Executive Chef Myk Banas at the 1,165-room Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile took our group of writers into his office overlooking the kitchen, where we dined on a 4-course breakfast that included a quail egg cooked inside a muffin with bits of house-cured bacon. Not even this flavorful dish, however, could draw the group’s attention away from Banas’ discussion about how 95 percent of the food served at the hotel is made in-house.
Banas spoke about his innovative initiatives that take the local movement to a level almost unheard of in the hotel industry—starting with the fact that the hotel works with about 50 local vendors on average. When he started at the hotel about 15 years ago, he adopted in-house practices early on with the installation of the ninth-floor rooftop garden. He also became one of the first hotel chefs to have beehives on site back in 2007.
Now, he’s experimenting with local breweries, distilleries, wineries and even soda producers. The culinary team makes about 4,000 bottles of wine a year using sourced grapes that are crushed in-house and bottled at the property. Similarly, Banas encourages his staff to help him work the line at Filbert Root Beer Company, a local soda factory, when he makes an annual batch of the hotel’s very own cherry cola.
The culinary fun can be integrated into events, too, addressing the fact that “people want to know where their food comes from,” says Banas. Action stations such as build-your-own mojitos or creating your own coffee blend for pour-over coffee are especially popular for groups, he adds. Meeting planners can also organize barbecue competitions in the rooftop garden.
A similar meal setup at the 581-room JW Marriott Chicago in Executive Chef Michael Reich’s office placed our group right in the heart of the kitchen at lunchtime. Reich and his culinary team crafted intricate dishes—local cider braised short ribs, crispy leeks, and tangerine and cardamom drinking chocolate, to name a few—with the same precision as scientists in a lab.
This attention to detail also shows up on the banquet menu. Reich sometimes has to create 12 different entrees for a group based on dietary restraints, and about 80 percent of banquet orders at the JW Marriott Chicago are custom.
Executive Chef Jack Delby at the 474-room Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel is equally dedicated to food, planning menus for large groups that come to use the hotel’s 150,000 sf of meeting space. Wearing a pink apron in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Delby spoke a lot about bringing Chicago classics to the hotel’s Sam & Harry’s restaurant. For instance, a foot-long Chicago-style hot dog on the lunch menu includes all the traditional fixings—yellow mustard, onions, pickle relish, a pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers and celery salt.
Delby is so dedicated to customer satisfaction that when someone at our table inquired about the Kansas City strip steak (not on the lunch menu), he went straight back to the kitchen and cooked one for us to share as a mere appetizer to what we had already ordered for lunch. He, too, is very involved with local farmers, pre-ordering ribeye from a small, nearby co-op. For interested groups, he offers teambuilding-cooking lessons.