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Chef Chit Chat: Executive Chef Matt Smith on Grand-Scale Food Service

October 28, 2019

 It’s no easy feat being the Executive Chef of 1.8 million square feet of flexible and customizable event space, but Chef Matt Smith has repeatedly proven that he is up to the task. Taking on the role two years ago with Levy, the Greater Columbus Convention Center’s exclusive hospitality partner, Matt oversees a Premium Catering and Banquet Kitchen, a Pastry Kitchen, Restaurant and Café Services, and stewarding an employee meal program for up to 400 associates daily. The center itself is home to 3 ballrooms, 75 meeting rooms, and 4 expo/convention halls. How does he keep up? “Starting with the sales process and developing menus with clients, developing the plan, overseeing the ordering and production, to finally seeing a room of thousands eating something that started with a simple conversation is truly rewarding,” Matt says. “I enjoy seeing all the moving pieces and parts work in harmony to bring great food to our guests. It takes a tremendous team to bring quality food and beverage service to a high-volume food and beverage operation such as ours.”

Matt’s culinary career started at a vocational program at his high school. Matt says the instructor of his program “is hands down the reason that I reside in my current position. I didn’t really have a direction until then. I had some experience in food at a few standalone restaurants, and it was her push that lead me to truly pursue a career in this industry.” He then proceeded to train at Hocking College in southern Ohio, and most recently worked for hotel operations such as the Sheraton, the Westin and Hyatt. To sum up his experience, Matt says “I have had the opportunity to be trained by some very talented chefs along the way, all of which round out what I bring to the table, [including] my American cooking style with strong Mediterranean influences.”

As part of his signature cooking style, Matt puts a strong emphasis on bringing fresh, local and organic menu components to his clients. To help with this, the convention center has implemented the Smart Farm, an indoor hydroponic garden using LED lights, to supply the kitchen with herbs and leafy greens. The lighting and indoor growing environment allows for shorter growing cycles, resulting in six harvests per year. Approximately one in every five dishes served at the center include one or more items grown from the garden. “There are simple facts that prove [its] value in speed of growth and lack of impact on the environment,” Matt explains. “It is a huge step on tomorrow, [and] with all the sustainability movements in our current society, it offers a unique ability to write menus [that] include herbs literally grown under our own roof. It is amazing how many guests stop and gander or inquire about how the system works.”

 Along with locally grown food, Matt also values seasonal ingredients. “This area often offers a challenge as much as opportunity, a bit of a double edge sword so to speak… While we can certainly compose our menus to include the seasonal aspects, we also need to play it somewhat safe to be able to deliver on the expectations. So often we will lean towards staples that we know we will be able to secure and deliver on a grand scale, while still playing to the theme of the season.” Serving thousands of guests daily, the convention center also faces countless different dietary restrictions and preferences.  Accommodating everyone, while not sacrificing quality or customer experience is not only a staple, but a focus of the organization. “When you serve as many as we do, it is the expectation that you are able to cater to all the guests,” Matt elaborates. “Often times the guests with specific dietary restrictions are waiting on a sub-par replacement for what the other guests are enjoying. We pride ourselves on being on the front side of those situations, so when a guest asks, we are responsive with [an] alternate option [that] is right [there].”

It's clear that excellence is in the forefront of all of Matt’s projects. In fact, in 2017 Matt received the “Excellence in Food Service Award” in the Hotels & Resorts category through the United Fresh Produce Organization. However, Matt is just as committed to giving back to his community. When Matt is not directing culinary production at the convention center, he is an Adjunct Culinary Instructor at Columbus State Community College. Matt recalls, “I have learned so many things on my journey from so many talented people. I strive to be able to give some of those assets back to the students. If I can impact just one of them in the way that my teachers were able to influence me, then all the extra time and effort that I’m able to dedicate to teaching is all worth it.” In 2018, he was recognized with a "National Cutting Edge Award," an honor given to individuals who dedicate their time to helping others in the culinary field, presented by the American Culinary Federation, where he also serves on the board as secretary of his local chapter.

With such a relentless work ethic, we had to know how Matt refuels after an especially long day. “Comfort food honestly… with all that I manage on a daily basis I tend to be just fine with a greasy cheeseburger and fries when I get home.” We’d say it’s a well-merited indulgence.

 

 Written by Marianna Marchenko