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Fixing To Kick Things Up A Notch

May 29, 2005
By GREG MORAGO, Courant Staff Writer

In the culinary world, it's considered an oxymoron.

In the food and beverage industry, it's the ugly stepchild.

In the competitive convention business, it is often the painful and ridiculously obvious black eye.

What is it?

Convention food.

Think about the last big convention you attended at which seas of waiters tried to serve hundreds of tables for 10 at once. What do you remember about the meal? Probably nothing good. Mystery meat. Brown gravy. Frozen peas. Rubber chicken.

Roger Morgan vows he's going to change that perception - thousands of palates at a time - at the Connecticut Convention Center.

As the center's new executive chef, Morgan is responsible for every meal, every snack, every dessert consumed within the 540,000-square-foot structure. His food domain is everything from lobster dinners in the soaring ballroom to a cup of coffee at a concession stand.

And he wants it all - from the haute to humble cuisine - to be perfect. After all, the convention center, more so than any single establishment in the state, will have the ability to raise or lower Connecticut's culinary profile in one fell swoop. When conventioneers go back home to Middle America, Morgan wants them to leave with a delicious memory of Connecticut, Hartford in particular. Bad meals, he recognizes, leave lasting bad memories.

"We're here to put Hartford in a good light. It's a lot of responsibility," said the 36-year-old chef. "Everyone on the staff wants the people who come here to have a good meal."

It's not every convention center that has an executive chef at the helm. A great many big-city centers have outsourced, mass-produced food that's aimed at simply keeping stomachs filled. Quantity over quality; the generic meatballs and pigs-in-a-blanket stuff.

Not so the Connecticut Convention Center. Planners want good, memorable food served in their swanky digs. "It's part of our vision of what this building is going to be. We didn't want to go out and hire a professional that cooks bulk food," said Ben Seidel, executive director of the convention center. "It's large volume, but in an environment that requires quality in presentation."

Morgan came aboard in March after impressing his interview team with his qualifications and vision, Seidel said. Morgan also whipped up a fantastic meal during his interview.

Although he fed only a handful of people when he cinched the job, Morgan is used to feeding more. Way more. As assistant executive chef for Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, where he worked since 1992, Morgan oversaw 258 employees in 14 kitchens of the 1,244-room hotel casino. At the most, he could feed 2,500 conventiongoers at a time.

His duties at Hartford's convention center will be different but no less demanding. The center's ballroom can accommodate 4,000 for a sit-down dinner. When the center's going full-tilt, there will be multiple events going on at once, from business meet-and-greets to fabulous fundraisers to grand weddings. And everything that's edible will be Morgan's doing.

Morgan doesn't look the least bit panicked, even after scanning his "to-do" list before the jam-packed week of parties and receptions that will follow the June 2 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Loaves of pumpernickel, huge wheels of sourdough and a massive flat of focaccia (from a local purveyor hoping to supply the center with specialty breads) are stacked on Morgan's desk like a bread truck. Hundreds of dozens of boxes of wine and water glasses sit unopened. Pots and pans - brand new metal that has yet to feel working fire - gleam from overhead racks. Massive ovens sit impatiently, waiting to be fed.

"This is my new home," Morgan says throwing his arms open wide at what can kindly be called controlled chaos. "It's coming along. But I'm still moving in."

His new home is more like a massive staging area - a gleaming, 2,500-square-foot factory of flavor tucked in back of the $271 million center. His office is, appropriately, only a few feet away from the stoves. And while Morgan is thinking about the kind of food he wants to serve (a surf-and-turf breakfast brochette, anyone?), his job is so much more than about taste. It's really a job that requires an analytical mind, a mathematical disposition and a military temperament. How else to measure, make and move so many meals at once?

"I like to take things from A to Z," he said. "How am I going to get it? How am I going to build it? How am I going to get it from the thought process to the table?

Morgan's itching to start, eager to fire up his burners and dirty his stoves. He can't wait to have convention center guests licking their lips.

"It's a great feeling to achieve it. Every event is a new goal," he said. "I fight to make my next meal better than my last."

The downside? Dirty dishes.

"It's great when you're done and everyone's happy," he said. "Then it's `Let's clean up now.' That's the worst part."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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