Greg Blanchard is making dinner for 224. From the cramped confines of the CUB kitchen, he and his staff have just a few hours to create three different types of crostini, chicken parmesan and linguine, garlic bread, Caesar salad, and strawberry shortcake, with exceptions for vegetarians, the lactose intolerant, avoiders of gluten, and one person who just doesn’t like cheese.
Come 6:30, student waiters and waitresses in black ties will serve the food on individual plates, a timing play that ups a chef’s game from, say, a buffet. If the food is ready too soon, lettuce will get flat, chicken will get dry, strawberries will bleed into frosting. If it is late, well, no one likes to keep hundreds of hungry people waiting.
Blanchard is preternaturally calm, bent over a stainless table and cutting board, slicing strawberries to put on top of half a dozen fruit-and-whipped-topping cocktails for guests who don’t want the shortcake. For now, he has a single focus, that being the right-sized strawberry.
“It’s got to be fairly wide,” he says without looking up, because a good cook with a sharp knife knows you don’t look away from what you’re cutting, “so you can get six or seven cuts out of it.”
All so the berry can be pressed down from the top, creating a strawberry fan garnish.
It’s all to be expected in Blanchard’s daily whirl of details, of menus and food orders and recipes scaled up and down, of yellow pads running down the tasks behind a banquet, of perilously sharp knives and hard-to-find, mid-winter produce, of ovens and warmers, pans and plates, sheet cakes and chicken filets that must never get dry, all aimed at the singular, satisfying moment that comes at the end of a fork.
“People have said again and again and again, ‘How do you keep the moisture in the chicken?’” he says one afternoon in his Stephenson Hall office. “Practice.”
This July, after 25 years of cooking for WSU students, faculty, administrators, guests, and alumni, most recently as the executive catering chef, Blanchard will take off the big white hat and retire. By then, he will have had a hand in preparing upwards of 6 million meals. And he still cuts onions.
“We all cook,” he says. “We all clean. We all chop. We all slice. We all dice. The coat, yeah, I’ve earned the right to wear it. But if I couldn’t cook side by side with my people, and if I didn’t, they wouldn’t work for me. I hate sitting by my desk.”
He started at the age of 10, bussing tables at a seafood restaurant in Florida, and over the years served as a grill cook, baker, salad person, fry cook, and franchise manager. He spent a year cooking offshore in California’s oil fields, where the seas could get so rough the coffee pot was welded to the bulkhead.
He arrived at WSU in 1988 and has worked in the Rotunda Dining Center, the CUB, the Hillside Café, the Wilmer-Davis Dining Center, and the Stephenson Dining Center. He’s been in catering the last five years.
He helped serve as many as 5,000 customers a day. At the all-campus picnic, he sees that many served in one meal.
He can scale up a recipe for eight to serve 500 (use half the spices and salt or it will be inedible). He’s prepared deep-fried alligator tail, emu chili, ostrich burgers, and rattlesnake, which arrives clean but coiled.
“Your knees kind of give out when you open the box,” he says.
He’s done a banquet with comedienne Betty White, a friend of the vet school, and cooked for Beasley Coliseum performers like Huey Lewis and Jeff Dunham. Tim Allen was first through the buffet line. Kelly Clarkson’s three-page contract rider called for six pairs of colored socks.
“I delegated that to someone else,” Blanchard says.
Over the years he’s seen a shift from long-warmed overcooked vegetables to food that’s got some snap, that’s fresh and has flavor, words he pronounces in slow motion, as if they’re sacred heirlooms.
“If I were going to tell people one thing, I’d tell them to stop boiling and steaming vegetables,” he says. “I made that change at the CUB in 2005. Zucchini, squash, we started to sauté. Asparagus—olive oil, a little bit of coarse salt. The only thing we ever do is roast it. Baby carrots, in the steamer just a little bit so they’re not quite so hard, toss them in olive oil, a little bit of spices, bake ‘em. You’re keeping the flavor. You’re not bleeding out all the nutrients in the water.”
Gone are buffets with cheaper, bulky food filling plates at the front of the line. Now the spread will have some Cougar and artisan cheeses, a nice salad with two or three dressings and toppings, fresh fruit, dinner rolls, and several tasty entrees.
“That’s what people want,” he says. “They want it simple and elegant. And they want it to taste good. And that’s what we do best. Now it’s not making stuff before or too far ahead. It’s kind of an ‘as needed’ cooking, or ‘at service time.’”
The transformation has been personal, too.
“I used to weigh 280 pounds,” he says. “That was 95 pounds ago. So what I eat now, I really want it to be good because I’m not going to eat a lot of it.”
To be sure, he knows a few tricks. To save money—he works in a self-supporting unit—he will buy 4,500 pounds of St. Louis ribs at $2.80 a pound and squirrel them away. He can look at a chicken filet and know it cost 63 cents; a slice of garlic bread, 22 cents. Need to chop a lot? Put two equally sized knives in your chopping hand. Serving several hundred steaks at once? Brown and mark them ahead of time on a grill and finish them in the oven just before serving.
The same goes for the chicken on this night, ASWSU’s Multicultural Fundraising Banquet and silent auction. It was dipped in a mayonnaise base, breaded in spiced panko, and browned in the middle of the afternoon, sealing in its juices. Brian Guthmiller, the lead cook, can then bake it shortly before serving and keep it ready to serve in a bank of glass-doored warmers.
By six p.m., as students and guests start filing into the CUB Senior Ballroom, Blanchard has circled and checked the list of tasks on his clipboard. Christine Ballard, catering manager, has the student wait staff shuttle salads and desserts to the tables.
At 6:22, Ballard announces that President Elson Floyd is just about done speaking. Plating begins.
“You do chicken, you do sauce,” Blanchard says to his help as he and Guthmiller head up an assembly line, portioning out hot linguine with double-gloved hands before passing the plate on. At different points, they substitute an eggplant parmesan for a vegetarian or plain chicken breast for a gluten-free, dairy-free diner.
On average, it takes the crew a little more than four seconds per plate. They’re done in 17 minutes.
Just then, an order comes in for an alternate dessert, the tall glass of fruit and topping. One of the wait staff is set to whisk it out to the ballroom when Blanchard shouts, “Wait, wait, wait! The strawberries!”
Someone passes him a plate. He peels back its plastic wrap, picks up a single, sliced, fan-shaped berry, and delicately garnishes the top.