San Diego Convention Center's chef reaches for the stars

For many people, receiving an award or two would be a career highlight that might stop us from striving for even greater achievement. But Jeff Leidy, executive chef at the San Diego Convention Center, is not like many people.

Passion and ambitious goals seem to be his tasty, secret ingredients for success. That became clear to MeetingNews when he spoke about his work, the awards, and what fuels his fire.

Q What do you hope to provide to groups when they come to the SDCC?

A I want to be known for having some of the best convention food there is, if not the best. And we work to ensure that our food is second to none and every group has a good time. So we meet with every client before the event and we customize menus. I try not to have a set menu and do things the same way every time. We make our sauces, stock, and some of our dressings from scratch. I love when we win an event over the Marriott or Hyatt, our neighbors, purely on food.

Q You were given HSMAI's "F&B Person of the Year" award, which goes to "hospitality professionals who have made significant contributions to the betterment of the industry." What have some of those contributions been, and why did you make them?

A I got on the community radar last year after I won a $25,000 award and gave it to Becky's House, the local YWCA's residential program for victims of domestic violence. (The award was given by Ocean Spray, which dubbed Leidy's cranberry mojito the "Ultimate Cranberry Foodservice Recipe of the Year.") I knew that the money wasn't going to impact me as much as it would the charity. I toured one of the facilities where mothers take their families, and that had a big impact. I come from a background similar to a lot of the people who'd benefit from the charity, so it resonated with me.

Q You have been praised for innovative management of your 220 employees. What is your style for that oversight, and how does that impact the customer experience?

A I don't micromanage. I let employees know our goal and empower them to think for themselves and create solutions. Also, I tell them all the time that we want to be the best convention center in the country, and if that means they can get a much higher quality ingredient for a little bit more money, I want them to spend the money. This makes our food completely unexpected for the customer. I've often had clients say things like "Wow, I was just in a fine restaurant and your food is better" or "This is the best food I've ever had at a convention center."

Q You are also known for having high service standards. What is it that you demand of your staff?

A I come from a background of off-premise catering, where every detail is important because you are providing a whole experience. So here at the SDCC, we're constantly buying unique platters and buffet pieces, and we'll decorate the staff offices of a group. We just had a 300-person group and we spent $4,000 on decor for it. And if service needs to be done a special way, or if a buffet is set wrong, I address that.

Q Under your supervision, the SDCC kitchen has moved toward more healthful cuisine, eliminating transfats from food prepared on site. Also, your menus have become very eco-friendly. Why take these steps?

A I think it's really important and it's what our clients are demanding. Groups are saying, "If you didn't have a great green program, we'd go elsewhere."

Q What are some common mistakes meeting planners make when working with you and the center?

A A big one I see is customers coming in without knowing what they want. They're trying to achieve several things and I think they're not familiar with how events happen logistically. But when we meet with them, we can figure out their needs. If someone has a speaker and just wants to get attendees fed, that's different than someone who wants us to create a great experience.

Q What's the secret ingredient in your cranberry mojito?

A It's a brown sugar cube from La Perruche. Most mojitos use table sugar or white sugar.

Q What's your favorite food?

A My favorite food of all time is pizza. In the early days of my career, I worked at a restaurant where I ate the exact same pizza for 30 consecutive shifts and didn't get sick of it. To me, it's a complete meal, like a burrito. Cuisine wise, I love country French and country Italian, because they usually incorporate recipes that have been passed down for generations. The more rustic, the better. I love the fact that a simple dish can have such a high degree of flavor.

Contact Rayna Katz at [email protected]

Originally published April 21, 2008