Bespoke Food Symposium Tackles Tough Issues in Food

By Kelsey Ogletree, September 18, 2017
Robert McKeown Bespoke

Robert McKeown

In the meetings industry, many conversations about food and beverage center around food allergies, healthifying menus and working with your venue’s catering team to develop a delicious meal while staying on budget. But if you think of the food industry as an onion, we’re only peeling off the very first layer.

The BESPOKE Food Symposium aims to cut right to the heart of the onion, sparking conversations about the hardest issues facing people working in the food industry right now—think gastronationalism, diversity, labor, gender, immigration and more. In four cities across the U.S. this year, the event has brought together leaders in academia, food and hospitality to discuss these topics and hear from keynote speakers. And to continue the metaphor, there can be tears.

“We talk about the ugly stuff happening behind the kitchen doors,” says Robert McKeown, conference chair, Oxford Food Symposiast and visiting professor from George Brown College – Canada.

Bespoke is a spin-off of the groundbreaking Oxford Food Symposium, originated in 1979 at England’s University of Oxford (largely recognized as one of the few places in the world to view food studies as a legitimate academic pursuit). British diplomat, historian and food writer Alan Davidson founded the program along with scholar Theodore Zeldin. In 2003, Davidson was awarded the Erasmus Prize for his work.

McKeown puts together a dynamic group of panelists and speakers in each city after getting to know key players there and discovering which topics are most important in each region. In Boston, it was landscape and gender; in Austin, immigration and movement; in Napa, California, origins and authenticity; and in Chicago, happening Sept. 30, it will be food and identity—a nod to the city’s multiethnic character.

“The audience becomes part of the event,” says McKeown.

As such, the layout sets the tone from the moment guests enter. The room is set up like a mini restaurant, with 10-12 people seated at each round. In Chicago, beginning at 10 a.m., they’ll hear from notable keynote speakers like cookbook author Naiomi Duguid (“Taste of Persia,” “Hot Sour Salty Sweet”) and Nina. F. Ichikawa, University of California – Berkeley Food Institute policy director.

Panel discussions with Ichikawa and several others will come next, interwoven with a family-style, Persian-inspired vegetarian lunch prepared by local chefs from Income Tax, with wine tastings. During the meal, panelists will be spread out amongst the tables to maximize interaction time with guests. The event concludes at 2 p.m.

Proceeds from BESPOKE Food Symposium go toward Piggy Bank charity and the American Friends of Oxford Food Symposium Scholarship Fund. McKeown says each person involved with the event, either in a presenter or an attendee capacity, shares the desire to open up communication lines, advocate for advancement of the industry and to drive growth for the food world as a whole.

“The goal of this event is conviviality,” says McKeown. “We’re bringing people, food and ideas together at the same table.”

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