Gourmet Night serves experience to remember
Months ago, President and Chancellor Renu Khator had written in her planner that her attendance at an event in April was “non-negotiable.” As the year went on, Khator received invitations to two other black-tie events, scheduled on the same night as the event she had promised herself — and more importantly, her students — that she would attend.
And yet, Khator took the stage at Gourmet Night at the Hilton UH Grand Ballroom on April 5, brimming with admiration for the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management students who had spent nearly a year preparing the penultimate event of their college careers.
“My staff informed me of the other events, and I asked them if either of the other events would give me the kind of emotions that Gourmet Night does,” Khator said. “I told them, ‘If no, forget it.’”
Since 1974, Gourmet Night has served as the Hilton College’s showcase of the talent that has continually made it one of the highest-ranking hospitality programs in the world. An evening of sumptuously lavish décor and delicacies, the 41st annual Gourmet Night catered to nearly 400 high-rolling Houstonians, UH alumni and hospitality industry giants.
The event is entirely planned and executed by an elected committee of 13 elite Hilton students who have spent nearly a year preparing the evening without the help of faculty or professionals. Event planning junior Clara Snelson, who served as the communications resource manager of the event, stressed the independence they were given as a student committee.
“Whenever I try and explain this to people, and I tell them I’m on a planning committee, oftentimes they don’t realize the full scope of (the independence we’re given),” Snelson said.
“This,” she said, pointing to the twelve other students around her, “is all of us.”
Each Gourmet Night is centered on a theme designed by the student committee that influences every aspect of the event, and no expense was spared in honor of this year’s theme, 41 Diner – which the event’s program described as a “tribute to the scores of eateries that once dotted historic Route 66 with our own rendition of the classic diner.”
“There’s such intense freedom. The reporting back to the executive committee doesn’t happen so much as keeping them in the loop,” co-event manager and event planning junior Jordan Grace said. “From brainstorming the theme to the night of — that’s all students. The adults facilitate, but we do everything.”
Students operating the complementary valet service greeted guests dressed to the nines in whitewashed jeans and leather jackets as students in pink poodle skirts and thick-rimmed China-style glasses guided attendees to the second floor, where guests were encouraged to try their hand in a silent auction held in the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom before dinner.
The silent auction, which raised nearly $25,000 for student scholarships offered through the Hilton College, boasted more than 150 items, including a UH football helmet autographed by Case Keenum, dinner for five with Mayor Annise Parker at Tony’s Restaurant, wine and hors d’oeuvres with Khator, autographed headshots of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and a basketball signed by former Cougars players Clyde Drexler, Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon.
“Tonight’s event is exceptional,” Hilton College Dean John Bowen said. “Walking past students dressed up, drinking their malts, and then all of the sudden you’re in a ballroom — it really put a top to this evening.”
The menu, designed entirely by banquet chef and catering management senior Ali Taylor and sous chefs restaurant managing senior Martina Bahr and catering junior Andrea Fuimara, treated guests to a five-course meal with corresponding wine pairings. The first course, Pot Pie on the Plains, was described as “the most American of meats, particularly out west, (served up) in this diner classic reminiscent of mom’s cooking, but presented with a twist,” and featured slow-cooked bison and roasted vegetables tucked snugly into a biscuit crust.
The Blue Plate Special, an iconic staple of diner culture, underwent an elegant transformation. The special presented “Thanksgiving staples” drenched in a sweet roulade of duck contrasted with pecan cornbread and tangy cranberry. A swirled blend of sweet and mashed potatoes and snappy garlic green beans enclosed the entrée to “round off the ﬂavor and color.”
“Me and my sous chefs are the dream machine,” Taylor said. “Everyone else is responsible for it moving forward, but ultimately everything that comes out on the plate came from our heads.”
Guests enjoyed the five-course meal in the Grand Ballroom, where each table was adorned with opulent centerpieces and vases swelling with candy, sweets and pastries. Bursts of neon light danced across the walls of the ballroom, and local band The Mockingbirds kept the good vibes rolling with covers of old-school rock and cult classics.
“If people want to experience something new and different in college, it provides an avenue where you don’t experience the typical ‘go do a blood drive or go help in a soup kitchen’ thing,” wine and spirits management junior and beverage service manager Brett Sanders said. “(Gourmet Night) might not benefit the community, but it benefits the college, which benefits the University, which is developing tomorrow’s leaders, who then benefit the community.”
The evening was capped off with events management senior and general manager Sara Morrill welcoming the nearly 300 volunteers to the front of the ballroom to exchange high-fives with Bowen, Khator and the entire Gourmet Night staff. The ballroom erupted in uproarious applause, recognizing the evening the students presented.
“My favorite part of this is when the students come together at the end who put in so much work into this. It is something that brings tears to my eyes,” Khator said as she addressed the ballroom. “When they come out and line up, I just think to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, here are the leaders of tomorrow.’”