Thursday, June 18, 2009

Food prep

I currently work at a large convention center which has a large banquet kitchen. This is my first exposure to what a high volume banquet kitchen is, and I am fascinated by how much work it takes, and how many people are involved, to get the food out. We have events that vary in size from twenty people in a conference room to over a hundred thousand people attending large shows. For the big shows there can be several dozen food outlets, serving food that ranges from simple sandwiches to a carvery serving up beef and turkey to salad bars, pasta stations, burgers, kosher, and on to whatever show management requests. Sometimes large conferences will contract for served food, one software firm had sit down meals for seven thousand people three meals a day during their four day conference.

A banquet kitchen differs from a restaurant kitchen in that it is designed to serve mass quantities of food rather than individually prepared portions. You can’t call our kitchen and order a special steak, you’d have to order twenty. But we are attached to a big resort hotel casino (BRHC), and they have quite a few kitchens over there; with over seven thousand rooms and many more guests wandering through you can get room service or food service from one of their kitchens whenever you want, so if there is a request for specialized food then we don’t prepare it, it comes from next door.

We have two kitchens, one for preparation of cold food and one for cooking and preparing hot food. The cold kitchen has it’s own chef, and they mostly make sandwiches and salads. There are several walk in coolers and lots of table space for preparation. When there are big events there can be over a dozen people in here putting things together and packaging them.

There are racks filled with bowls and dishes, several meat slicers, lots of knives and cutting boards and all kinds of other implements for making stuff. There are standards for how everything is made, and I found this sign taped to the front of a cooler to be rather amusing.

There is a corridor separating the cold kitchen from the hot kitchen, which also runs down the side of the kitchens and over to the warehouse and some of the kitchens of the BRHC next door. This is where all of the carts roll up with supplies and stuff and other carts wait to be filled with food and rolled out to the serving stations and meeting rooms.

There are also closed carts also used to transport food but that also have electric heaters or coolers used to keep foods at the correct temperature while waiting to be served. Most of these are about two meters high and get really heavy when filled with plates and food. It usually takes two or three people to pull and push them over to wherever they are needed.

Each shape has a different name; the only name I have heard is ‘Queen Mary’, supposedly given because the box is so big and heavy that it moves like a boat. I don’t know which of these is a QM, perhaps the Banquet Manager can recognize what is what.

The kitchens and halls all have tiles on the floor. It’s pretty clean back there, someone is always steam cleaning and between shifts the stainless steel work surfaces are scrubbed and steamed and polished. I’ve seen the back work areas of some fast food places, some of those can get pretty bad, but our kitchens are always nice. The county department of foods health inspectors are always wandering through, sticking thermometers in things to make sure food is held at the proper temperature and looking for unsanitary conditions. We’ve never gotten a write-up for those things, I guess it would not do good things to our reputation, and getting a few thousand people sick with food poisoning would likewise not be nice.

We have three full time chefs on staff; one each for the cold and hot kitchens and one head chef. All the other food service staff are hourly people called in as required. We have a favorite Chinese chef that works a carvery station for big shows who we enjoy talking to. My favorite is Mary, a fast moving fast talking cook (the chefs have the fancy hats and smocks, the cooks don’t dress quite as pretty) that is almost always called in for any event. She usually creates the pasta sauces and works on a fry station when the food outlets are open, and works in the hot kitchen preparing things. Here she is cooking up some Alfredo pasta sauce.

I always pictured kitchens as having large kettle type soup pots for cooking liquid stuff, but in our kitchen there are three of these flat devices used to prepare soups and sauces. You can see the size, it’s about a foot deep and evenly heated. There is a crank that tilts the back of the unit up, and the stuff being cooked then pours out of the spout in the center into large vessels for freezing or storage, ladles are used to scoop smaller amounts out into serving containers.

There are several kettle type cookers, but these are used to make other things; here she is cooking large chunks of beef.

The beef is cooked in a liquid to keep it moist, and it is cooked until it just falls apart; the same chunks of beef are also roasted in large ovens and carved for sandwiches and plates of roast beef. In this method of preparation the liquid is kept for us in sauces and soups, and the meat is shredded for use in several of the Mexican items we serve, such as tacos and burritos.

I never really thought about it before, but if you are serving 100,000 people that are here for a three or four day show then it takes quite a lot of food. All of that food has to be delivered to our facility in trucks, stored in a warehouse or coolers or freezers until needed, then prepared, delivered to the outlet location and served. Anytime I walk out back there are lines of huge delivery trucks lined up waiting for an open spot at the loading docks downstairs. Besides our facility the BRHC next door has thirty or forty restaurants that all require supplies, kitchens that create banquets for groups and kitchens that prepare individual items for room service, and a large staff cafeteria. The BRHC is one of the few on the Strip that does not have a buffet, relying instead on the specialized restaurants, which are each run by outside companies and not the hotel itself. There are about fifteen thousand employees working over there; if you work a full eight hour shift you get a free meal, so the employee cafeteria is open 24 hours a day as the casino is always open and there are always lots of people around all the time. Our convention center is run as a separate company so we don’t get to go to the cafeteria, but talking to people that do eat there rate it as one of the best employee places, and rate it above most restaurants in town, so it is a pretty good perk to be able to eat there.


Banquet Manager said...

Hey Joe, we call those hot boxes. The Queen Mary is the large 4-5 stainless steel shelf on wheels like the ones in the photo just above the hot boxes.

Take care buddy.

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