Creating a first-ever, high-end event can be daunting enough. Add a guest list comprising 500 foodies and top foodservice professionals who have seen, made and eaten it all, and the stress level increases. And finally, make it the go-to event during a week packed with go-to events. No pressure there …

But working under pressure is an event industry standard, and for Kathy Miller, head of Chicago-based Total Event Resources, turning up the heat meant turning the National Restaurant Association's annual sit-down dinner gala on its head. The result: This year's event, called “Destination: Celebration,” combined a trendy reception, an awards ceremony and a Kenny Loggins concert, all atop the Harris Theater's Rooftop Terrace in Chicago's Millennium Park.

“We had to design and execute a well-timed, cohesive and exciting experience that brought together three very different elements at one time and in one space,” Miller says. This meant elements such as the stage, sizeable production areas (backstage and in-house), large AV screens and LED floor monitors, multiple bars (including one 40-foot bar), a big kitchen, coat check, buffets, tables, seating and reception all had to be brought in and set up within the tent.

For the reception, Jewell Catering created menus reflecting current food cultivation, preparation and presentation trends, which were accented by accompanying decor: organic and sustainable foods (“The Green Room,” which featured a wall of miniature flowering wraps growing from a bed of wheat grass), molecular gastronomy (“The Chemistry Lab,” where chefs donned lab coats), food trucks (“Food on the Move,” featuring bite-size ethnic street fare) and action stations (“Made to Order,” featuring customized shaken salads served in stemless martini glasses). At the bar, locally crafted beers and liquors spoke to the current “house-made” cocktail trend.

At the popular “Chemistry Lab,” hors d'oeuvre were served on stainless steel lab tables and passed by staff dressed in lab coats. Options included chilled mint pea soup served in test tubes, mini Caprese salads skewered on disposable pipettes filled with balsamic vinaigrette, ancho chile-rubbed bacon skewers served from a Lucite passing tray with dry ice, and a variety of flash-frozen desserts prepared on a line of anti-griddles. Another food trend — bite-size sweet and savory lollipops — appeared as tray-passed foie gras lollipops crusted with smoky fleur de sel.

Great food aside, the main focus of the evening was a much-anticipated, first-time awards program honoring innovative industry operators. In addition to IMAG screens flanking the main stage, plasma screens placed around the buffet stations acted as scrolling menus during dinner, then switched to graphics supporting the main-stage awards program.

After the awards program, headliner Loggins took the stage to cap off the night, often coming out into the audience for a more personal performance.


Total Event Resources 1920 N. Thoreau Drive, Suite 105, Schaumburg, IL 60173; 847/397-2200; www.total-event.com