What’s on the Menu When Chefs Meet?

The American Culinary Federation has one tough audience to feed at its five annual events — its member chefs. Three keys to their success.

For Sam Bhandarkar, CMP, CASE, director of events for the American Culinary Federation (ACF), food and beverage is always top of mind. Among his many duties, Bhandarkar plans five annual events for the organization’s more than 17,500 member chefs and culinarians — fourregional conferences and one National Convention & Show.

Hosted by Visit Indy, Convene dropped by ACF’s Central/Western Regional Conference, ChefConnect: Indy, held April 12–14 at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, to see how to satisfy such a discriminating collective palate. Here are three things we learned:

1. Pick the perfect partner

The first and most important step, Bhandarkar said, is site selection. ChefConnect is three days of education and demonstration sessions, networking events, and, of course, plenty of opportunities to eat, from an awards gala dinner to numerous breaks and receptions.

“We’re not the kind of group to order off a standard catering menu,” Bhandarkar said, meaning that it’s important to ensure “that the talent is there at the property, and then that they have the resources to deliver on the expectations of our member chefs.” Check and check: Indianapolis Marriott Downtown’s executive chef, Michael R. Vlasich, is an award-winning ACF member.

Second, and just as important, is coming up with menus that are both interesting and impeccable. Although ACF attendees are discerning, “it’s a fun audience to work with,” Bhandarkar said. “[They] are eager to try new cuisine; they’re also eager to try well-executed cuisine.”

The partner that ACF picks also needs to be extremely flexible when it comes to menus and access to the kitchen. “Because we are serving chefs, we have a significant number of partners and sponsors who provide product that gets incorporated into our culinary experiences,” Bhandarkar said. “It really takes a property or venue with a strong commitment to the success of the program to facilitate not only incorporating those products into the menus but [also] the actual receipt of the product and the fabrication of the items on the plate.”

2. Make a local connection

With chefs from the central and Western states attending ChefConnect: Indy — until this year ACF offered separate conferences for the Central, Northeast, Southeast, and Western regions — Bhanadarkar amended the menus to reflect the event’s newly diverse audience. In a nod to the Midwest, one grill station served country-style pork ribs with peppercorn rub, Indiana spiced-chile cornbread in iron skillets, and glazed baby turnips with fiddlehead ferns. The West Coast was represented by a fresh ramen station with a miso-ginger-scallion option and a Peking-duck variation topped with shiitake sauce and West Coast–caught seafood.

Not only does this preference for local influences and purveyors add a fresh new element to ChefConnect’s menus and programming every year, it helps spotlight the host city’s culinary scene — which in Indianapolis is picking up big time. “Indianapolis is an urban destination surrounded by rich agriculture, so naturally we have a burgeoning culinary scene where it’s easy for chefs to source the freshest in local produce and proteins,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications at Visit Indy. “Hosting the conference provided a great opportunity for our local chefs and culinary community to share their expertise, and it gave Indianapolis a chance to showcase the city’s thriving food scene.”

3. Go whole hog

For ACF, F&B is integral to every part of the conference program — especially the education sessions — which can place extra demands on both the venue and the planning team. One well-attended session at ChefConnect was a butchering demonstration of a 280-pound hog. To ensure the packed room could adequately view the intricate demonstration, a GoPro camera positioned over the worktable displayed a bird’s-eye view of the process on a large projection screen.

“Our members are much more interested in what the hands of the presenter are doing rather than the face is doing,” said Bhandarkar, who said the cameras, used for the first time this year, worked perfectly in magnifying the detail of what presenters were preparing.

Another hurdle is ensuring that chef presenters have plenty of space and time to get ready for their sessions. Often, chefs come into the venue’s kitchens a day prior to prep their ingredients, and need at least an hour to set up the session room. “We don’t have the time for a quick meeting-room refresh,” Bhandarkar said, “especially when you have a whole hog hanging out.”

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina.

Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.