Three club chefs share insights into how they incorporate seasonality into traditional banquet menus.
Member service, especially in a la carte dining, is a top priority for club chefs. But banquets play an equally important role. They supplement lower-margin member dining and help to yield successful profit margins.
Most banquet menus are not where creative, plate-painting, tweezer-yielding chefs unleash their ingenuity. Instead, these menus are written to be flexible, reliable, consistent, and even generic.
But seasonal ingredients can have a huge impact as a result of this structure. By showcasing the best of what’s available each season, an average chicken, steak or fish dish can be transformed into something truly unique.
At San Antonio (Texas) Country Club, Executive Chef Nelson Millán offers a standard banquet menu for non-member events and structured daily caterings. But he welcomes the opportunity to customize menus, as it gives him and his team a chance to incorporate seasonality.
“Members always want to out-do the previous event they attended,” says Millán. “Our members prefer tailoring the menu to their event.”
And he welcomes those requests as an opportunity to incorporate seasonality.
“I always start by asking, ‘What items do you not want to see on your plate,’” Millán says. Once he knows what not to serve, he explains, he can better suggest ideas for what could be featured, based on what’s seasonally at its peak.
At Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., Executive Chef Christopher Roth encourages his catering department to sell seasonal ingredients from the club’s base banquet menu.
“Communication and training is so important with banquet menus,” says Roth. “We provide our catering team with a list of the seasonal ingredients that detail when each is at its peak. The catering team uses that information to guide members and guests as they begin to select menus.”
Roth relies on the relationships he has with local farmers and suppliers to incorporate seasonally available ingredients into Oak Hill’s banquet events. “We work with a company dedicated to providing a connection between local farmers and restaurants in our area,” he says. “This partnership lets us have a direct connection to local farmers, to maximize the use of seasonal ingredients.”
At The Metropolitan Club of the City of Washington (D.C.), Executive Chef Vincent Horville takes full advantage of the four seasons on his banquet menus by offering both fall and winter packages, in addition to a combined spring-summer package.
“The impact of a seasonally inspired menu is even greater in a club setting, where our customers are members,” says Horville. “The more we change the menus, the more we are able to attract repeat banquet business. When changing banquet menus, we follow the same change in seasons as we do with a la carte.”
Highlighting seasonal ingredients in banquet operations has a secondary purpose as well.
“When you run seasonal menus, your staff begins to look forward to working with certain ingredients that they haven’t worked with for nearly a year,” Horville notes. “They’re more motivated and they look forward to the transition. Seasonality inspires them—and it inspires me, too.”
Recognizing that banquet menus and operations are designed to have higher profit margins, chefs must be aware that by offering custom menus with seasonal ingredients, pricing must be customized as well.
“Just because you’re working with something that’s in season, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will run cheaper,” says Horville. “Quality comes at a higher cost, but it also allows you to charge more.”
Roth agrees. “When you start with a great quality product, you end with a great quality product,” he says. “We have to pay attention to the costs on a daily basis; this allows us to communicate to the members and our catering team if there are any variances.”
Structuring a seasonal banquet menu can be quite simple, even when it allows for customization. At Oak Hill, Roth has implemented a process to have his banquet menus include the staple items and cuts of proteins, while showcasing seasonal vegetables or fruits as accompaniments.
To maintain the banquet mindset of pleasing a variety of palates in one large group, Horville simplifies the process at The Metropolitan Club by choosing five or six popular items in season to make up the catering menu.
“Welcome the seasons with your team and with your members,” says Horville. “Make this process exciting for them. When they see that you have passion for seasonal ingredients, they will adopt the same passion, which is a win-win for your members and your menus.”