Food is more than fuel to get through the day; it’s an art form.
Convene’s Regional Executive Chef, German Villatoro, recently sat down to chat about how he prepares crowd pleasing menus, why great culinary services are key for an A+ event experience, and how food has the magical ability to bring people together.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
When did you fall in love with cooking?
It started with my mother. Everything around my house as a child revolved around the kitchen. My mother was always in there, making tamales, cooking a cow head overnight to make barbacoa. I grew up in El Salvador, and growing up in that kind of environment, you sort of live off the land. I come from no running water, no electricity, we depended on wells and the animals we owned.
But I’ve always had a thing for flavors. I was always intrigued by the way things tasted. As I got older, I remembered flavors that would take me back to my childhood—what real corn tasted like, what natural tomatoes off the vine tasted like. I went to high school in small town Missouri, and when you grow up in that area with farms everywhere, there’s organic fruits and vegetables everywhere that you can pick and eat. I wasn’t really interested in education and all that in high school, so I said I want to pursue something I want to do. I started working summertime jobs (in high school) in restaurants—I worked for a taco restaurant, worked at McDonald’s, the whole gamut.
You’ve said you want your food to be healthy, simple, appealing, and easy to eat. How do you create those types of menus?
It’s all about research. I need to understand the small nuances of clients that I’m serving. For example, a Convene in Boston will serve lobster. In New York, we do a total take of the Hudson Valley. We use a lot of fresh local ingredients and eclectic flavors, which is what New York is. When you go to Convene in D.C., of course you’re going to get the Maryland crab cake.
Those are the kind of things that our chefs distinguish themselves by. The food is very fresh and understandable. We’re also very aware of allergens. We’ve already anticipated and prepared for dishes that are gluten-free, vegan, nut-free, and shellfish free within our seasonal menus.
At the same time, we always aim to be creative with what’s seasonally available. This season, we amped up a traditional cucumber salad with vinaigrette and toasted soy beans – and our guests loved it!
Why is using local food important to you?
It helps the farmers in the regions that we operate. For instance, I work straight with the fish market. There isn’t a company there that holds fish in a refrigerator for more than three days before they deliver it to us. I call the Fulton Fish Market personally, and ask for the freshest fish available. Staying regional is how you stay sustainable.
What other elements do you consider when creating a menu?
I often think of incorporating what’s healthy and also energizing. You want to feel good and feel satisfied, but you don’t want to feel overstuffed, because that won’t allow you to be productive. That’s why we use a lot of green vegetables in our menus and lots of foods with antioxidants. This season’s vinaigrettes use turmeric and ginger – ingredients which give you the energy to power you through your full day of meetings.
I’ve heard you have an interesting story about accidentally taking some of your chef’s knives to the airport while rushing to catch a flight—what happened there?!
At the time, I was living in the Caribbean, cooking at an all-inclusive style resort. After awhile, I was itching to get back to the mainland and was in New York for a job interview. The day of my flight back to the islands, I did a tasting for this potential job. They knew I had a flight to catch, so they said I only had to do four dishes, but I ended up doing six because I wanted to impress them.
So I left a good impression on them, but then I had to rush to the airport to make my flight with my carry-on bag and everything. And I had forgotten that I put my cooking knives in my carry-on. I put my bag on the belt and I hear “BEEP BEEP BEEP!”
So I think “What do I do? Do I miss my flight and try to mail these back to myself?” But I had such a good feeling about the interview I just did, I said forget it and told them to throw them all away. I lost about $700 worth of knives, but I caught my flight and two days later I got the job and I was so excited that the $700 didn’t matter anymore!
How do you think food can impact the workplace experience?
When you go anywhere and the food is subpar, people are going to be upset. On the flip-side, you can easily motivate people when they taste something great. It helps make their conversations more upbeat in the morning. People will often tell me with a smile on their face, “We have never had food like this at a conference.” It’s not just food; it’s truly an experience.
Alright, a few rapid fire questions: what’s your favorite restaurant in New York?
Right now? Carbone. For more casual eating, Pasquale Jones.
How about a food trend that you don’t like?
Tweezer food! It’s done, over. Overplayed.
Favorite style to cook?
Mediterranean, with fresh ingredients.
Last one: if I came over to your house tonight, what are you going to cook?
I’d probably make you a frittata or a Tortilla Española, because that’s an easy one. You’re always going to have eggs in house, vegetables, and spices. Every household has eggs in the fridge, it’s the easiest thing. I actually did exactly that at a buddy of mine’s house at 2:30 in the morning after a great night at the bar. He said “Germs, we gotta eat, we gotta cook something!” So I go in his kitchen and he has potatoes, shallots, a dozen eggs, spices, cheese, and some frozen sausage. So I made what’s called a “Kitchen Sink Tortilla Española,” and it was great!