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Chef's Choice: Neal Harkins



The thought of feeding 17,000 people at an event might seem daunting for most people.

Preparing food for 2,000 is also a big job and again for most people it would be an overwhelming task. Neal Harkins has a check mark beside both those sets of numbers. The executive chef at the Whistler Conference Centre was involved in a huge event on the field at Nationals Park, home field of the major league Washington Nationals baseball team. The event for 17,000 involved serving plated meals for people seated at tables on the baseball diamond. The biggest event he's ever done at the Whistler Conference Centre was a conference event attended by 2,000 people a few years ago. Another highlight for Harkins was cooking at Superbowl XLV in Dallas two years ago. The television audience for the game was estimated at 111 million people while 103,219 people packed into Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas to enjoy stadium snacks, beer and the biggest football game of the year.

Harkins works for Centerplate — a company that specializes in catering large venues. His main assignment is to run the kitchen at the conference centre in Whistler but he occasionally gets called on to help out at other large venues. Centerplate also has the kitchen contracts for BC Place, the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre and Safeco Field in Seattle along with contracts at large venues across the continent.

Harkins took the executive chef position at the conference centre five years ago when Centerplate was awarded the catering services contract at the centre. He reports that Centerplate and Tourism Whistler inked another five-year deal back in November.

Whistler first met Harkins when the Westin opened its doors in 2000. He had stints at the Westin in Seattle and the Westin Habour Castle in Toronto.

He says his cooking career got in the way of plans for an accounting career.

"I was old, I didn't start cooking until I was 22," says Harkins with a chuckle. "Most people start when they are 15, 16 washing dishes. I never did that. I went to university to be an accountant."

He says he discovered that accounting just wasn't for him. Preparing food apparently was. With help from a family friend, Harkins explains that he got into a three-month apprenticeship program in Ontario.

"I was going to school with guys that had been in kitchens since they were 16 years old and I didn't know anything."

He laughs at the memory of his early kitchen training.

"Nobody wanted to be my partner in class because I knew nothing."

The training Harkins got opened his eyes to what's possible in food preparation.

"That's where I learned you could eat meat rare," remembers Harkins. "In my family it was always well-done. I never knew you could eat meat while it was still bleeding. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn."

That knowledge is being put to good use in the basement of the Whistler Conference Centre, a facility that Harkins says is really busy when it is busy.

"There can be 17, 18-hour days," says the chef. "It's a rollercoaster. You're up and you're down.

"That's the benefits of this job, it is one of the perks. When you're busy, you're busy and when you're slow, you're slow. When we're busy, usually the village isn't because we're basically busy in the off-seasons."

This reality is key to the staffing of the conference centre kitchen. Harkins says finding staff isn't usually difficult because hotel workers are available to help out at the conference centre during the busy times.

"I have one full-time cook," says Harkins.

The lone full-time person is Harkins' sous chef while the rest of the kitchen staff are all employed on a casual basis.

And on that note, Harkins has to get to work preparing food for a few hundred guests coming to the conference centre to celebrate the end of the 2013 Nordic Fest at Whistler Olympic Park.

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