Five-star dining is not something you’d always expect at a convention centre, but Blair Rasmussen has taken fine dining to the masses. Literally.
While serving 3,000 people the exact same meal may seem mundane, that couldn’t be further from the truth for the executive chef at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
“There is always a new challenge around the bend. It seems like every day is a new world for me and is a new adventure,” Rasmussen said of his position at the convention centre.
That adventure for Rasmussen started at just three years of age when he’d watch his mother prepare meals for the family at home.
“I was just fascinated by the bread, the dough rising, and how warm it was. How you’d wrap it up and keep it bundled up like a baby. I was hooked at a very young age. It’s very tactile and it was really captivating to me,” Rasmussen said.
It wasn’t until age 24, when he started in culinary school, and graduated to working in some of Vancouver’s finest hotel restaurants, that he pursued food as a profession.
At the start Rasmussen had no interest in working in a convention centre environment-—it was too consistent, the food too lackluster, the variety lacking.
“As most young turks coming of school, the reason I started in the kitchen was the fascination that was occurring. Love to eat. Captivated by quality. That is the prize you’re taking from the creation of beautiful food. That was what I was interested in and I thought, ‘This is it for me.”
The prevailing ethic among convention centre operators at the time was that it was easy to scrimp on quality and even easier to order food in from elsewhere versus making it fresh from scratch.
“That’s what’s given the convention food business a bad name. I don’t think the rep of the convention centre was that great. It was one of those places that really supported that cliché of the rubber chicken,” Rasmussen said.
After a stint in London, England, Rasmussen returned to his hometown. But the hotel restaurant business was slow and the jobs few.
Vancouver was opening its new convention centre, however, and the timing could not have been more perfect for Rasmussen, who knew some people who’d already landed jobs there.
“It opened up door and a little voice said, ‘You can do good things here.’ I realized that in that kind of environment it was possible to control things. It was a known commodity—the venue, the food, how many. I was able to devote my energy to quality again,” Rasmussen said.
After being handed the executive chef’s hat, Rasmussen set out to overhaul the convention centre’s menu from the “rubber chicken” to something of incredible quality and presentation.
Instead of bringing most of the food in, at a high price, Rasmussen worked out the portion cost of making the food in-house, and the math worked, reducing food costs because of the ability to keep an eye on spending.
Rasmussen admits it was not easy and that his bosses were at times unsure he could bring the fine dining experience to a large-scale environment.
“I took pride in elevating the standard of the food. To make a five or 10 per cent improvement took 100 per cent more effort. To motivate and direct staff, it’s a huge challenge. I learned what to do in some cases, but I learned what not to do from the previous chef.”
The convention centre’s menu now reads like anything you’d see at the highest end restaurants of Vancouver.
Pan seared wild pacific salmon filet, pepper crusted New York steak, Merlot braised Canadian short rib, chocolate pistachio roulade and organic banana squash soup are just a handful of the dishes available.
“I have to make it interesting, but people could place an order for 100 people or 2,000 people and it must be available in January or August. It is interesting, but it has to be possible to create at any time of year,” Rasmussen said.
“The cooks are put through their paces here. I’m not worried about the chefs getting bored.”
He said 40 per cent of the menus are specially created for individual events with a certain theme or focus, such as local or seasonal, which presents enough variety for kitchen staff, which currently numbers about 80.
He has this advice for someone fresh out of culinary school who might overlook convention centres in their job search in favour of name restaurants.
“I have incredible resources available to me. Lots of restaurants are operating on shoestring budget. It’s a budget conscious culture, but here there is money for equipment. We have the best equipment money can buy and you don’t have to worry about a paycheque.”
“In a restaurant, unless the menu is changing, cooks can be complacent. Here there are different menus and different orders every day,” Rasmussen said.
“The cooks are challenged, particularly the sous chefs, (who) are challenged to be conceptual, to be strategic and also to be successful with putting that together.”
Written by Chris McGregor. This is an excerpt from an article appeared in the October 2009 issue of Pacific/Prairie Restaurant News and is reprinted with the permission.