Chef Talk: From Palm Beach to Beijing

For Jennifer McCrary, general manager of food and beverage for the Palm Beach County Convention Center, feeding thousands of people is no sweat. So, it was no surprise McCrary was tapped to serve as main dining director at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by Aramark, her employer at the convention center and the supplier of all catering services in the Olympic villages.

McCrary will see to it that all Olympic and Paralympic athletes, coaches, officials, media, and support personnel are properly and efficiently fed in a dining room that will seat 6,000 and be in operation 24 hours a day for 60 days. Aramark expects that by the end of the games, there will have been more than 3.5 million meals served, comprising of 130 tons of meat, 93,000 pounds of seafood, 20 million servings of rice, 936,000 bananas, and 16,000 pounds of tofu.

Though much of the Beijing food and beverage team has been on site for two years, McCrary just landed in June. She has been working overtime to ready her team for the arrival of 65,000 diners but found time to talk with MeetingNews about her Olympic-sized responsibility.

Q: What was your first reaction when you were offered the position?

"I am going to Beijing!" That was followed by, "This is going to be hard."

Q: What attracted you to the position?

I have been interested in going to the Olympics with Aramark for several years, and I was very interested in these Olympics because I have not been to China. I was willing to go to the Olympics in any role; I just wanted to be part of the experience. I am glad that my knowledge allowed me to go in at a senior leadership role—but I was not going to be picky.

Q: You don't speak the language and have never led an event of this proportion before. So what did you focus on in your preparation before you headed to China?

Regardless of the size of the project, it is about managing people. I have nearly 50 managers reporting to me in main dining here. They have to be successful for me to be successful.

Q: Is there anything you're facing now in the last few weeks before the start of the games that you didn't anticipate?

Everything takes longer here; there is more red tape. Things that I think will take five minutes to do might take all day, so I have had to work on assumptions. But I think that is true of getting used to any new place.

Q: Did your experience as director of food and beverage for the Palm Beach Convention Center prepare you for this role?

One of the reasons that I was selected wasvmy experience with large volumes of people. For most people, walking into a main dining room is overwhelming.However, coming from a large convention center, it is much more familiar to me.

My experience has taught me that it is not just about delivering food to the masses; clients have discerning tastes and demand that even the smallest detail be addressed. My goal here is to work toward creating a main dining room that is efficient—given the volume of meals served—but still leaves a good and lasting impression.

Q: You'll be feeding people from all over the world, who have different cravings and cuisines. Athletes, in particular, are known to have very specific nutritional needs. What advice can you offer meeting planners who are also trying to satisfy a wide variety of attendees?

Our culinary team has worked for years to develop a crowd-pleasing and nutritious world menu (i.e., an array of international dishes, including Asian and Mediterranean styles) of 800 recipes that are on an eight-day rotation schedule. My most important task is to ensure that we have accurate nutritional signage on each and every item.

My advice to planners is that you will never please all of your guests, so do take risks; it tires me to see meeting planners always choosing chicken. But don't go overboard.

Q: Will you have a chance to enjoy the games as a spectator at all?

Yes. The "Bird's Nest," which is the 100,000-seat [Beijing National Stadium], is an amazing building, and I am looking forward to getting in there. I like swimming and gymnastics.

Q: What's your favorite food in China?

I love the dumplings here, and I had donkey and didn't hate it. But my favorite discovery might be a local winery called Great Wall. Its Red Table Wine is only $3 and quite good—it is the "Two Buck Chuck" of China.

Originally published Aug. 11, 2008