Food & Beverage

The Rise of Stylish, Inventive ‘Walk-Around’ Dining

As sit-down meals lose ground, chefs and planners are getting ever more inventive with staging and presentation.

From the outside, it looked like any other closing gala. Cabs and buses dropped revelers off at the steps of Shed 10, a converted cargo warehouse on Auckland’s Queens Wharf, and we climbed the stairs into a soaring industrial space for the last hurrah of CINZ MEETINGS 2015, an industry event held this past June.

Shed 10 was awash in colorful lights and bedecked with funky chandeliers. In the middle of the space were shabby-chic cocktail tables and high-tops; around the perimeter were clusters of food stations organized into sections: Land, Sea, Street, and Dessert. At Land, bamboo mini-boats of succulent piri-piri lamb ribs were topped with salsa verde; a chef grilled more ribs as guests snapped them up. A few steps away was an illuminated display of gazpacho and vichyssoise shooters. Across the room, an ice trough sat overflowing with oysters and barbecue prawns, surrounded by plastic pipettes of balsamic vinegar and wedges of Meyer lemon. Ornate ice sculptures swirled atop the display.

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The Kitchen c/o SKYCITY catered the closing gala of CINZ MEETINGS 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Even though we were technically “snacking” — Wagyu beef sliders and oyster spoons circulated throughout the crowd, too — this was clearly dinner, and then some. And while small plates and interactive stations aren’t exactly new, the opulent display inside Shed 10 felt like the face of the modern gala. Are traditional sit-down luncheons and dinners become less popular?


Months of planning, three rounds of menu revision, and a tasting preceded the Shed 10 shindig, according to Heather Cornish, events and marketing director for Conventions & Incentives New Zealand (CINZ). “I was concerned to ensure that even though the food was [served] stand-up that it would still be substantial enough,” Cornish said. “This set the tone for the approach to the menu. I wanted some theater from the chefs, hence the live cooking stations and some innovative displays, such as the shot glasses of soup on the light box.”

Cornish worked with The Kitchen c/o SKYCITY, which executes more than 700 meal events per year. “[The meal] had to be on point, but it had to have extravagance built in — not all street food,” said Gillian Officer, SKY-CITY’s director of sales. “It had to have something that was lush, and that’s where we started. We wanted to deliver a bit of that street-food feel — with the bánh mì and the sliders, and also the extravagance of the raw bar — but still have that casual feel, too.”

That sense of discovery was deliberate. “You could walk around the corner and there was something new,” Officer said. “The good old traditional dinner has gone away. [Meals] must be interactive. We see it not just in that movement toward food, we see it in the movement toward event design as well. We’re seeing much more requirement for interactive hubs, for workshop-type events.”

On the other side of the Pacific, Tahira Endean, CMP, event producer for the #BCTech Summit in Vancouver, has also noticed a trend toward meal design that plays with expectations. At the IRF Annual Incentive Invitational in Los Cabos, Mexico, last year, chefs cut fresh lettuce for salads. “I loved that,” Endean said. And at a recent Catersource event at the Brooklyn Bowl, guests were fed corn-on-the-cob with dipping butters (“They had a fortune teller telling you a fortune based on how you ate your corn,” Endean said), while topless male servers carved tuna for tacos.


The staff at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre noticed this trend, and in 2011 launched the crEATe Kitchen in response. “We have four kitchens here, and three of them are typical for production and service,” said Chef Geoffrey Morden. “The fourth is unique and special.”

crEATe Kitchen is an open kitchen and tasting lab that Morden describes as “a really, really nice, well put-together home kitchen with plenty of space.” It doubles as a venue for meals for up to 35 people, and also as a lab for creating new menu items. “When we do have events in crEATe,” Morden said, “it’s typically me and my team pushing our boundaries and stretching and being creative and having fun.”

For a recent dinner for Ottawa food bloggers, Morden’s team used crEATe as a test space for new plating, too. “Let’s forget china,” Morden said. “Instead, we found some really neat, different types of sauté pans [for service] — interesting vessels in which you would not typically serve food.” And it was shorter than your average meal of five years ago. “We’ve switched from a standard four-course menu to a typical menu featuring three courses,” Morden said. “People really want to tighten up the timelines.”

Are traditional-style banquets doomed?  “Sit-down dinners aren’t necessarily passé,” Cornish said, “but we’ve run our ‘party style’ for the last four or five years, and so next year we will offer a sit-down function, for variety. It’s important to continue to interest and engage audiences, however that is achieved.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.