The Art of Corporate Catering

The first-ever U.S. chef to win the 2014 Culinary World Cup, ACF Chef George Castaneda is a proven unstoppable force in the kitchen.

Currently based in Nashville, Tennessee, Castaneda is the Executive Chef of Sodexo North America, a wide-standing corporation dedicated to influencing and offering healthy, delicious products to restaurants plus executive, patient, student, faculty, luncheon and other special dining facilities nationwide.

McCormick for Chefs® spoke with Chef Castaneda about his process for developing menus for such a wide-range, diverse roster of clients, as well as how one stays inspired in a time of constant culinary change.

As the Executive Corporate Chef of Sodexo, explain your process for developing menus for a variety of clients from country clubs, colleges and universities to hospitals?

We work with a variety of clients across the country but in my case, it’s specifically the Southeast region. The process of menu development is somewhat simple but, at the same time, it’s complex because of the different demographics within one building or facility. With that in mind, I typically develop a menu that can goes across all demographics.

For example, Italian, Mexican or Asian; those are some of the most popular ones. Of course, I can always go down the modern American path which includes a variety of foods, flavors and techniques that are developed not just for the cooking time but also when displaying and serving. Additionally, plant-based foods and gluten-free are now very common requests from clients.

How do you alter the flavor ingredients like spices, herbs and seasonings to create dishes that are well suited for each of your clients?

First, we focus on the basics. We develop flavor from the beginning and do so by using high-quality products, from herbs to spices to dry rubs. These are items that traditionally help maintain the quality and integrity of the product. At the same time, they are items that can actually enhance or elevate the finished dish that, at the end of the day, satisfy our customers.

In developing catering style dishes for your clients, which techniques do you utilize to ensure maximum flavor upon delivery?

It’s somewhat similar; I would just say that we always use the best that the market can offer. I believe that if you start with good quality products, it will show in the end result. It carries through the whole process; from the development of the recipe to the execution of the dish, whether it is applying herbs and spices directly to the product or using the same spices to create a marination or finishing sauce. I’m always looking for that opportunity to create another layer of flavor no matter what.

At Sodexo, you’re creating thousands of meals daily. Where do you find inspiration for each of these meals?

We have clients and customers who challenge us to come up with a variety of food ideas that rank from classic to comfort to modern flare. Food, to me, is a constant moving target and by that I mean it evolves every day. Chefs across the country are changing, experimenting and doing something we call “playing with food.” I believe that, as chefs, it is important to stay in touch with current trends, know what’s going on in the marketplace and know in what direction food trends are moving. This is the only way you can stay competitive.

I get my inspiration from all the chefs in our own kitchens as well as ones that I follow on social media. Of course, there are always websites and great books out there you can drive from. Once inspired, I meet with each client and I learn as to what they want, that’s the starting point. We then develop from there.

What are three tips a corporate catering chef needs to know in order to be successful in this type of environment?

  1. Think “customers first.” Your customers should always be your priority.
  2. Always choose good quality products that enhance the end result.
  3. Stay current.

If you do these three things, you will always be ahead of the competition. You will also increase your customer loyalty and be a financially sound business.

Which new flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the centre-of-the-plate in the near future?

Plant-based entrees are making a strong comeback. I just recently developed at least three or four new plant-based entrees that were gluten-free and one hundred percent vegan. That trend used to be called vegan but there is an increase from the customer base that don’t want to eat meat, or at least not as much meat as they used to, but don’t want to have the label of “vegan” or “diet” anymore. They have moved that into what we now call a plant-based lifestyle. You’ll start seeing that more and more on a lot of menus in the marketplace.

Also, flavors and spices from the Middle East are starting to show across the country and I believe that it’s a trend that will continue for some time. I think we have had in our pantries for a long-time items like turmeric but now that there is an added health benefit, you’ll start to see it more in menus and restaurants. Sumac is a great spice; it’s a sour mix, that you can substitute for lemon or orange peels. We’ve had cardamom for a long time but now it’s being used more in bars, for example, for infusing beverages. We’ve had cumin mainly for Latin American dishes but it’s now transitioning into some of our more Middle Eastern flavors.

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How to go from Culinary Olympian to podcast host

by Jocelyn Tolbert

ACF Chef, award-winning author, speaker, producer and Culinary Olympic Gold Medalist Chef Charles Carroll is currently the Executive Chef of River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas. But, since last September, for a few hours a week, he’s been the voice of a growing portfolio of podcasts: “The Recipe Podcast: Celebrity Secrets to a Successful Life,” “The Recipe Unplugged” and, soon, “The Gourmet Club Live.” We talked with Chef Carroll about how all this got started and where he sees it going next.

How did you get started doing a podcast?
It’s kind of a funny story. My third book was released last October. … I partnered with John David Mann, and part of the promotion for the book was for the two of us to do 50-60 podcast interviews. It’s a very busy schedule, [and every one was] a 30-minute to one-hour interview. Typically they ask you to call in on your computer, and the first one we did didn’t sound very good. I bought a microphone. Then I got a filter for it and I started making sure the sound was good, fooling with the settings. The next thing you know I wanted to get a better headset. That’s when I realized, “This is pretty cool. I’d like to do this and have my own guests.” And within two months, I had a small makeshift studio in my house.

We did that for eight or nine months. We had a blast. It was me and my assistant in the makeshift studio. Then we tried to do a better show, and I remembered that one of my sous chefs used to be in radio, so we got him involved. Fast forward to today where, in early July or end of June, I moved the studio out of my house and built a new studio in my lawyer friend’s office building down the road. We sound-proofed it and we have a small green room.

You’ve been doing them on-location, too, right? One of your most recent shows was recorded at ACF National Convention and Show in New Orleans.

We took the podcast to Malaysia to the Worldchefs Congress and did 12 shows there with all the celebrity chefs, and that just spun us into a whole new dynamic. I did that with a mobile recorder, which was pretty good.

And you’d never done anything like this before?
I didn’t even know what a podcast was 10 months ago. Then I started doing research. Now there are six different podcasts that I listen to. I haven’t listened to the radio in almost a year.

What podcasts do you listen to?
The Joe Rogan Experience is one of the ones I’ve kinda modeled my show after. … And there’s another one called Reinvention Radio. There’s another comedy show I like that completely takes you to another area, but I won’t name that one because it’s kinda rough.

The beauty behind all this is that it’s in everybody’s pocket. You go to the gym, you go to the grocery store, to the car, whatever you’re doing.

So on all these shows, you don’t just talk to chefs, right?
We’ve done it with movie stars like Luis Guzman, comedians, actors from “The Walking Dead.” We’ve had celebrity chefs — Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande, Norman Van Aken, Graham Elliot. Any celebrity of any walk of life, that will go on “The Recipe.”

Then we have the “unplugged” version — that’s just [me and the podcast staff] around the table. That’s current events or anything crazy. It’s a little grittier. And then the third show we’re developing is called “The Gourmet Club Live.” That show is meant to always be a guest in-studio. It’s meant to be hospitality-driven.

[“Gourmet Club Live” and “Unplugged”] will be live-streaming soon.

What’s your goal with these shows?
It doesn’t pay the bills. It’s more of a hobby. It’s been a bit of an expensive hobby but now it’s paying for itself. I’m proud to say I own every HDMI cord that’s in there. Now that we’re live-streaming, I have full intention that this time next year, our audience will be doubled, tripled, and sponsorship becomes more expensive so [the five other people I have working on the show] can get some benefits.

What’s coming down the pipeline?
We’re just getting the live streaming set up, but we’ve had Def Leppard on the podcast in the past and they’re coming to Houston in September. I’ve been talking to Phil Collen, he’ll be on “Celebrity Secrets.” I look forward to the “Gourmet” show being really exciting, now that people can see what we look like and we’re going to start giving away prizes and gifts.

You’ve interviewed so many chefs and celebrities now. What’s been your favorite bit of advice or story that you’ve heard?
There’s been so many really awesome interviews. Lou Holtz, the coach from Notre Dame. Brian Dwyer, the gentleman that cheated death — very inspirational answers. That was back when we were still trying to get the sound figured out. It’s been a lot of fun listening to them all, especially the celebrities.

One of the most profound things that has stuck with me is just to be okay with the journey. And I think that rings true with a lot of our celebrities because everybody has challenges, even the most wealthy people in the world. And everything that’s going on with mental health — even people who seem like they had everything they needed, maybe they didn’t. Just be okay with it, let it bump you into the direction you’re going in.

Anything else you want to say?
Put me in your pocket. Download the show. I’d recommend you listen to the newest ones and then go backwards.

The ACF has a new youngest member

by Jocelyn Tolbert
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Camson (right) on “Masterchef Junior,” Courtesy of FOX

Fourteen-year-old Fleming Island, Florida native Camson Alevy grew up in the kitchen with his parents. At age eight, he started cooking.

“The first thing I can remember cooking is eggs,” he says. “I started out with regular scrambled eggs, then sunny side up, then I moved to poached. I just kept elevating it.”

In July 2016, there was a casting call in nearby Jacksonville for the FOX show “Masterchef Junior,” and he decided to give it a shot. A few rounds of auditions later, Alevy was cast for the show’s sixth season, which aired this past spring. He made it to the top 15 contestants before being eliminated on April 6 — but not before he caught the attention of his local ACF chapter, who in April made Alevy the new youngest member of the ACF.

How did you react when you found out you were cast for the show?
When I got the phone call, I was at a relative’s house and I was with all my siblings. It was the most joyous moment. I was just so excited that I was going to meet all these kids that have this similar interest of cooking.

What was your favorite thing about being on “Masterchef Junior”?
My favorite thing was just meeting all the kids. We made so many good friendships. A lot of the kids I still talk to — two days ago I met up with Quani in Atlanta. We’re all in a group chat.

Would you do something like that again?
As much as I would want to be on another reality show, I don’t know if any of them can top “Masterchef Junior.”

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Camson (right) on “Masterchef Junior,” Courtesy of FOX

What’s your favorite thing about cooking?
My favorite thing is just how relaxing it is, and how creative you get to be. You can take something that’s very basic and hasn’t been created before, and you get to make a masterpiece.  You put your own spin on it.

Relaxing? You just finished being on a reality show!
It depends on when it’s relaxing! When you’re cooking at home, for your family, it’s soothing.

Now that your time on the show is over, what did you learn?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is being able to cook under pressure. Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi [watching me], and having the opportunity to possibly win $100,000, made it really stressful. But it made me a better cook.

What’s your favorite cooking implement?
I love cats, and this Christmas, because my parents and my sister and my brother know me so well, they got me a spatula that’s the face of a cat. It’s so funny and I love using it.

Whom do you love to cook for?
As stressful as it was to cook for Gordon Ramsay, I did love cooking for him. But the gold medal has to go to my family just because of how much I love them. My favorite thing to make for them is homemade pasta. It’s a nice, long process, and it never gets old.

Is there anyone whom it would make you nervous to cook for?
I don’t know if you could get any more nerve-racking than cooking for Gordon Ramsay!

Was he like his on-screen persona?
Gordon was a lot nicer to the kids than he is on his other shows. I think he’s trying to get the best out of you. He’s like a father figure.

What’s one dish that you think everyone should know how to make?
I think everyone should know how to make eggs, or breakfast stuff. If you’re able to do something like that, then you’re able to wake up early in the morning and keep elevating your skills.

Do want to be a chef when you grow up?
As much as I love cooking, I have so many other interests. I love acting. I love soccer. I love eating. I’ve always thought that maybe a food critic would be somewhere in the realm of what I could do. I’ve still got some time to choose.

What would be your best one-sentence advice to other aspiring young chefs?
Hmm… Be bold, with flavor.

How one formerly defunct ACF chapter came back with fresh perspective

by Jocelyn Tolbert

The Cape and Islands Chefs Association was, for many years, one of the strongest ACF chapters in New England. But a little more than a decade ago, the group dissolved.

Several factors contributed to the chapter’s formal closing. “It was a little before my time — before I moved to the Cape. But from my understanding, it was just a lack of interest,” says Chef Michael Pillarella, CEC, executive chef of the Wianno Club in Osterville, Massachusetts. “The local chapter wasn’t providing any positive traction in regards to education, certification, and just building camaraderie. There were a lot of strong people involved, but there was no draw to bring them to the meetings.”

Today, though, ACF Cape Cod is back. Chef Pillarella and Chef Michael “Mickey” Beriau, CEC, (a former member of the original chapter) re-formed the group about a year ago and, as the new President and Vice President, are out to make ACF Cape Cod stronger than ever.

The lessons these chefs learned can apply to fledgling chapters as well as those which have been around for decades, so whether you’re thinking of starting your own new chapter or trying to invigorate an existing one, read on.

Dan Ferrare, CEC,CCA, Treasurer, Michael Pillarella, CEC, President, and Joe Ellia, secretary, ACF Cape Cod and The Islands Association

Dan Ferrare, CEC, CCA, Treasurer, Michael Pillarella, CEC, President, and Joe Ellia, secretary, ACF Cape Cod and The Islands Association

Why did you decide to do this?
Basically, there was a void — an empty space for our chefs here. There’s a chapter in Boston and one in Providence, Rhode Island, each about an hour and a half away. But they didn’t meet the needs of the Cape Cod chefs. Our seasonality is different, our talent and labor pool is different. We didn’t have much in common with those other chapters.

So you were basically starting a brand new chapter. What was the process like? 
The ACF process is pretty well organized in how to bring a chapter to life. The most important thing was to have a meeting. We wanted to make sure there was enough of a draw. We had about 50 to 70 attendees to our initial meeting, and it was enough for me and Mickey to decide to go forward.

What challenges did you encounter?
One of the biggest challenges for us was opening a 501(c). It just wasn’t as easy as starting a club and inviting some people.

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How did you get the word out?
We did a very grassroots campaign. We invited people initially, and just kept on our marketing angle, which was “bring a friend,” “bring a fellow professional.” That kept it building for us. We had very good success with recruiting and driving finances. Our last meeting, over 130 people were in attendance.

Did you have any of the old members coming back?
We’ve had 12 to 15 individuals who were in the previous chapter who are very excited about its reemergence, and are willing to assist in any way possible.

Had you ever done this before?
This is my first chapter. I’ve been a member of the Boston and Rhode Island associations for a while, but this is my first crack at it. It’s a bit more work than I first imagined it would be.

What’s the time commitment like?
It’s a lot of free time. I’d say you realistically have to put in five to seven hours a week in-season to make sure all your duties are covered.

You mentioned the “season” a couple times. Can you explain that a little more?
What we do is, our meetings are held from late September to early May, and then we take a hiatus for the summertime, which is when everybody here is crazy busy. Then we go back to our normal lives. That’s worked out for us very well. [In this region,] we’re all in the same boat, so come May it’s time to focus on work. And come September we can return to focusing on our chapter.

That sounds like a big endorsement for “Knowing your audience.”
It is! One of the points we’ve made is that we’re here to serve the chef and we need to understand that. What’s good for all the chefs is good for the chapter.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking of starting a new chapter of the ACF?
I think the most important thing is to surround yourself with fantastic chefs and individuals, and let their talents shine. That’s how I operate this chapter. I took on a fantastic VP, secretary and treasurer, and the rest just falls into place.

Meet the Student Chefs of the Year: Andrew Dos Santos

Dos Santos, Andrew

by Jocelyn Tolbert

At Cook. Craft. Create. in July, one student from each of the four regions will compete to become ACF’s Student Chef of the Year. Central Region Student Chef of the Year Andrew Dos Santos will earn his Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts next spring, and works as a line cook at Walnut Creek Country Club. He’s quite involved on the competition circuit, as Nationals will be his eighth time competing. He was MCCA Student of the Year in 2017 and apprenticed for Chris Johnson, MCCA’s 2016 Chef of the Year.

What was the regional championship like for you? How did it feel to win?
The regional championship was amazing. I got to travel and compete with my boss, Chef Robert Coran. We had often practiced together in our kitchen at work in preparation for the state competition and then obviously the regional as well.

It felt great to win. Not only do I get to go represent my chapter and school at the national convention, so do Chefs Robbie and Mark Slessor, as the central Chef and pastry Chef of the year, both of them being OCC alumni.

How are you preparing for the Convention competitions?
Just by trying to keep the competition mindset with everything I do — work, school, or otherwise whilst I wait for the required ingredients to come from the competition committee. Then practice, practice, practice.


Had you ever done any cooking competitions before this experience?
Yes, Nationals will be my sixth. First was on my culinary team at OCC last year, then a Skills USA competition. I was also one of the apprentices to last year’s Central Chef of the Year, Chris Johnson, at the Orlando conference, the Student of the Year at the state level, and then, most recently, my second year competing with my team at OCC on the state level.

Has anything unexpected ever happened to you during a competition? What did you do to get through it? How did it turn out in the end?
I think the most unexpected thing to happen to me would’ve been during my first competition. I was the classical fish course for the year. One of the last things I had to do before first course went out was to finish the sauce for the fish. It was a beurre blanc-style of sauce with the reduction consisting of the cussion from the fish, mushroom liquor and heavy cream. I made the mistake of letting the cussion getting too hot before adding the butter. The sauce ended up breaking and by the time it was too late, I realized that I had some extra cold cream in the cooler that I could’ve used to reduce the temperature of the cussion before attempting to emulsify the butter. Needless to say, a broken sauce on a classical course didn’t bode to well for our team.

What impact do you think this award will have on your life? Has it already had an impact?
The entire competition process even from starting with the team a year and a half  ago has had quite the impact. The support from my fellow students and everyone at my local chapter, the MCCA, has been fantastic. Not to mention that without that first year, I probably wouldn’t be working for the great chef that I am now, Chef Drew Sayes, who himself was representing the Central Region at the National Convention in 2015.

IMG_0148What’s been the best advice you’ve gotten as a culinary student?
The best advice I’ve been given as a culinary student may not have been an actual piece of advice from any one person, but more of a lesson I’ve learned. In my eyes, the three most important traits that any good chef should hold dear are humility, determination  and respect. It sounds corny but it couldn’t be any more of the truth. Nobody is born knowing how to cook. Those traits and that mentality are instrumental on any culinarian’s path to becoming a great chef.

What’s an average day for you like?
It varies from day to day based on my school schedule. [I usually] wake up around 6 or 7 a.m. depending on whether or not I have class, then off to school if I do have class or if I’m going in to assist another class. When I have a competition to prepare for, I’ll always be either there or at work doing my mise en place for practice or doing an actual run. If I don’t go to school or work early, I’ll stay home until I have to leave for work at 1 p.m., then home by anywhere between 10-12 depending on how busy service was.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to work or school? Tell us a little about that.
First thing at school can vary from day to day. Work is pretty straightforward though: Get in, get a drink, turn on any equipment that wasn’t on in the morning, set up my station and then get to work on any prep I may have to do before service.

What’s the last thing you do before you go home in the evening?
Last thing to be done before I go home will be to finish scrubbing the floors with my coworkers, along with any last minute thing that has to be taken care of before we go, whether it be handling the stocks or pulling anything out for that may be needed for the next day.

What was the worst thing that happened to you this week?
Honestly, it’s been a pretty great week. I don’t think I really have anything worth complaining about.

What was the best thing that happened to you this week?
The best thing definitely was the fact that we opened our upscale kitchen at the club for the year. The first night was pretty slow, but on Saturday we had a really great, steady service. Everything went really smooth for the first good day on a new menu for a new year.

At Cook. Craft. Create. in New Orleans July 15-19, four students will compete to become ACF’s Student Chef of the Year. The national convention will feature additional educational and engagement opportunities that will build off the ChefConnect series and will provide a revitalizing experience for members, foodservice professionals, students and competitors. All the while igniting innovation that attendees can bring back to their classroom, employees or kitchen! We hope to see you there!

Editor’s note, 5/29/18: An earlier version of this post stated that this will be Dos Santos’ sixth time competing, when it is actually his eighth. He will also graduate next spring, not spring 2018.