by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
In a recent editor’s blog on MeetPie the author refers to Roald Dahl’s The Witches as “one of the few works of literature set in the heady world of the conference and events industry”. And the author is right, of course. There are precious few works of literary merit set in the world of meetings and events despite our certain knowledge that there are rich literary pickings here. Besides The Witches, David Lodge’s Small World is the only novel I can think whose plot and key themes stem directly from our industry.
I’d like to challenge us, therefore, to put that right. How often have we said “you could write a book about it” when referring to our work as meetings and events planners? To kick start the process here’s a short story inspired entirely by a common activity – The Tasting.
The Tasting: a Short Story
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 thought 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 for John to 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”
Recalling many site inspections over the years during which lifelong friendships were forged and award winning events were created. With special thanks (and apologies!) to Paul, Tom and, of course, star-of-the-show, Fernanda!
Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua