Interview – Mike Greer (2010 Olympics)

I’d like to start off by asking you to tell us a little about yourself.
My background is primarily in the Canadian military forces where I served for 21 years. During 20 of those years I was in the cook trade, where I worked my way up to an executive chef position. I’ve always kept in touch with chefs I met in the military, including Bill Prat who is a good friend of Chef Michael Smith. In fact they performed together on Iron Chef America!

How did you end up working at the 2010 Olympic Games?
Bill was actually the one who arranged for me to be a part of the Olympics! Michael Smith got him on board and he in turn asked me to join the team.

Can you describe the process that went into developing each day’s menu?
The menus were actually completed and arranged well in advance of the games, probably close to a year prior. All of the senior executives within Sodexo, VANOC, and Michael Smith were responsible for the design of these menus. The only real hiccup we encountered with the pre-chosen menus was that a lot of the recipes weren’t easily adaptable for the quantities we needed. So a lot of time had to be spent on tweaking some of the dishes to ensure they would work when produced in large volumes.

Nutritional considerations for athletes must have been a number one concern when choosing recipes. How did you take into account the varying dietary needs of thousands of competitors?
A lot of thought was put into the different nutritional requirements of athletes (such as food high in carbs), as well as specific cultural needs. For example; we sourced out specific rice varieties requested by the Asian athletes.

I’ve seen a sample menu and let me just say that it ain’t your typical high school cafeteria food! What were some of the most popular dishes served during the games?
Surf and turf!

Is it true that you were cooking in a brand new facility that used equipment from England?
Cooking equipment used in Olympic Games are always purchased brand new, and because our gear was made in England all of the power sources had to be converted. The tent used to house the eating/cooking area was one that had been used during the Torino games in 2006. It’s the size of a football field with the kitchen in the middle, your workforce dining room (seats 300) and the athletes’ dining room (seats 1200) which was open 24/7.

How long were your work days? Can you describe a typical day in the life of Olympic Mike?
In the beginning our living quarters were in Squamish (approximately an hour from the Athletes Village in Whistler) aboard a cruise ship called The Mona Lisa. The ship is 44 years-old and is in fact a fully functioning cruise liner! Our shifts started at 3pm. Daily responsibilities included reorganizing the fridges and dry storage area, counting all of the inventory each day and entering the info into the computer (a Sodexo policy), receiving product deliveries between 8-10pm, restocking and storing the new product, pulling all meat three and four days in advance in order to give them enough time to thaw, cleaning up and heading to bed by 1 or 2am.

On your blog you mentioned how there was an incident involving 3 gallons of puréed tomato sauce exploding across the kitchen. Any other culinary casualties you’d care to mention?
There’s always something that spills or gets dropped on a daily basis, but given the incredible speed with which food was being produced I’m surprised we didn’t have any major catastrophes! The worse incidents usually involved blender lids popping off…that always made a nice mess.

Did your past experiences as a Canadian Forces Cook provide you with an advantage coming into the kitchens of the 2010 games?
It was a HUGE advantage coming into the games, as I was familiar with the concept of large quantity cooking and had years of experience preparing food for thousands of people. A lot of chefs coming from the restaurant industry were initially overwhelmed by the volume of cooking needing to be done. It seemed shocking to them that we would use two full bottles each of dried basil and oregano for a marinara sauce! But we were cooking for the masses; upwards of 500 people compared to the 20 or 30 restaurant guests these chefs typically feed on a daily basis.

It is my understanding that the standard of food services training (not to mention the quality of food itself) in the Canadian Forces is some of the best in the world. Can you elaborate on this?
In my opinion, the standard of food service in the Canadian Military is equal to that of the fine dining industry. In particular, the buffet service we offer is comparable to some of the finest hotels in the world!

Wow! I would never associate the military with fine dining!
(Laughs) It’s strange…but true!

An important goal for your team was to create an overall dining experience rather than just serving up food to customers. What did you do in order to ensure this would happen?
A big part of the dining experience we created was providing a wide variety of ethnic foods for athletes and staff who had come from all over the world to participate in the Games. We made the dining room accessible 24/7 for athletes, with fresh food of the highest quality being available each and every day.

Providing food for an Olympic Games is a massive undertaking. Most people don’t realize just how much thought and work goes into everything we do in order to provide an amazing dining experience for such large numbers.

Obviously when working at the speeds and for the vast number of people that you did during the Olympics, equipment plays a big part in your overall success. In your blog you mentioned using the Accutemp Griddle. What other pieces of equipment do you consider to have been a vital part of your kitchen?
Definitely the computherm ovens and warming ovens.

The big question…has your wife given you the okay to get an Accutemp Griddle of your own?!
I’m still working on that one!

How much did the Olympic energy & enthusiasm motivate your efforts in the kitchen?
It had a HUGE impact on our efforts! Just being around so many people and feeling the energy kept us jazzed. There were TVs in the dining areas for people to watch the various events, and I can’t tell you how incredible it was when the place would suddenly erupt with cheers.

Were you able to escape from the kitchen and enjoy any of the games?
In the beginning I worked 21 days straight but after that I got weekends off which was nice. I got to take in the two man bobsleigh. Incredible.

What’s next on your culinary bucket list? London 2012?
Actually I have been offered the opportunity to join the 2012 crew, but at this point I’m not sure if I’ll end up going. Volunteering for the Vancouver Games was an incredible experience but to be honest I’m not sure if I’d be able to get the time off work for London!

Mike Greer is a retired Canadian Forces Cook. He currently lives in Sooke on South Vancouver Island (BC) with his wife Lynne and two daughters. For more information on Mike or to read about his Olympic experience, visit www.billandmike.blogspot.com