Catering Trends at the University of Leeds: Insights from Head Chef Aaron Tong

Chefs hands adding finishing touches to a plate

Having launched our brand-new city centre venue, Cloth Hall Court, we’ve seen some catering trends gaining popularity with our clients. We chatted with Head Chef – Aaron Tong from our in-house catering service, Great Food at Leeds to find out more about the top requests we’re increasingly seeing for conferences and events.

Food for the brain, not just the stomach

Gone are the days of buffets comprising of heavy, carbohydrate-based foods, which can make delegates feel lethargic. Now we’re seeing lots of requests for light and healthy foods such as salads, protein skewers, tarts and terrines, using a range of ingredients including different vegetables, pulses, and grains.

Working with fantastic local suppliers like Hebden & Poole Fine Foods, we can design menus around the best seasonal ingredients and make dishes as inventive and ‘brain-food friendly’ as possible.

Moroccan Spiced Vegetable Tagine

Cost-sensitive without compromise

There are many sensitivities around budget currently. Planners are looking for cost-effective options that still tick a lot of other boxes to satisfy the latest trends.
When we started seeing more and more requests for the lighter, healthier buffet dishes, I started researching how this might affect costs. It seemed that by switching from selections of wraps and sandwiches to sharing salads and platters, the overall costs might not be reduced by very much. So, I started exploring special offers and seasonality more with our suppliers, to design the menus based on the availability of the most cost-effective ingredients at the time. This has worked extremely well for our customers and enables us to remain very competitive in the market.

Beef Stew and Dumpling

Freedom to enjoy shared experiences

After having our social interactions so heavily restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, clients really seem to be embracing shared food options once again.
We are seeing increased requests for food grazing stations and buffets with larger quantity bowls or platters of items – such as cheeses, meats, or desserts which guests can all share. This lends itself really well to networking and collaboration-style events, which are also proving very popular, as we are all making up for lost time!

Sustainability in practice

Customers increasingly want to know more about our sustainability credentials. We are proud to support Fairtrade and we’re committed to ensuring ethical and sustainable procurement across our supply chain. Most of our fresh ingredients are sourced via local suppliers, such as Hebden & Poole, or Artisan Bakes, who share our goal of minimising the environmental impact of events.

For the AFN Network+’s “Big Tent Event” event, we designed a bespoke menu mainly around plant-based foods, but for any meats included, we sourced organic produce via a local supplier.

Back when we launched Cloth Hall Court, the first event held in the venue was the CHS Leeds Welcome Reception. This event represents the whole UK events industry, but we showcased traditional Leeds fare through a menu of canapés, bowls and grazing stations. We kept it nice and local, working with our suppliers to source produce from Yorkshire pork pies and cheeses,
to locally-grown rhubarb. Desserts included an ice cream station from Northern Bloc and brownies from Brown & Blond.

Where possible, we also try to encourage ‘Chef’s choice’ when designing menus, such as a fish main course rather than meat with vegetarian or vegan options. This works well when there are more people adopting pescetarian or flexitarian diets these days and means that again we can think more eco-consciously in our approach.

Roasted Duck

Bespoke, bespoke, bespoke

Special requests used to be based on allergies and specific diets. However, we are now seeing a much higher number of requests from delegates, which are more centred around their individual preferences.

There are also more dietaries than ever before, as people are adopting vegetarian or vegan, pescatarian, flexitarian and even the Planetary Health lifestyles. A lot of this is influenced by the wealth of information out there now about conscious diet choices for the good of the planet.

Sometimes we work with clients where there is a need to design a whole menu around very specific delegate requirements. For example, the Communications Matters Conference, where several of the attendees were AAC users with a range of complex disabilities, who required easy wheelchair access to catering areas and adapted menus. For this event, we worked very closely with the client to devise a menu and layout that ensured a consistent experience for every delegate.

Sticky Toffee Pudding


View our new Autumn Winter 2023-2024 menus. 

To find out more, arrange a site visit or discuss your specific requirements for your next event, contact University of Leeds Conferences and Events:
Telephone: 0113 343 6100