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FLORIDA When the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE) gets together, it's often all about the food. But at the Orlando chapter's June meeting, a select team of members, led by JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes' event planner Kathryn Budd, put their heads and talents together to turn one of the hotel's ballrooms into “Kitchen Stadium,” followed by a clearly unexpected surprise reception.
The sold-out event began in the prefunction foyer, where the approximately 189 guests were welcomed by the soothing melodies of pianist Chris Chan. The JW Marriott's culinary team made all the food at the event starting with a bounty of hors d'oeuvres including fried oysters on the half shell with citrus rum aioli, mini filet and lobster quesadillas, Mojito shrimp cocktails, and sangria jello shooters with tropical fruit brunois. An international cheese station, which consisted of a dozen cheeses, stilton drenched in port, mozzarella, and prosciutto hand-sliced to order were served with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, truffle oil, baguettes, and focaccia set up on a multilevel wooden butcher block display. As guests sipped Mojitos or sat had their fortunes told by Natasha, the Psychic Lady, numerous chefs began randomly handing out different colored aprons to participants. And since the event's theme was top-secret, no one knew exactly what was to come.
As inquisitive folks speculated, a female chef playing chimes summoned the curious crowd to follow her. Joined by the chefs, everyone proceeded toward the next portion of the evening. Spectators who did not RSVP in time to participate in the event were seated in bleachers placed just inside the doors. A dozen stainless steel cooking areas were placed on both sides of the room, leading to a stage complete with a jig and trussing. Live feed of the raucous event was played on two large screens that flanked the stage. Mise en place areas filled with pantry, utensil, and theme ingredients were set up for the teams as well. The overall effect was stylishly sterile. And with that the “Iron Chef” competition began. The theme ingredients? Lobster, crawfish, and soft shell and blue crab.
Judges, including Hello Florida's Mark Wells; Balloon Connection's Bobbi Roberts; Billy Singleton of the Villas of Grand Cypress Golf Resort; Mark Beaupre, executive chef of JW Marriott Orlando; and Sean Woods, executive chef of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes roamed the crowds looking for team spirit (which was plentiful once spurred on by team shots: can you say Jager and Red Bull?) Once each team's appetizers and entrées were set, chefs instructed, sous chefs prepped, and team members frantically gathered the necessary ingredients.
When time was called and dishes were up for judging, everyone expected a tasting but what happened next was even better. Another set of doors opened, revealing the reception areawhere culinarians from the JW's restaurants and catering and banquets teams along with those from sister property Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes and the Orlando World Center Marriott Resort & Convention Center, each created one dish from different places around the world for a total of 18 food stations, which were placed around the perimeter of the ballroom. Selections included gourmet chicken cassava with mango sauce; pan-fried filet mignon with Cajun seasoning; potato and vegetable terrine and cranberry gastrique; seared Poisson breast with Riz Noix au Chonpillon; Louisiana Gumbo; Argentinean empanada stuffed with beef tenderloin chimichurri; grouper basket filled with moros and watercress and served with a coconut sauce; soft shell crab sandwich with Old Bay chips; sliced BBQ and pork sandwiches with fries; and stuffed grape leaves with spiced lamb, pine nuts and Lubney sauce, representing places as varied as Florida, Kansas City, and Louisiana to Vietnam, Argentina, and Morocco.
The cacophony of aromas, the brilliant colors, and the striking presentation of the dishes added a majority of the sensory touches and served as an ideal juxtaposition to the subtly sexy clear and neutral decor. Creative director Mark Wells of Hello Florida paired acrylic tables from Ice Magic with sleek acrylic chairs with white chair pads from Bill Whidden Designs. The tables were topped with silk floral arrangements supplied by Unique Option LLC, which sat upon river rock table runners from Panache: An Event Rental Company. Place settings consisted of simple silver flatware paired with brownish-sienna-colored red and white wine glasses. In the back of the room, a 12- by 16-foot stage complete with white acrylic and spandex columns was flanked by two coordinating acrylic bars lit in blue from within, each set a few feet in front of the structure. From atop the stage, Mechanical Soul, a four-piece band from Peyton & Day Entertainment, supplied music that blended into the background. The crystal-clear simplicity of the understated ambiance enabled food presentations to be the focal points of dinner and dessert, constantly changing with each dish consumed.
Before the evening came to a close, Todd Hickey, director of event management of the JW Marriott, took mic in hand to give closure to the heated battle that had ensued earlier. First place went to the black team, under the direction and culinary prowess of chef Thomas Horner of (drum roll, please) the JW Marriott.
Shari Lynn Rothstein