Feeding the multitudes, with minimal waste

MAKING THE CUT | Executive chef Blair Rasmussen (left) and his kitchen staff avoid waste by using excess food in other menus

Blair Rasmussen balances quality and efficiency at one of B.C.’s biggest and busiest kitchens

In mid-April, the Vancouver Convention Centre hosted a six-day conference of the American Academy of Neurology. Up to 6,000 delegates were served two meals a day, coffee breaks with snacks and evening receptions of hors d’oeuvres; for every meal, the kitchen staff served three different menus to accommodate gluten-free and vegan preferences. The total food and beverage sales were more than a mid-sized restaurant would expect in a year.

One day during the conference, executive chef Blair Rasmussen walked into one of the kitchen’s massive fridges and could hardly see over a skid of grape tomatoes destined for lunch-box snacks. “It was crazy amounts of food,” recalls Rasmussen, 55, who has worked in the kitchen since 1987 and held the top job for 23 years. But by the end of the six days, one of his sous-chefs showed him the leftovers: a few “odds and sods” scattered on one rack of sheet pans. It was the rough equivalent of a few peas left over after a turkey dinner.

Since the west building opened in 2010, the VCC has received industry recognition several times for its environmental design and practices, and keeping food waste to a minimum is part of that commitment. It’s also integral to the management of the facility, explains Andrew Pollard, regional vice president of Centerplate, the hospitality company that provides food services to more than 300 sports, entertainment and meeting venues in North America and Europe, including the VCC. Pre-2010, the 160,000-square-foot convention centre (now the east building) was considered a “boutique” operation, he says. “One of the worries we had was, how do you carry on the quality in a building that’s now three times the size?”

To that end, VCC management decided to dedicate the kitchen in the east building to pastry and baking; by keeping it in-house, staff can control quality and production, and easily adjust the number of loaves required on the day of an event. Over the years, eight conveyor belts have been installed in the kitchens to allow a line of cooks to assemble plates. Chef Rasmussen admits he was initially resistant to the idea (“I said, ‘It’s like working at the Ford Motor Company!’”), but he now appreciates the efficiency the assembly line promotes: “Even one extra slice of carrot can make a difference of 100 pounds at the end.” Any excess ingredients can be repurposed in a different menu—cut-up chicken can be used on a pizza or directed to staff meals. Beyond that, any leftovers are donated to the Union Gospel Mission.

Last year was a record year for the convention centre, with more than 900,000 meals served at 557 events. Rasmussen notes that running a tight kitchen keeps head office happy—but it also allows one key payoff for him personally: “The money that we save means we can start to be a little freer with the fleur de sel and the truffle oil.” 

Where FOOD WASTE occurs through Canada’s food value chain

Food Waste Chart

Source: Value Chain Management International Inc. (2014)