Mark Massicotte, executive chef at the Vancouver Convention Centre and its adjacent restaurant, LOT185 Café + Wine Bar, who has recently certified as a sommelier, is used to answering questions when meeting with planners. The ones he usually gets, however, are not the kind that he thinks will yield the best results. He shared with Convene what kinds of questions event organizers should be asking their chefs.
What tips can you give planners to work well with a chef, or with a venue?
The kinds of questions planners should ask a venue chef are, “What is your kitchen about?” Or “What is your philosophy about? What do you do well?”
Ask questions about what the facility does well as opposed to how the venue can provide exactly what you think you want before meeting with them. [The client] might have an expectation because they’ve had that dish somewhere else. But if [the venue has] never done it before, it might not be wise to do it for them. They might be disappointed by your attempt, because it wasn’t up to the expectation they had.
I think the tip is to work with the chef and ask him, “Okay, what are your signature dishes? What are your most popular dishes? What do you have? What’s the best reaction you’ve received?” Obviously, everything that’s on our menu we do well. It is usually when the item requested is outside the menu that things sometimes fall apart.
You have to have that trust in the chef, too. When a chef or a catering person says, “I suggest this,” they’re suggesting it for a reason. In other words, get [the venue’s] people to do what they do best.
But you are able to change anything within the menus you published online?
I probably do 85 percent custom menus. We’ll have a group that comes for three or four days — breakfast, lunch, dinner, receptions — and they say “Here’s our budget, can you put some menus together?”
Same thing happens with the wine pairings, “Can you suggest wines?” I put it all together and send it off to them, and it’s a service that we are really happy to provide to our clients.
The Vancouver Convention Centre has a scratch kitchen — does that play into your capability to customize?
Yes. We make as much as we can from scratch. … So we really have control of what we’re making and serving, which is very important. That comes down to seasonality also; if something’s not available, we can change it for something else. We can control ingredients for dietary reasons. That’s a big one. Or for demographics — if somebody comes in and likes the menus but wants to go in another direction because of their group, we can change anything that we want.
How does the scratch kitchen help in the sustainability area, and what other things are you doing there?
The scratch kitchen, which is all about being sustainable, is the No. 1 thing — the way we order and produce our food, and monitor our trends out of our events. Every group that comes in, we monitor how much they eat, what the trends are. For example, a few years ago, people were not eating as much beef for some reason. So instead of ordering for a reception four ounces of beef, we cut it down to three. And we continued to monitor the results. Our goal is to produce enough food, obviously, to feed everybody, but then not to waste any at the end.
We also donate food to local food banks. We have a staff cafeteria that we feed up to 500 people some days. Some of our food goes there. I believe we just did a conference not long ago, we ran at 98-percent sustainability. That’s pretty high. One of the items that we couldn’t do sustainably was the Saran Wrap. You can’t recycle that.
What do you grow on the green roof at the convention center?
We don’t harvest anything from there … but we get honey from the bees that are up on the roof. I think we have four beehives.
Tell us about Lot 185, the café and wine bar that is attached to the center.
Not everybody can come here and come to an event, so we decided to build a restaurant to show what we make here. For example, we make prime rib sliders for receptions. So we put a larger burger on the café menu, a prime rib burger. We’re taking items that we make for catering and transforming them into restaurant-focused items.
How many different dishes, not plates, would you say you prepare in a day at the convention center?
Oh God, that’s a good question. It depends on the day. It could be probably up to 50 with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and receptions. I remember when we did a conference a couple years ago. They were here for three days and I basically had to come up with 100 hors d’oeuvres for their functions without repeating any of them.
What are your main challenges?
As of today, staffing is the main challenge — finding enough staff. But as far as the food part, I have to say there are not too many challenges, if that makes sense. I have a great team. We challenge ourselves to always do better. And then the next time we want to do even more.
Another challenge is always staying ahead of yourself and not relying on what you did two years ago, but press yourself to keep evolving.
Curt Wagner is an associate editor at Convene.