that they try to stay as local as possible when sourcing their products, and have even begun the processes of growing some food for themselves, as well as starting the initial processes of composting green waste. In addition, the property is heavily focused on recycling to help reduce its footprint on the environment.
When it comes to healthy eating, they note that it is growing in importance because eating better has been attributed to better quality of life. The healthier that people eat generally impacts the length and quality of their lives. "Eat better, feel better."
As far as healthy eating for the group dining is concerned, Normandy Farm caters to all the dietary needs and restrictions of its guests, offering a lot of vegetarian and vegan options, as well as a variety of salads with every meal. They also like to incorporate healthy ingredients, such as ancient grains and super foods.
Normandy Farm’s philosophy for its flavors is that they like to make guests feel at home, but at the same time take them on a culinary journey. Since the property employs a wide variety of workers from all over the world, “home” can be a bit of a relative term. They bring worldly flavors and a style of cooking to the property that makes them something nearly everyone can enjoy.
La Prima Food Group began creating farm-to-table meals in 2011. At the same time, they established their urban garden in Maryland. In 2013, they added an urban garden in Willow Grove, PA.
Since that time, they have experienced an increasing interest and desire from private as well as corporate clients to serve more sustainably grown food.
“While not all budgets allow for organic, local ingredients,” explains Gabrielle Wallace, event manager, La Prima Food Group, “our customers continue to appreciate the efforts that we make to be able to have these choices available.”
La Prima operates five kitchens throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and all are run on a sustainable/green production and business model. “We are members of the Green Restaurant Association, and all of our kitchens maintain a 3- or 4-star rating on our Environmental Scorecard," notes Wallace.
In 2012, La Prima Food Group established its “Seeds to Celebrations” program, where they produce “grown-to-order” events in conjunction with their partner farms.
"Recently we served over 450 guests a uniquely seasonal meal at the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Bureau Annual Luncheon,” says Wallace. “Our corporate executive chef, Kyle Vermeulen, created the luncheon based on seasonal items. It included chicken breast stuffed with roasted red peppers, spinach and mozzarella cheese topped with a garlic jus, and served with a carrot soufflé."
"The truly wonderful thing is that any meal and event can become a farm-to-table experience if the caterer is given the proper notice to prepare," she adds.
"While our menu always has healthy options available, we also make every effort to educate and guide our clients,” Wallace continues. “Allergens are a very prominent concern these days; therefore, each item on our menu is labeled to inform the client’s decision."
Recently, by client request, La Prima designed an extensive and exclusive menu for a large client with a healthcare concern who requested a variety of meals for their staff that would need to be prepared to exacting standards.
Each meal is prepared with a caloric, salt and fat goal. Each includes nutritional and allergen information. This program, to date, has been received with great enthusiasm and success.
"La Prima takes great pride in our environmental standing,” notes Wallace. “Our chefs create meals inspired by fresh ingredients and worldwide flavors. Combine all of that and you’ll see that our culinary philosophy is in our tagline; and it’s more than that - it’s how we go about serving each meal: Seasonal. Sustainable. Sensational."
She notes that, at times, clients come to La Prima with a fully fleshed out plan; other times it’s just an inkling of an idea. “Our event managers have the professional experience as well as venue and vendor relationships to help the client make the most of it."
Wallace advises that if a client wants to create a dinner atmosphere that lends itself easily to group conversation, a round table will better create that than a long rectangle. If a client wants to create a softer, cozier feel for a few hundred guests, an event manager might suggest using plants, softer furniture and/or a softer color palette. She adds that it is always a process that ultimately leads toward the client’s goal when it comes to the group’s dining experience.
"As an example,” she continues, “we did a reception for The Organic Trade Association. They chose for their venue The Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC. It was a perfect start; as the evening’s theme was all organic, the textile colors and décor were earthy. The meal was created with organic ingredients down to the organic chocolate that was used for the dessert. It not only was the type of food that was served, but also the choice of venue that combined to make it spectacular."
Executive chef and co-owner, Scott Anderson, of Mistral restaurant - with locations in King of Prussia, PA and Princeton, NJ, as well as elements restaurant in Princeton - observes that "more than ever before, we are seeing an increasing need for group dining and event menus that incorporate healthy, nutritious choices with locally sourced ingredients. People no longer want mass produced, family-style plates, but instead want a fresh and delicious meal that showcases quality."
"All our restaurants place a superlative focus on fresh ingredients - many of which are sourced from local farmers and producers - utilizing progressive, modern techniques to draw out the purest flavors,” he continues. “Our chef team forages for fresh new ingredients every day, and we are often known to change menu items day-of to reflect what we find."
As all ingredients on both Mistral and elements’ menus are sourced locally from sustainable purveyors, they are able to guarantee the freshness and limited usage (if any) of unnecessary fats and sugars. This holds true whether they are cooking for one diner or for a group of diners, Anderson asserts.
"Healthy dining is delicious dining. Our focus is always to extract the purest flavors out of each ingredient while using impeccably sourced products from the best farms, butchers, fisheries, and more that we can find. By extracting the purest flavors, there is less of a need to drown the dish in a heavy sauce or add sugars and artificial flavoring to the dish,” explains Anderson.
“We let a lot of natural flavors speak for themselves. None of our dishes will be too salty, too creamy or unnaturally flavorful. Simplicity is key at Mistral and elements, creating both flavorful and healthy options for everyone," he adds.
Going beyond the food, a private dining room’s atmosphere can make or break a client’s decision to book their event in a particular restaurant. Anderson says that, for this reason, it is important that the room is reflective of the local taste and style of the client who is booking it. “We find that clients also look for spaces that are conducive to conversation, with intelligent staff that meet all of your event needs. Our space at Mistral privately can hold up to 125 guests and can host semi-private events for groups of all-sizes. The space is open, airy and sociable with larges splashes of Mediterranean colors."
"At elements,” he continues, “the space embodies our naturalistic, minimalistic philosophy. We have two private dining rooms - one that holds up to 10 guests and another that holds up to 25 guests - as well as a main dining room buyout that can accommodate up to 40 guests, seated. Our private dining spaces provide all amenities needed for events of all-types, from corporate gatherings to intimate anniversary parties to large milestone celebrations, including audio-visual, TV screens and more."
These restaurants represent a growing movement that continues to push toward healthy, fresh and locally sourced ingredients in both restaurant and catering cuisine.
While trends in dining tend to ebb and flow, this growing movement seems to be one that’s not only flourishing today, but is one that is here to stay for the long-term.