Imagine being responsible for feeding a small city everyday. That's the job of John McDonald, executive chef for Brigham Young University Dining Services in Provo, Utah. As the head honcho for the nation's third largest university dining service, he's responsible for providing more than 45,000 meals a day, from faculty gatherings to cafeteria fare for 32,000 students. He reveals what it takes to stay on top of a huge operation while also keeping the menu creative.
What is a typical day like in a catering job?
Planning menus with clients and ordering food for daily banquets, hiring new employees and providing ongoing training for current employees takes up most of my work week. It requires working long hours, holidays and weekends. When most people are off, that's when I'm the busiest.
My other daily duties include the non-stop evaluation of cooking ingredients and products, and ensuring that quality standards are met for daily kitchen functions. Planning recipes for both regular and seasonal meals can be a challenging task as well, and it takes up a good portion of my daily planning time.
How did you get started?
Since I was a small child I've always loved to cook. I started out working as a dishwasher in a hotel while I was in high school and worked my way up through various kitchen positions. I later decided that to continue working in the business, I would need to attend culinary school to better hone and develop my cooking skills.
I attended the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon. I am also a member of the American Culinary Federation, an organization that encourages continuing education. That's important in a changing industry.
How do you develop a menu?
I like to use seasonal and local products whenever possible. Creative latitude sometimes depends on the budget. We also try to accommodate special dietary needs including allergy requirements, vegetarians and vegans, as well as specific religious requirements. Of course, it can be hard to balance creativity with all of those requirements.
How has your job changed and evolved?
Over time, we have been faced with increased labor shortages due to budget restrictions. In addition to that challenge, I always need to stay on top of the ever-evolving menu as the catering business and the customer base has become more and more health conscious.
What do you wish you knew about catering before you started?
That it's always evolving. Being successful and happy in the business depends on whether or not you can meet the needs of the people for whom you're catering. No matter where your catering business is, people demand diversity in what they eat, so you need to be very flexible with what you offer. In this business, that's the key.