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Feeding the masses


If you just can’t get over how much work you did to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for a dozen or so guests, don’t expect any sympathy from Richard Grace. For him, that would be about as stressful as fixing a sandwich.

Grace is the executive chef at the Des Moines Marriott, where the staff doesn’t really consider it a big event unless more than, say, 500 people expect to start eating at the same moment.

The Marriott claims to be the largest hotel in Iowa, and there’s no question that it’s a popular place to schedule major luncheons and dinners, from the recent Chef’s Auction to a fund-raising dinner for the Honorable Luther T. Glanton and Willie Stevenson Glanton Scholarship Fund to Philanthropy Day. The hotel at 700 Grand Ave. already has 43 wedding receptions dotting its 2005 schedule.

And it’s not just a lot of events; it’s a lot of really big events. On one recent Saturday, the attendance at several holiday parties at the hotel plus an off-site event catered by the staff totaled nearly 1,500.

You don’t just grab whatever’s in the pantry and improvise for a day like that. This is a place that owns 3,000 knives and 4,000 forks.

Add up the appetites of all the Des Moines Marriott event attendees, and you wind up with annual receipts for 10,000 pounds of pork and 37,000 pounds of beef. Plus 6,600 pineapples, 25,000 oranges and almost 1,000 flats of strawberries. And 1,500 pounds of cream cheese.

It’s crucial to hustle and keep the customer satisfied, because group events account for half of the hotel’s income. But it isn’t easy.

Preparing and serving a meal for hundreds of people is so demanding that Grace often puts in 20-plus hours on the day of a large event.

“I do feel the pressure,” said Grace, who has worked at the Marriott for 21 years, “but nothing scares me.”

Plan, plan, plan

Often, as the hotel’s big Iowa Ballroom is filling up, someone sits down at a table and tells the server, oh, by the way, I need a vegetarian meal. As if there’s a cook standing somewhere waiting for tickets to show up on his order wheel.

Actually, if it’s a noon luncheon, Grace and banquet chef Donald Garrett have been hard at work since 8 a.m. and entrees are ready to fly out the door of the long, narrow kitchen when the guests take their seats.

The whole process starts long before that, months or even a year earlier when the facility is booked.

After that, but still well ahead of time, Grace presents a range of menu options to the customer – usually involving no more than two entrée choices per event — and sometimes offers a test meal, too. His sleekly contemporary office adjoins the ordinary-looking kitchen; future diners can come in and watch the meal preparations through a glass wall, then sample it at Grace’s private table.

This winter, the hotel will invite its entire 2005 roster of brides, grooms and their parents to a single gathering so they can sample foods and make choices. They’ll also select linen colors and get a start on centerpieces. “They usually add what they want to our candle centerpieces,” said Cindy Roberts, director of sales and marketing. “But some brides have asked if we can get the flowers they want, and we’ll do that, too.”

Three days before a big event, the customer gives the hotel a guaranteed number of diners, and that’s it. Except that’s not really it. “Our biggest problem is when 50 extra people show up,” Roberts said. “Maybe we’re out of filets, so it’s ‘Who wants salmon or chicken that we can cook right away?’”

But the hotel staff is usually able to fill those last-second vegetarian orders without much trouble.

Serving 600

On the morning of a recent luncheon event, the process took on aspects of a well-coordinated military operation. Christie Shull, director of event operations, hands each server a printed list of the pertinent details and requirements. She gives them a 15-minute pre-meal briefing to remind every participant of the day’s details, such as the time frame allowed for the meal. Sometimes these servers work in the morning for a luncheon, leave for part of the afternoon and return to work late into the evening for a dinner.

Like a field general, Shull carries a two-way radio that allows her to keep in touch with the kitchen, the banquet supervisor, the convention services manager (who’s in charge of things such as tables and chairs) and the audio-visual manager (responsible for making sure microphones work and video presentations go smoothly).

The thermostat is set at 68 degrees; body heat will bump the room temperature up to 71 or so.

At this event for nearly 600, with dining scheduled to begin at 11:45 a.m., about 25 servers already had the tables decked out with dishes and silverware when a few of them sat down at 10:30 to carefully fold the linen napkins.

At 10:55, the line began forming in the kitchen to “plate up.” Each person had been assigned to place one particular food item on each plate in a particular way, matching the sample plate provided by Grace and Garrett.

The plates began moving down the line on a conveyor belt. When complete, they were covered with a stainless-steel lid. When five covered plates stood in a stack, they were loaded into a temperature-controlled “hot box.”

For really big days, when the meal total moves closer to 1,000, the hotel’s managers are pressed into service to help with the plating up. Up to and including general manager Jeff Hilt, they join the kitchen crew wearing rubber gloves and hairnets. “We have fun,” Roberts said. “We play ‘name that tune’ and so on — but we’re not used to standing for long stretches on that tile floor.”

In the hallway directly behind the ballroom, one man started loading salad plates from a big bowl at 11:05. Each server placed 10 plates on a tray, then hustled out to the tables, and all 600 places were completed in10 minutes.

When it was time to serve, each identically filled plate was placed in exactly the same orientation for each diner.

Off-site ordeals

It isn’t always a matter of carrying the food a few yards from kitchen to ballroom.

For example, when the Marriott handles the annual World Food Prize banquet, the staff must prepare the food at the hotel, then rush it down Locust Street to the state Capitol in rented trucks and finish the job on temporary tables set high enough to avoid strained backs.

Another recent off-site catering job required the hotel’s engineers to build a ramp down some stairs so that the hot boxes and other wheeled equipment could be taken in. Then they had to disassemble the ramp so guests at the event could use the stairs. Then they screwed it back together for removal of the kitchen equipment. Then they took it apart one last time.

“We put the ramp back in at midnight, and we were moving things out until 3 a.m.,” Grace said.

As a veteran of cooking, catering and cleaning up afterward, Grace takes such moments in stride. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “and I think it’s neat when we can do things that other people can’t do.”

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