It’s Culture Days weekend and I decide to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen at the London Convention Centre. I want to see what it takes to pull together a three-course meal for more than 1,000 guests — something Chef David Elrik and his crew do on a regular basis. Apparently I will learn a few industry secrets. Might come in handy the next time I host a sit-down meal for loads of people.
As soon as I walk past those signs that say “authorized staff only” I feel like I have been transported into a world of ginormous things. Coffee brewers with baskets as big as my head. A delivery elevator that can accommodate a tank or a helicopter (and actually has for past events). Massive cooking cauldrons — one holds 2,000 cups of soup. Huge utensils to stir, blend, mash and otherwise manipulate food. A gas-fired skillet as large as a dining table, with gears to lift and tilt the entire surface. A convection oven that looks like a large walk in closet — roll in a trolley of raw poultry, hook it up to spin like a giant rotisserie…and presto! … out comes beautifully cooked chicken.
Elrik shows us a Rational oven with push button controls. “Even we could be chefs if we used one of those!” says a member of our group. Sure, using that piece of equipment looks easy … but managing the rest of the operation — not so much.
The pace and logistics involved in creating hot, fresh, tasty meals for large groups, sometimes in multiple meeting rooms, must be a nightmare at times! The largest meal that Elrik has overseen was for 1,850 people. That’s not the norm, but 1,000 is old hat. There can be a number of rooms in use at the same time, each with different menus and different schedules, so timing is always critical.
Prep work starts the day before: chopping, slicing, dicing, even putting grill marks on steaks so they can be oven cooked just before serving. Aside from appetizers, soups, salads and entrées, the kitchen also produces its own ice cream and sorbets. Pastries are made by Petit Paris, under Elrik’s direction — he says it’s akin to having his own pastry chef who works offsite.
I picture the beehive of activity on a crazy, busy night. Dirty dishes are crated and rolled into a massive machine-washed, rinsed and ready to use in one minute, start to finish! Workers who unload the piping hot dishes wear surgical tape on their fingertips to keep their skin from scalding. There is a heated dish room right beside the plating area. With their efficient assembly-line system, staff can plate 200 hot meals onto the hot dishes in just 10 minutes. Once they are stored in the massive holding units, they become the responsibility of the serving staff.
If you’re going to oversee this scale of a kitchen it helps to be tall, and to be able to roll with whatever challenges arise. At 6’3” Elrik has a bird’s eye view of his domain, and although he looks like he could be fresh out of chef’s school, he’s actually 46 years old. No sign of early aging due to stress. He’s either incredibly resilient or he has good genes on his side!
I end the tour with a new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes at the convention centre. But am I ready to serve a perfectly prepared meal in my own kitchen, on heated plates, to a couple of dozen dinner guests? Maybe … if I get one of those Rational ovens … and my own sous-chef …
Kym Wolfe is a local writer who loves to explore places that would normally be off-limits. www.kymwolfe.com