Listen to Austin 360 Radio

With 120 chefs, 1,600 sq. ft. kitchen, Sodexo readies for COTA crowds

Addie Broyles

Ahead of last year’s U.S. Grand Prix, the Sodexo crew charged with running food operations at the inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas didn’t have access to the kitchens until raceweek.

The event drew more than 250,000 people over three days, making it the biggest event that Sodexo oversees in the U.S. The the food services and facilities management company runs large-scale sporting events, like the Masters and the U.S. Open, but nothing compares to COTA.

But this weekend, not only is Sodexo doing the heavy lifting at the second annual Grand Prix, they will feed some 100,000 people watching the UT game against Oklahoma State at Memorial Stadium. If you do the math, that means Sodexo will serve more than 350,000 people in the Austin-area this weekend.

Managing all those meals, especially that first year with such little prep time in the kitchens, is more like organizing chaos.

“Last year, we were building the airplane as we were trying to fly it,” says Chazz Alberti, a national culinary director for Sodexo, says.

This year, they have familiarity with the flow of both foot and vehicle traffic and the quirks of a brand new track.

Instead of four or five kitchens spread across the facility, Alberti and his staff knew they needed one massive space where they could more easily load raw ingredients in and move prepared food out to the various points of sale. Starting in September, crews built a large white tent on one of the parking lots that houses a 6,000 square foot temporary kitchens, complete with ovens and stoves.

On Thursday, dozens of chef-coat clad cooks shuffled food stored in trucks and climate-controlled pods. Near the whiteboard scribbled with a menu list and instructions for the day, towered Heath Miles, the former Texas Motor Speedway chef who moved to Austin from Fort Worth ahead of last year’s race.

It was still early in the morning, but the smell of baked chicken and barbecue pork lingered in the air.

“We visualize the food that we want to put in the hands of people as opposed to thinking about logistics first. That’s the way you get mediocre food,” Alberti says next to a table full of cooks moving bright orange Mexican rice from big metal bowls into small serving containers. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

On this menu this weekend is, you guessed it, pulled pork and baked chicken with gravy, among other American favorites like lasagna and macaroni and cheese. Last year, roughly 40 percent of racegoers were from European or South American countries. “They aren’t coming for their food; they are coming for our food,” Miles says, which is why he’s saving the big Texas-style barbecue spread for Sunday.

Miles is in charge of 120 other chefs, some of whom flew in from other continents for the event. Together, they lead more than 3,000 food and beverage staffers, from line cooks to concessionaires to servers and bartenders in the high-end suites.

A key component of the Sodexo service operation is its partnership with local nonprofits, which send volunteers to work booths throughout the facility. The groups, which include soccer associations and band booster clubs from cities like Kyle and Round Rock, then get a portion of the proceeds. Last year, Sodexo donated $140,000 to partner groups after the November race weekend.

Sodexo staffers will start checking in those volunteers at 4 a.m. each day, around the time the kitchen staff comes in to make sure breakfast is ready for the guests who arrive when the gates open at 7:30 a.m.

For the following three days of breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails, this kitchen will be buzzing, and on Monday morning, after it’s all over, any extra food and still edible perishables will go to the the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.

And Miles says that if it’s anything like last year, he’ll start planning for 2014 before the end of the week.