Taste Trends: Aramark Executive Chef Justin Key Talks Fresh Fare for Summer Meetings

June 7, 2024

Even when he’s not at work creating delicious fare for hotel guests and event groups at the William F. Bolger Center conference hotel in Potomac, MD, Chef Justin Key is still thinking about food. 

“My oldest friends and my brother are all professional chefs, which makes for some interesting ‘shop talk’ even on days off,” Key said. “We often bounce ideas off each other and get together to play around with food. I enjoy cooking for large family events and find many food inspirations from those gatherings.” 

A food and beverage (F&B) industry lifer, the Maryland native has been working in professional kitchens since he was 16, when he quickly discovered his natural aptitude for the culinary arts and forwent plans for art school to attend the Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh.

 Taste Trends

More than two decades later, Key is a seasoned culinary professional who has worked in myriad facets of the food service industry, pursuing his ambitions working for many different chefs and service models in a range of professional kitchens in Colorado and Maryland, including at J.W. Marriott, Ritz Carlton and Hilton. But once he discovered convention and conference center hotels were the perfect fit for his creative personality and joined Aramark five years ago as an executive chef, he never looked back. 

“This sector of the industry provides me with the resources and ability to create new and unique guest experiences within the same facility on a daily basis,” Key said. “For a chef, this provides the best avenue to stay creative and inspired without having to move from business to business while also allowing you to improve on each experience. The resources and versatility to ‘wow’ the guest is unmatched in any other avenue of hospitality.”

Key will certainly be creating more wow factor for meetings and event guests this summer, when more and more event planners will be asking for refreshing, warm weather-friendly menu options in and outdoors to delight attendees at their meetings and events.

We had a chance to sit down with this dedicated culinary professional to learn how planners can work with their venue’s food and beverage team to create memorable summertime meetings and events with delicious food and creative presentations, without breaking the bank.

With summer almost here and more event planners potentially looking into taking their receptions and banquets outside, what are some top trends you’re seeing for warm weather appetizers, entrees, desserts and beverages? 

As a chef, summer is the best for exploring local markets for fresh ingredients. A tried-and-true stance for success is to pair the vibrancy of summer and local foods to create an event unique to where you are. When guests are traveling to your facility from many different regions, it’s wonderful to show them what makes your area unique by featuring locally crafted items, sourced ingredients and techniques that showcase your area’s best. 

That being said, it’s important to not overlook the impact of incorporating customizable beverages and desserts into this strategy. This is another not so new but strong trend that just keeps gaining traction in the way guests optimize their experience. Customizable mocktails and desserts give the ability to continue local fresh themes with an interactive element that drives engagement. One of my favorites here at Bolger is a rolled ice cream station where we can pair a variety of on-theme ingredients and accompaniments with an interactive chef demo that engages our guests. 

For more budget-conscious event groups, what are some more cost-effective F&B choices that are still on-trend and pleasing to the palate?

Taste Trends

Focus on high-impact features [by analyzing] what your goal is for your event and minimize items that do not provide high guest impact. Guests will always remember quality and memorable features over the number of offerings. Keep selections simple and utilize financial resources to maximize the quality of what you choose to offer. Customized stations wow guests more than plated dinners while also being more budget friendly. This is where a consultation and open conversation with your host facility will be critical, [and] having transparency around the event budget allows the planning team to tailor the experience just for you.   

Are there any special considerations that event planners should keep in mind when arranging meals and drinks to be served outside rather than in an indoor reception or banquet setting?

The first thing on anyone’s mind would be a rain plan. With the beauty of outdoor spaces comes the variable of weather, so plan to have alternative locations to accommodate. Tents and other items can get pricey, so understanding that will help in planning. As far as food experience goes, keep in mind the types of food that lend themselves well to being consumed outdoors on warm days. Lighter, fresher foods are better than heavier dishes as well as smaller bites vs. larger fill-you-up meals. Do not overlook hydration and working in custom beverage stations, like infused waters or mocktails, which are good, high-impact features.

How can event planners work with their host venue’s F&B team to take their outdoor banquets and receptions to the next level?

This is another area where open dialogue and consultations could be critical. Share as much about the theme, strategy and goals of the event with the host, as this will help them get creative for you and bring more thoughtful detail to the execution. Sometimes just having an open mind to the suggestions from the host team could make all the difference. 

For example, here at Bolger, we have a dozen outdoor location options on the property that all offer different accolades, however, one of them is my F&B team’s favorite. This location has wood-burning pizza ovens that can help create high-impact guest experiences ranging from a wood-fired churrasco steak-house-themed station to the classic charcuterie with custom wood-fired flatbreads. One technique I have utilized over the years to help the client envision their event in our space is to create visual boards for them based on successfully executed events, which help bring actual reference to the planning process.


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