by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
You could write a book about it!
How often have meetings professionals said this to each other? We’re an industry with amazing stories that you couldn’t make up and we share them orally with each other all the time. However, we don’t often write them down. We haven’t yet started in earnest to use the incredible raw material we encounter day after day to shape and craft short stories, novels, plays, movie scripts etc. Other than David Lodge’s Small World there aren’t many works of fiction that narrate the precious tales of our industry. So here’s my effort to address the situation. This short piece tells the story of a typical menu tasting from the perspective of a young meeting planner. If you like it then take a look at Bob and Janine go to Vienna, another piece of original fiction that you’ll find in the archives of this blog site. Happy Easter!
The guys were in their early 50s, all a few kilos heavier than their present shirt size could hold but at least not corporate types. One of them was the client, the other two suppliers like her, but all part of the delivery team for the event.
Thankfully there wasn’t too much “boys-on-tour” high fiving going on between the three of them. They did tend to circle in their conversations around the mid seventies and the references went totally over her head.
She was in her early 30s but she wasn’t intimidated by them at all. She had a killer smile and long eye lashes and she knew how to use either, or both, when necessary.
She wanted finality on the menu by the end of the tasting and needed to keep the guys focused without becoming a nag. She was fine with John on his own but the dynamic had changed when the others arrived and she wanted to keep things on track.
The canapés had been just ok. For a 5 star hotel she had expected a lot more. The chicken was like a cheap “Happy Hour” appetizer and the three lumps of skewered lamb didn’t look terribly appealing although, in fairness, they did taste OK.
She handed each of the guys a sheet with a menu printed on it and a lined space below for “notes”. She hoped to collect them at the end of the session but she secretly knew she had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the guys to actually fill them in. At least it sets out my stall, she thought.
One of the two fish options was a “Baltic Medley” with various shell and smoked fish. The presentation was good, nice balance of colour etc but she knew John was right when he said it might be too risky to impose “only fish” on the attendees despite how well travelled they were. The attendees, that is, not the fish! It was a typical John Smart-Ass quip. Then Joe said it didn’t help the carbon footprint if you were transporting fish to Switzerland from the Baltic Sea particularly when the hotel was located right on the lakeshore. He had a point there, she had to admit.
Disappointingly, none of the starters was really suitable but then, helpfully,John suggested they go for a simple Goat’s Cheese presentation in puff pastry and a salad and everyone thought this was a good solution. She jotted that down on her notes.
They tasted two white wines, one Swiss and one French and quickly opted for the Sauvignon Blanc which was the Swiss one. It actually tasted better than the more expensive French Chardonnay and would work well if they decided to theme the menu around locally sourced produce.
The starter was cleared away and the soup course arrived. “One course down, three to go” she thought and, simultaneously, realised she was one step closer to eiderdown nirvana.
A rather good cream of celery soup with grated white truffles was served in a dish that was inappropriately large. “I could eat the soup and then wash my hands in the bowl”John said generating mild amusement all around. She continued to be disappointed by the performance of the hotel but said nothing as she felt the guys were engaged and once she had their attention she knew she’d nail the menu selection.
4 main courses then arrived – a veal, a beef, a surf and turf duo and a vegetarian option. The vegetarian risotto was excellent but, again, the presentation was poor and it looked like upscale baby mush. Conversely John’s surf and turf looked great but then Lou reminded everyone how violently European Chefs react against what they consider to be a terrible US culinary aberration! The veal definitely wouldn’t work no matter how good it tasted or looked so that just left the beef which was far too under-done for the average US attendee!
Around about this time she realised there was a problem with the red wine. They had started with one Swiss and one French red, both from the expensive end of the wine list. Both were served far too cold and didn’t improve much as they came to room temperature and opened up a little.
She thought the glasses were too small for a big luscious red wine and then John put context on it by recalling a meal the night before in Florence when the waiter had elaborately decanted a mid priced Chianti. There was a definite lack of theatre and drama about this gastronomic performance, she though to herself.
“We’d like to try another red” she informed the waiter. “Something Swiss and local”. He brought a Syrah but that didn’t convince either so a fourth bottle had to be produced and finally met with universal approval, although they still all felt it was at the wrong temperature.
She could feel the exhaustion rise up within her. She knew when the tasting ended she still had at least 2 hours of e mails facing her back in her room. The guys were firing questions at each other now on the capitals of US States. “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” but she was in no humour for it and wallowed in the distant prospect of a long, uninterrupted sleep.
Desserts were brought out and looked nothing like she imagined they’d be when the short list for the tasting had been made. It all seemed to lack creativity and flair, she thought, but she didn’t say anything, waiting forJohnto make the first comment.
“What fruit is in season in September when the programme goes live?” Joe suddenly asked. He was dead set on this idea to serve only local food, in season but could they make it work?
She took a deeper draught of the red and thought for a moment. This was not going according to plan. Maybe they were back at square one again? She consulted her notes. Goat’s Cheese Salad, Beef not too rare, Dessert to be decided but something “in season”. She took another sip of the red and decided to go for it.
“Bismark”, she shouted. “It’s Bismark. Bismark is the capital of North Dakota”
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are Managing Partners at SoolNua. They work with destinations, hotel groups, venues and other business tourism enterprises on strategy and marketing for meetings and events.
Photography by Roger Kenny – nice one Roger!