Though theUnited States has an incredible array of fine dining, it’s not known for its regional or traditional food in the same way as many other countries with one exception: the American South.
While settlers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic cooked many of the same foods they had in their native lands or appropriated recipes from Native Americans, cuisine in the South took a different track. Many of the foods we associate with the South today are based on recipes that date back 300 or even 400 years.
For planners looking to give their attendees a sense of place while they are busy with their meeting activities, incorporating local food or culinary activities is an easy way to bring in local culture and something attendees increasingly crave. In the South, where food and culture are inseparable, planners have more and better options to introduce local food into their events than anywhere else.
Wild Dunes Resort
Isle of Palms, South Carolina
In 2015, the Wild Dunes Resort, already a bastion of Southern cuisine just outside one of South Carolina’s most notable foodie cities, is offering what some may call the epitome of Southern culinary experiences: private interactive culinary education with the Lee brothers.
What Mario Batali is to Italian and Bobby Flay is to barbecue, Matt and Ted Lee are to Low Country cuisine. Originally just two homesick Southern boys stuck in Yankee territory for college, the Lees have elevated their obsession with the regional cooking of their hometown, Charleston, South Carolina, to high art through three cookbooks, countless food and travel stories, and six awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
“We were looking to collaborate with local restaurateurs that would host the dinner and tell you about local traditions as they do cooking demonstrations as an option for planners looking for an off-site meeting or a hyperlocal meal,” said Ashleigh Irving, the resort’s marketing and communications manager. As the Lee brothers grew up in Isle of Palms, they were an ideal fit.
Groups of 10 to 250 at the Wild Dunes Resort can opt for a demonstration cooking class in the outdoor Sweetgrass Pavilion or one of the ballrooms or with an oyster roast on the beach. Planners can also choose to include a signed copy of one of the brothers’ iconic Southern cookbooks as a gift bag item for attendees.
Old Town Culinary Scavenger Hunt
The old saying goes “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” but you could make a similar case for the way to discover the true heart of a town. The Old Town Alexandria Food Tour, organized by DC Food Tours and customized for meeting groups through Visit Alexandria, gives groups a team-building activity that not only is tasty but also explores the food culture of one of the nation’s most historic towns.
Since it was initially established in 1695, Alexandria has hosted countless luminaries of American history, including George Washington, who long made his home in town, and the walls of Alexandria’s pubs, mansions and row houses have many stories to tell. Guides will even introduce groups to some extra “guides,” the local spirits who are known to haunt many of Alexandria’s more paranormal hot spots.
“They tailor the experience for the group, so you may meet in Market Square and then break into small groups to go sample peanuts or take picture with a bartender, or for groups that don’t want to split up, go together to one place and then work out clues together on what the next stop will be,” said Lorraine Lloyd, senior vice president of sales of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association.
During the approximately three-hour tour, visitors will not only sample enough food to replace dinner or complement an hors d’oeuvres-only evening reception, but also take a deep dive into Alexandria’s history, including meeting some of the famous local ghosts.
Clearwater Beach, Florida
Among Florida’s beach resort areas, it’s not too uncommon to come across award-winning restaurants. In Clearwater Beach, Sandpearl Resort offers AAA Four-Diamond cuisine in its restaurants and brings that experience into the hands of groups through its organic cooking classes.
“The hotel was created on farm-to-plate, and it has been that way from the get-go,” said director of catering and conference services Michele Johnson. “We have a butcher on property for meat and fish, and 99 percent of everything we do is made to order.”
Johnson has forged strong connections with local farmers, finding that “you’d be amazed how much produce is grown here in Florida — lettuces, kales, grain, corn — and the strawberry capital is just 20 minutes down the street from us.”
While the catering menus offer groups a chance to go global, the highlights are decidedly local, from a reception station dishing up petite crab cake with housemade ancho chili creme fraiche and fennel orange slaw to a gulf shrimp display with house-made pickled ginger dressing, chili lime marinade, spicy aioli and mango slaw.
Sandpearl’s philosophy of turning locally sourced ingredients into unique house-made treats also extends to the mixology program, which has gone far beyond simple extracts and simple syrups and even makes its own bitters.
White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
When a property has more or less invented American resort culture and hosted the likes of the Duke of Windsor, the Kennedys and more than half of our presidents, fine dining is a given. Forward-looking, farm-focused cuisine, however, is just the kind of cherry on top that the Greenbrier staff loves to provide its clients.
To ensure that visitors, whether leisure or business guests, have access to the quality of ingredients the Greenbrier prides itself on using, the resort operates its own 43-acre farm near the property, which guests can tour in season.
The Greenbrier has also just launched a forage-totable program for small groups, typically around 20 people, with Asheville, North Carolina-based forager Alan Muscat. Groups spend the day foraging on the 10,000-acre property with Muscat, who prepares lunch in the field with some of the findings, and then, after a rest break in the afternoon, enjoy a five-course dinner centered around their own foraged produce.
Local inspiration doesn’t apply only to ingredient sourcing, however.
“When I think of the type of cuisine we do here, I think of Southern food and Southern barbecue,” said chef Bryan Skelding. “Our signature dishes are peach-tea smoked chicken, Case Mountain beef brisket and ribs.”
In addition to its robust local food sourcing and flexible culinary staff, one of the strengths of the Greenbrier’s food program is the breadth of dining spaces available, including historic cabins in the nearby mountains and along the creek running through the golf course.
Jackson Convention Complex
Though locally sourced, organic, seasonal food has become increasingly commonplace in both the consumer and meetings markets, the Savor program from convention center management company SMG was about 25 years ahead of the trend.
Since 1983, Savor has been “very active in trying to take fine dining to convention centers, arenas and stadiums,” said Jackson Convention Complex food and beverage director Laura Orr. “Chefs are very important, and we make sure they share our point of view, are detail-oriented and care about sustainability.”
Orr has brought in both an executive and a sous chef with deep roots in Mississippi to ensure not only that clients have access to a global culinary background, including training in Italy and at the Culinary Institute of America, but that the center’s menu is firmly focused on regional favorites.
“Our newest thing is an action station with mini chicken and waffles topped with peach horseradish maple syrup that we prep during the event,” said Orr. “We want to make it fun but eclectic because I find people are very comfortable with comfort food, but you don’t want to just do a Southern hot plate for a convention with 1,000 people.”
To source ingredients, Orr works with local farmers as much as possible and is creating an on-site herb garden to supply both the center’s own kitchen and the local charity organizations to which the center staff donate food and volunteer hours.
Though Chateau Élan has made a name for itself by bringing a decidedly French resort environment to Georgia with its international award-winning winery and European-style spa, the resort prides itself on its local food program.
“Our chefs source as much as they possibly can locally,” said Doug Rollins, vice president of sales and marketing. “We use cheese from local producers, source produce from local farmers, and even get local beef in addition to our own organic garden.”
To fuel both the resort’s restaurants and its culinary team-building program based in the Viking Culinary Studio in the winery, Chateau Élan has repurposed a clay tennis court into an organic vegetable and herb garden with 16 planters. Having fresh produce on-site allows cooking classes to begin in the garden with an exploration of how the resort incorporates local ingredients.
Inside the 1,600-square-foot teaching kitchen or in the winery’s open-air pavilion, the resort can host groups of up to 200 for hands-on cooking classes, competitions and collaborative meal preparation with the executive and sous chefs.