Rebecca Hennes" />
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Friday, September 22, 2023


Wizard of Oz-themed Gourmet Night sweeps national awards

The dining room at 2013's “Gourmet Night: There’s No Place Like Home.”  | Photo courtesy of UH Media Relations

The University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management is receiving due praise for last year’s Gourmet Night, a signature event that has inspired and challenged students since 1974.

The 42-year tradition showcases the talents of UH students with an over-the-top themed multi-course gourmet dinner, cocktail reception and silent auction that raises money for scholarships and Hilton College programs. With a guest list of 360 people, 13 student managers plan and prepare over the course of a year to make every black tie evening a success. This year’s “Gourmet Night: There’s No Place Like Home,” which took place on April 6, 2013, was honored with the Best Event Production for a Budget Under $50,000 award at the National Association for Catering and Events Experience Conference in Baltimore earlier this month.

“Gourmet Night 2013 won Best Event Production because of the attention paid to every detail of the event,” UH NACE Student Chapter President Clara Snelson said, “From the moment the guests left their cars at the valet, they were transported to a different time and place.”

The Wizard of Oz-themed dinner included a Kansas-staged ballroom and took guests on a magical journey to the land of Oz.

“The whole evening was spectacular, and that is entirely attributed to the management team and the volunteers,” Snelson said.

Snelson, formerly the communications resource manager and now the event manager of Gourmet Night 2015, was awarded one of the highest honors at the conference — the $10,000 Vince DeFinis Scholarship.

“It is the greatest honor for me to have received the Vince DeFinis scholarship,” Snelson said. “Being recognized on stage in front of the top industry professionals was a phenomenal experience. On top of having achieved such a highly sought-after award, being able to enter into my senior year completely debt-free is invaluable.”

UH students Caitlin O’Brien and Hannah Ballard both won Foundation Scholarships worth $5,000 and $2,500 respectively.

“For our students to take three of the four scholarships and the top two in competition with scores of other students from across the country is an indication of the quality of students we have in the College,” said Hilton College Dean John Bowen.

Erin Oeser, executive director of Gourmet Night and faculty advisor for the NACE UH chapter, was awarded the George Zell Spirit of NACE award at the conference, which marks the fifth accolade for the Hilton College to receive for a single event.

“This is just further proof of what Hilton College students can accomplish. The fact that they can put on an event so impressive it competes with professionally produced events is remarkable. I couldn’t be more proud,” Oeser said.

Aside from beating professionals from all over the country by winning three of four national scholarships, as well as Best Event Production and the respected George Zell award, Gourmet Night 2013 also won Best Themed Event at the International Special Events Society award banquet.

“The awards are definitely treasured by the Hilton College,” Snelson said. “They offer affirmation of the college’s premiere status among other hospitality programs throughout the country.”

NACE is a nonprofit organization that has been instrumental in the growth and success of Gourmet Night. Contributions from NACE as well as the Houston catering community have helped make Gourmet Night possible every year.

“Because of our great relationships, we are able to get more for our money — be it linens, dishware, flowers, staging, photographers — and really wow our guests, yet not break the bank. Sometimes we can literally get what we need for pennies on the dollar,” Oeser said. “No question, our industry connections have helped us improve the quality of our event, which leaves us with more money at the end of the day to go toward college programs and scholarships.”

With nearly 100 members, the NACE student chapter is the largest organization at the Hilton College. The chapter partners with professionals who give jobs, internships, and career advice to students.

“Countless Hilton College alumni are in their present positions because of professional relationships through NACE,” Snelson said.

Through the years Gourmet Night at the UH Hilton College has grown into an exclusive event that most Hilton students would love to have on their resumes.

“Completing the planning process with last year’s team was the greatest experience of my college career, and to be heading into my senior year having been selected as the 2015 Event Manager is really a dream come true,” Snelson said. “I am beyond excited for what lies ahead.”

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