Appetite at Large: Crunch Time: Cooking for AWG

Gene Batten sits peacefully in the Yukon College bistro during an off-hours hush.

For the college’s manager of food services and co-ordinator of the culinary arts program, it’s a moment of calm before the storm.

The Arctic Winter Games are mere days away – menus have been planned, food has been ordered, glitches anticipated. The hardest work is yet to come.

Imagine your most high-pressured and well-attended dinner party ever: one that includes a mixed bag of vegans, vegetarians, lactose-intolerant and gluten-free diners.

Then multiply it by 1,000. This is Batten’s culinary marathon.

Gene Batten relaxes briefly in the Yukon College bistro before the Arctic Winter Games onslaught begins PHOTO: Rick Massie

From March 4 to 10, as manager of food services for the games, Batten estimates he and his team will be serving about 6,000 people a day – most of them ravenous, adolescent athletes.

On a tour of the cooking and dining sites, Batten tells me he recently woke up in the middle of the night, realizing with a jolt that he had to increase the 4,000 litres of chocolate milk he’d ordered by a couple of extra thousand.

The teenage demographic may just partake in more than one glass of chocolate milk a day, he figures.

Batten’s modus operandi balances gut instinct and guesswork with honed professionalism.

When it comes to ordering and cooking food for hundreds at a time (estimating how many will want chili as opposed to the number of quesadillas needed, for example) there is no formula.

“If there’s an exact science to it, I’d like to hear about it,” Batten says drily.

But fretting over numbers does not appear to be Batten’s focus; professional customer service is hisraison d’etre.

After earning his red seal at the culinary school at Ontario’s Georgian College, Batten hopscotchedhis way north and has been working with Yukon College’s food services for 12 years.

Sitting in the after hours quietude of the bistro, talking with Batten about his philosophy towards teaching culinary arts, it is clear that he has an astute respect for the food industry.

“We try to instill a degree of professionalism in students,” Batten says.

Inspiring a passionate appreciation for cooking and serving is paramount to him.

“We hope by the end [of the program] our students will have a good sense of the industry and they’ll take that wherever they go.”

Soft-spoken and quick to attribute his state of composure to the strong team working with him, Batten is exactly the kind of person you would want cooking for a giant dinner party.

He hopes to accommodate all manner of dietary needs cordially, deeply appreciates his co-workers, and seems nonplussed about the enormity of it all.

“It’ll be busy but fun,” he remarks.

We leave the bistro and walk through the college’s kitchen where most of the cooking will occur at a frenetic pace, 24 hours a day.

Taped to the wall are massive sheets of paper with the menus for each day mapped out – including breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as the many grazing stations, dessert options, and beverage tables.

This criss-crossing blueprint of meals is an opus in strategizing, yet Batten acknowledges that “things will evolve and we’ll adapt to changes. It’s all part of having a good team.”

Major roles have been delegated and Batten has made sure his phone numbers are at the ready.

“Communication is key,” he says. If a student or volunteer needs to make an expeditious decision and needs Batten on the line, he’ll be there.

Main meals will offer a choice of two entrees, vegetarian and carnivorous. Grazing options will be also available throughout the day for athletes noshing at odd hours.

As we tour through the college’s cafeteria, Batten gestures left and right, rattling off an ambitious array of choices.

“The sandwich station will be here, a pasta station, stir fry station, pizza, chili, burgers, hot dogs, salad bar, soup station…”

These offerings for grazers will be available from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, and Batten’s goal is to make them as obliging as possible.

“If an athlete wants a sandwich with no mayonnaise, no mustard, and no meat, I want to be able to say: we can do that.”

Walking back through the kitchen and bistro – empty and tranquil for the moment – Batten muses on the herculean task ahead of him when I remark on how serene he seems.

“It’s crunch time,” he admits, “and I don’t have enough hours in the day.”

Yet he is unflappably confident in his ensemble of volunteers, chefs and students.

“It’ll come together,” he says. “We’ve got a good team.”

Katie Zdybel is a teacher and writer whose articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications.

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