It’s time to go back to basics with event food, says David Vaughton, Managing Director of Make Venues.

David Vaughton, MD of Make Venues

The events industry is entering a period of radical change when it comes to food. Fuelled by increasing awareness and demand from consumers and delegates, the event industry can be proud that it has become one of the first to react to calls across the food industry to review its many impacts on the planet.

This is about more than food on the plate, the subject takes in food sourcing, how it is transported, packaged and served. It’s also a farther-reaching subject, concerning global food production and its economic and ecological affects; from the cost of rearing beef to the growing movement of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. All the time though it is twinned with the increasing discernment among consumers to get the best, tastiest, healthiest meals, created with authenticity and care. It’s all about taste, with ethics.

From farm to fork, we’re seeing proactivity and enthusiasm from within our industry, and it’s great to see that we’re not just following, we’re leading. As a leader myself in an events industry business, and a complete foodie, I’m delighted that the industry is reacting so positively. Positively but perhaps not decisively.

There is always the pragmatist in me that looks to delve deeper into this ‘global movement’ and to assess what the net impact will be on the delegate experience; what is on their plate, and how is this going to change over the next few years as we all delve deeper into ethical food? Equally, while this is clearly more than just a fad, how is this movement going to remain sustainable and relevant as consumers continue to challenge us on our great intentions, our fashionable new menus, our pledges, and our promises on waste and sourcing?

For me, the very basics of eating healthy and ethically have not really changed. They have become clouded though, over thousands of years of social and cultural change, but also over the last 100 years. I think it’s about cutting through all of this heritage and going back to basics. Healthy food isn’t about eating lots of celery and it never really has been. As a species, human beings evolved as ‘grazers’ of food. From our roots walking through the planes of Africa, our species would be nomadic; picking up berries, nuts, insects, and small animals to eat as we went. In short, we mixed variation with movement.

We were attracted by colour; fruits of reds and oranges, vegetation of greens and yellows. We were always on the lookout for foods that would give us energy, proteins and calories to burn, never being limited in our capacity for variation in the way other species are. When we saw water we drank, in abundance, and instinctively understood its massive benefits.

I look back at these roots and I don’t see that much has changed over the last 10,000 or so years! The foods we needed then are the foods we still need today. I’ve long been an advocate of eating real food, as close as possible to its natural state; not boiled, processed or packaged out of nutritional effectiveness and diversity. I’m not so keen on insects or small animals! But I do like to eat great meats, I appreciate fresh seafood, and believe both taste nicer when sourced responsibly, by artisans that really care.

But we’ve changed the way we approach food. The massive variety of new foods that arrived on these shores and the arrival of the supermarket multiples have also changed the way we eat. In my mind, these changes have led to food turning into a commodity to be consumed as cheaply as possibly, with reduced care in nutrition and provenance. Now the pendulum is swinging back the other way and we need to be clear on what we want the end product to be.

So how does this relate to what we’re all talking about in this new world of ethical event food? I looked this morning at the food display at Woodland Grange, one of Make Venue’s three properties. Laid out in buffet format, the display started with the most stunning rainbow salads; beetroots, carrots, greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines. They looked colourful and inviting, so much so that they made the salad bar a viable alternative, not just ‘a place for the healthy people’. Along from there we had pulses, beans, lentils and other energy options, also as part of the salad section, and again brining colour and interest to the display.

Delegates could grab their meats if they wanted them, either to supplement the salads and greens, or as part of a new range of choice for those looking for a hot menu option. These meats have been sourced only through providers who give their livestock the best possible environment to support their welfare for however long they live, and everyone we work with needs to share our values on ethics from the outset. Things taste better when they are produced with care and consideration.

Even with the deserts, everything has been made on site, using fresh ingredients, in season, and sourced locally whenever and wherever possible. For the very pragmatic reason that it arrives fresher and tastes better. Our chefs, like myself, believe in this approach very strongly.

Where there are ‘bad things’ on the menu, brownies and sticky desserts, we’ve taken the decision to make them as ‘good’ as possible, not to just let standards drop. Chocolate needs to be rich and full, not processed, strawberries need to be fresh and delicious, especially if they’re sitting on a gorgeous parfait. But equally, we need to remind ourselves that although delegates are on business, this is also a ‘day out’, and we can’t be judgemental on anyone that wants to treat themselves, especially if they choose us to help them do it.

While changing pretty much every day, the way we serve food across all our venues hasn’t changed for a very long time. We’ve become one of those brands that seems to come in and out of fashion as consumer habits change. We’ve never changed from the basics of what good food is all about – colour, variety and nutrition. This has helped us exceed as both a food business and as a meetings and events one. Sometimes you just have to go back to basics, all the answers are there.