How to elevate F&B into art

At a luncheon this month in New York City, Wouter Tjeertes created a painted masterpiece that nobody saw coming. Approximately 4 feet long by 5 feet tall, the canvas bloomed before attendees with bright flowers in bold shades of red, yellow, orange, and blue. But this was no ordinary painting and Tjeertes is no ordinary painter: He's a chef, and his canvas was made entirely of chocolate.

"What I do is take white chocolate as a base, and I turn it into different colors with food coloring. Then, I start painting," explains Tjeertes, executive pastry chef and resident chocologist at Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort in Newport, Curaçao.

Tjeertes has been obsessed with sweets since he was 6 years old. He studied pastries and bread as a teenager, and developed a passion for chocolate while working for a renowned chocolatier in his hometown near Amsterdam, the world's largest port for cocoa imports. After witnessing a teacher in paint a slab of chocolate with edible paint, Tjeertes was inspired to develop his own chocolate-painting technique, a skill which he turned to when Benchmark Resorts & Hotels -- the company that manages Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort -- asked him to create something unique for this month's aforementioned event in New York. His idea: Recreate in chocolate a signature artwork that hangs in the reception area at Benchmark's Houston headquarters.

Benchmark founder and chairman Burt Cabañas conceived the original artwork -- a mosaic comprising 11,000 individual mosaic tiles -- because he wanted to convey the idea that his company is the sum of its individual employees. To create an edible version, Tjeertes took a copy of the mosaic and divided it into 60 pieces, representing the number of people who were expected to attend the New York event. He then copied each piece to a corresponding chocolate tile using chocolate "paint." Sixty hours and 40 pounds of chocolate later, he had 60 tiles that he assembled into a completed composition in New York.

"I had a massive wooden board on two easels that I had prepared with dark chocolate as a base coat. I started sticking the tiles on one by one, and by the end of the press conference: Voila! There was the whole mosaic," says Tjeertes, who afterwards disassembled the mosaic and individually packaged each tile into a take-home amenity for guests. "It was my greatest masterpiece so far."

Edible Art for Your Meeting

What he did at Benchmark's press conference could easily be replicated at other meetings and events, according to Tjeertes, who says artistic takes on food and beverage offer a unique way to simultaneously impress and entertain meeting attendees.

"In this day and age, everything is visual," Tjeertes explains. "People eat food with their eyes before they actually taste it, so it needs to look good first."

Groups that are interested in food art should start by commissioning a showpiece that they can display on their buffet, or as part of their event décor, suggests Tjeertes. At Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, for example, he has conceived a program wherein he can create a chocolate mosaic for meeting groups just like the one he created for Benchmark. Instead of Benchmark's artwork, however, he can create a mosaic that features a company logo or other image supplied by the meeting planner in advance of the event. The "wow" effect is the same as that created by a spectacular ice carving -- only better, since the chocolate tiles can be consumed by attendees after the meeting, thereby extending the life of the event.

In addition to mosaics like the one Tjeertes created, other showpieces include sculptures made of cake, like those created by cake artist Kim Simons; sculptures made of chocolate, like those of  Chef Jean-Philippe Maury at Jean Philippe Patisserie in Las Vegas; and the pulled-sugar creations of Laurent Branlard, executive pastry chef at Orlando's Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts.

"It really tickles people's imaginations," explains Tjeertes, who says showpieces also create an opportunity for chef-attendee interactions, which, in the age of celebrity chefs, are beloved by meeting delegates. "During meetings and events, I love to go out and give explanations about what we did and how we did it. It creates an appreciation for the food and adds value for the attendees."

Groups that want to go a step further than merely displaying food art can offer workshops in which attendees create it. Tjeertes is currently developing a chocolate-painting workshop at Santa Barbara, where meeting attendees will be given the opportunity to learn and practice his chocolate-painting techniques, and to create their own chocolate mosaic as part of a teambuilding exercise.

Another idea is having groups recreate famous artworks like the Mona Lisa using fruits and vegetables that are creatively assembled as if putting together a puzzle, à la artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo. Or you could take a cue from Italian teambuilding company, which offers a food-art activity during which attendees create art -- for example, food-based paintings -- using natural ingredients. You could even host a fruit- and vegetable-carving class, like the ones offered by the Academy of Ice Carving and Design.

"The sky's the limit," says Tjeertes, who recommends collaborating with the chef at your meeting venue to discuss possibilities that blur the line between "food" and "art." "At a lot of hotels, meeting planners only talk to their [account representative]. Instead, make it a point to actually speak one-on-one with the chef. Say, 'I have some ideas about the food; what can we do?' When you tap into the chef's creativity, you'll get much better results than if you just pick something from a menu that's already there.

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