Taste Trends: Jeff Leidy, Senior Executive Chef–West, Sodexo Live!

January 19, 2022

Chef Jeff Leidy is one of those lucky people who found his calling at a very young age. The consummate hospitality culinary professional began his four-decade-long career at 16, starting as a busboy in a steak and seafood house, where he quickly moved into the kitchen and fell in love with the culinary arts.  

“I have been cooking professionally ever since,” Leidy said. “I like to tell people that you don’t choose to be a chef, it chooses you. I was captivated by every aspect of being a chef—having the chance to be creative and serve guests who give you immediate feedback, and the ability to work with a collaborative team.” 

Leidy never looked back, graduating with honors from The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and launching a longstanding career that has included working in major and minor league sports, convention centers, museums, zoos and other cultural destinations. The award-winning culinarian has created menus for political dignitaries ranging from former Vice President Al Gore to former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.  

Additionally, his commitment to eco-friendly culinary practices has earned him a distinct reputation for altering the way people think about cuisine in modern convention centers.

Before assuming his current role at venue hospitality partner Sodexo Live!, where he is responsible for overseeing all culinary operations for the Western U.S. and Canada, Leidy acted as the regional chef for the organization, overseeing culinary operations at the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding area venues. 

TSNN had the opportunity to get Leidy’s thoughts about the current event food and beverage trends taking shape in 2022, including what it was like to oversee the culinary operations at CES this year. 

What are the biggest food and beverage changes that you’re seeing in the industry at this time? 

We continue to see a desire for fresh foods that are prepared in front of the guest. There is a big desire for attendees to not only know what is in their food, but also to understand how it is made. With the continued challenges of COVID, though, people still have a desire for more prepackaged items, so we do live action where we can, always keeping food safety top of mind.

What are some pre-COVID F&B trends that are no longer hot and why?

I think the trends are very similar to what they were prior to the pandemic. As a result of COVID, though, people gained more time at home, so they started to cook more, and it created a new interest in food, from more sourdough bread to healthier comfort foods.

People have become more aware of how their food is prepared and where it came from. Food prior to COVID tended to be more intricate and tended to be heavier, it had more steps, so if anything, we’ve simplified things and gone more minimalist.

Prior to COVID, dietary-conscious menus were a big and growing trend. Is this still true and if so, do you foresee this accelerating in the future? Why or why not? 

We are still seeing an emphasis on healthy menu items prepared with fresh ingredients. People want to know where their food is sourced, and they’re very particular. This is a good thing! It’s good to see guests engaged in the food ecosystem.

Yes, gluten-free menu choices are still very popular with guests, but I think we are moving away from keto and paleo diets and moving towards more plant-based foods, which would include more vegan and vegetarian menu offerings.  

What were the challenges and logistics of handling food and beverage for CES 2022, and did the Las Vegas Convention Center team do anything differently this year than in years past? 

CES is one of our biggest shows of the year that requires a considerable amount of planning and logistics. We start planning this show months in advance, with full collaboration from Sodexo Live!, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Consumer Technology Association. Unfortunately this year, with the recent Omicron surge, there was a drop in attendance from what we had earlier forecasted. This required us merely to adjust our food quantities, but our basic plan stayed the same. A silver lining of the final day being canceled was that we were able to donate about 1,000 boxed lunches and other nonperishable items to a few local food banks, to support the local Las Vegas community.

Many event planners are going to be working with even tighter budgets when events fully resume. What are your top tips for overcoming this obstacle while still providing delicious fare for attendees? 

When I am working with clients, I prefer to work on curating custom menus. It allows the event planner and the host property the opportunity to work within their budget and to create menus that are on-trend and structured to the specific needs and tastes of the guest. My advice for planners is to speak up early—express the vision you have and the menu items you’re looking for. This gives the culinary team time to plan and course, so the event can be a great success.

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.