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?
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
"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
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.
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