Gold Medal Cooking at the Olympics

By Marilyn LaRocque

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

Do you cringe at the thought of planning and preparing dinner for 12?   Picture what John Crisafulli and his worldwide catering company, Behind the Scenes, Inc., experienced serving 12,000 meals a day at the Olympic Games in Sochi, catering to the tastes of NBC-TV personalities, the Canadian Broadcasting crew, major corporate entities, VIP’s…a veritable “who’s who” of the Olympic world—in a town that’s scarcely a culinary mecca.  However, with seven previous Olympics (starting in Sydney Australia, 2000), several Rose Bowl Games, national political conventions, inauguration balls, the America’s Cup Yacht Race, 10 years of ESPN X Games, and a myriad of celebrity functions under his belt, John was a seasoned big event warrior.

John Crisafulli, in the Olympic mood.

John Crisafulli, in the Olympic mood.

Creating “gold medal” meals in a foreign country qualifies John and his team as culinary athletes jumping over political, agricultural, and transportation hurdles.  “Every Olympics has its own unique challenges,” John admitted.

John travels to each Host City up to two years before the actual Games, meets with local vendors, and, in general scopes out suppliers, tests products, tours facilities, inspects their health and safety standards—in short, makes sure he’ll have a reliable food chain with safe products.  About six months before the Games, he starts recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training local staff.

For each Olympic games, John assembles a seasoned core group that has “been there, done that” when it comes to handling crises.  “I travel between 35 and 75 management staff and lead chefs to each Olympic Games,” he said. “ About 50% are from Australia, 25% from the U.S., and 25% from Europe.  Most of these managers have worked multiple Olympics or other large events with BTS.

“They are extremely talented and are able to produce and serve the highest quality menus under sometimes extremely challenging circumstances.  They are Executive Chef Level culinary staff as well as experienced front-of-house mangers.  The high percentage of Australians stems primarily from Sydney being our first Olympics, and we have found the talent and work ethic of these particular culinarians to be exceptional.  It is worth the extra airfare to fly them into our projects.”

Local residents, of course, comprise the majority of BTS Olympic workers.  “We hire from 200 to 700 local staff,” John revealed, “almost 700 in Beijing, but in Sochi we had a total crew of local staff and travelers of roughly 300 people.”

The Beijing Games were good practice for John and his team to prepare them for Sochi.  “We discovered China had no standard for public event catering or temporary food establishments,” he reported.  “They had never needed them because they’d never staged any event on the scale of an Olympic Games.  Any large gatherings or functions were planned exclusively by government entities, which would invent rules they thought fit.  We worked with officials to establish a safe and reliable food service program that met our needs.”

In Sochi, for John it was “déjà vu all over again” as he encountered conditions reminiscent of Beijing.  “There were lots of laws and regulations,” he said, “but none of them focused on public or event catering or temporary food establishments.  Everything was run here as the local authority saw fit.   Whether it was proper or safe often did not play a role in the decision-making process.

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“We started working with the local Olympic Organizing Committee to establish a safe supply chain for food and beverage products, and they eventually adopted our Health and Safety manual as their own and used our plan as a template for all the local vendors and companies that were hired to work on the Games.”

Once again water was a big problem.  “The toxin levels in the Sochi water supply are higher than is appropriate for a food preparation operation,” John stated.  “So we installed triple-level filtration and sanitation filters for all venue water supplies.  Local workers were also brought up to American standards and received extensive training, sometimes in two languages.”

John Crisafulli

John figured a sure bet was to ship a lot of food from the U.S. because a safe and secure supply chain didn’t exist in the Sochi region of Russia.   “To forestall problems,” he commented, “we decided to purchase a majority of our products—our meats, seafood items, and proteins—from the U.S. and ship them in freezer containers to Sochi under the Olympic Import exemption that we carry.   We sourced all our fresh produce primarily through European growers that we have had previous experience with and imported it through a Moscow-based import company.  We figured we had the bases covered.”

John’s carefully orchestrated Plan A became a game of culinary Russian roulette.

“We shipped 42 containers from the U.S.,” John reported.    “Only 11 had been received by January 21, roughly two weeks before the Olympics started.  Five more were being held at the Port in Sochi over very minor paperwork issues six weeks after their arrival.  The remaining containers were still on the ship in the Black Sea while we negotiated with Russian Customs, the Local Olympic Organizing Committee, and several other authorities in the United States and Russia to allow them to land and clear customs. It became quite an international incident that reached up to the cabinet level of the Russian Federation government.”

John’s efforts to rescue Plan A were only partially successful.  “We were able to offload eight or so of those containers,” he said, “but the rest, which were packed primarily with essentials—meat, dairy, and seafood—were turned around and shipped back to the U.S.  So we had to purchase all those foods through our secondary Moscow and Krasnadar-based suppliers.  Luckily we had alternatives we could rely on, especially with the food stocks quickly dwindling in the Sochi region.  Even before the Olympics started, store shelves were half empty; and staples like milk, eggs, and poultry were in limited supply.”

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

In the kitchens, ingenuity came to the rescue.  “My chefs were wizards while waiting for supplies,” John commented.  “They made delicious citrus salad dressings out of Fanta Orange Soda, and a sauce for a chicken entrée from Nestea Iced Tea with lemon.  People were raving and asking for the recipes.”

Different venues had different menus.  “We used a standard 15-day rotating menu for NBC Sports,” John reported.   “At the other catering venues, which were primarily VIP hospitality venues, we used many of the same ingredients but with different preparations more appropriate to the service style and setting.  Certain clients, especially celebrities and high-profile clientele, had specific preferences”

So, what was on the menus?  It varied.  The common denominator was fresh food prepared from scratch.  “Crew catering was served buffet style in a dining tent or commissary space that we built and operated,” John explained.  “Meal service included a salad bar, a hot buffet menu, made-to-order grill component, desserts, fruits, and snacks.  For our corporate or VIP hospitality, the menus were more elaborate and geared to cocktail service style with small bites or plated meals with tableside service.”

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

Those menus included lobster ravioli, sautéed scallops, dried-fruit-stuffed pork loin, Moroccan spiced lamb flatbread, plus lemon curd tartlets and vanilla cream vol à vent with fresh strawberries, kiwi, and blackberries for desserts.  At the International Broadcast Center, the Peacock Grill in the NBC Dining Room and a Brick Oven Pizza Station took center stage.  “We made our pizza dough from scratch every night,” John reported, “and had artisan Pizza Chefs producing a variety fresh from the oven.  The Grill served a killer Handmade Burger on your choice of breads/buns, including pretzel rolls, brioche buns and basil and olive Focaccia breads.  They also served some Russian favorites such as Shashlik skewers with beef, chicken, and lamb.  There was an extensive vegetable, fruit, and salad bar with healthy grilled protein options (chicken, salmon, steak) that were very popular, especially with the on-air talent trying to watch their waistlines.”

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Behind the Scenes, Inc.

BTS entertained numerous IOC members, politicians, and dignitaries from all over the globe at the NBC/USA House, USA Pavilion, and Omega Pavilion.  “The Omega Pavilion was our premier showcase menu-wise,” John remarked, “with Chef David Danielson from Chicago our Executive Chef.  His food received rave reviews.  We also had the opportunity to feed the U.S. athletes prior to their competition, as well as serve guests celebrating the athletes’ success with medal ceremony celebrations in the evenings.  This was the first Games for which we worked directly with the USOC.  It was a pleasure and proud moment to support their efforts.”

Food, wine, and travel writer/editor Marilyn LaRocque has visited the seven continents, experiencing not only sights and sounds but also foods and wines. In Paris in May, she was named Vice Chargée de Presse Nationale, Des Etats Unis, of Les Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the world’s oldest and largest food and wine society. She was Senior Food & Wine Editor for LUXURY Las Vegas magazine for nearly 10 years and immersed herself in the cuisine scene in this over-the-top city. She knows and has written about celebrity chefs, their restaurants, and food and reported dining trends not only in Las Vegas but throughout the world, from South Africa to Scandinavia, New Zealand to South America. She knows master sommeliers and mixologists and has written extensively about wines and spirits, particularly California, as well as Oregon, Virginia, and Kentucky (Bourbon) and Tennessee (Whiskey). She has dined at globally celebrated restaurants such as Taillevent (Paris), Noma (Copenhagen), Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London), Per Se (New York), and French Laundry (Yountville). She has served as a judge in culinary competitions, been guest lecturer at Le Cordon Bleu, Las Vegas, and served as PR consultant for the 2012 UNLVino, Nevada’s oldest and largest wine event. Photo by Jim K. Dekker