Branson Chefs Share Tips on “Keeping it Local” for Meetings

Just like meeting planners, chefs love to give conference attendees a unique and memorable culinary experience. Whether it’s locally-sourced produce, heirloom recipes or mountain moonshine, Branson’s food and beverage artists have a diverse palette with which to delight your meeting attendees.

While there are distinct F&B trends nationwide — such as the inclusion of more diverse vegetables or the resurgent popularity of avocados and cauliflower — the area’s chefs incorporate these and also frequently take the time to get to know their groups. This gives them a chance to know the attendees’ unique tastes and tailor a custom experience for them.

Robert Stricklin, the award-winning chef at the Keeter Center and a professor of Culinary Arts at College of the Ozarks, says this allows his staff to get creative.

“We have a group that loves our signature pecan, chocolate chip oatmeal cookie,” Stricklin says. “Recently we incorporated the cookie into one of their breaks with a miniature milk bottle. We filled the milk bottle using milk from our own dairy, presented with a balanced cookie on top of the bottle and a straw pushed through the cookie to secure it.”


Locally Sourced Ingredients

Locally sourced produce at the Keeter CenterThe use of regional ingredients has been a trend for several years and Stricklin says that now he is seeing chefs incorporating locally-grown ingredients within recipes, not just at the center of the plate.

Howard Snitzer, the Executive Chef at the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, says it’s important to take the time to research local farms that are using clean growing techniques and that take pride in wholesomeness.

“We are using hydroponic lettuces and micro-greens from a farm in nearby Hollister,” Snitzer says. “We are using Berkshire Pork from Circle B Ranch in Seymour, MO and have a Pork Osso Bucco on our menu at the moment that is a nicely braised trio of pork shanks with an apple-shallot braising jus, served over cheese grits.”

Matthew Dunlap, the Executive Chef for Savor at the Branson Convention Center, agrees that local ingredients provide great opportunities to make attendees’ meal functions memorable.

“The Amish communities in southern Missouri are another great resource for fresh produce,” Dunlap says.

College of the Ozarks operates its own produce garden, dairy farm and grist mill, giving the Keeter Center’s kitchen year-round access to fresh, on-site ingredients. They also receive daily deliveries of produce like kale, sugar snap peas and multi-colored cauliflower.

Stricklin says he tries to incorporate Missouri ingredients into recipes whenever possible — items like sorghum molasses, black walnuts and pecans. The Keeter Center even goes so far as to use local hickory wood and charcoal for smoked items.

“I also like to cruise the local farmer’s market,” adds Stricklin. “This is where I found Terrell Creek Farms and their artisan goat cheeses.”


Shining Ozarks

While farmers in the Ozarks have been known for generations for their strawberries, tomatoes, peaches and other fresh produce, one of the more interesting ingredients to be adopted by local chefs and bartenders is a distilled grain: moonshine.

“White lightning” has been a part of the Ozarks’ history and folklore for more than a century, peaking in the pre-World War II years during Prohibition and the Great Depression. For many decades, the only way to experience corn whiskey was to know a bootlegger or to run an illegal still. In the past decade though, several legal distilleries have begun operating in the Branson area, bringing these spirits out of the backwoods and into the mainstream.

Several of the area’s chefs have embraced this “new” regional ingredient, using it for artisan beverages as well as including it in entrees. Branson Convention Center offers moonshine tastings that include raspberry, strawberry and peach spirits. At the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel, there’s also a “Moonrito” that blends fresh lime, mint and local moonshine for a light summer cocktail.


Healthier Options

Smoothie Shooters at the Branson Convention CenterDunlap says chefs are creating healthier options, as entrees or snacks, and integrating them into their dining plans for conference attendees.

For example, the Branson Convention Center offers “smoothie shooters” as an enhancement for plated or buffet breakfasts. The special display features shot glasses filled with a healthy puree of fresh strawberries, bananas and blueberries.

The convention center also is making available more meals and stations that include options like yogurt, nuts, fresh fruit, low-sugar cereals, vegetable wraps and roasted meats.

Dunlap says being health-food conscious also means having more entrees or “by request” items for attendees who have food allergies.

“But this is the Ozarks,” Dunlap says, noting that even with the trend toward healthier options, meat and potatoes are still crowd-pleasers.

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