The Biggest Kitchen

How the Hawaii Convention Center delivers meals on an industrial scale
Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by PF Bentley.

The dirty dishes at the Hawaii Convention Center are no joke. When a dinner for, say, five thousand wraps up, an army of dishwashers moves in. Working through the night and into the next afternoon, the dishwashers will rinse, wash, stack and store more than one hundred thousand dishes and utensils.

It will take seventy-five of them fourteen hours to get through all the coffee cups and saucers, water and wine glasses, salad and entrée forks, butter and dinner knives, teaspoons and soupspoons. And then there are the plates, one for every course. And on top of all those plates, literally, there are plate covers.

Everything that happens in this kitchen—the largest full-service kitchen in Hawai‘i—happens on a massive scale. A batch of soup can total three hundred gallons, enough to fill a hot tub. An over-order of melons can result in a mound of surplus fruit the size of a sleeping elephant. Add five seconds to the time it takes to put food onto a single plate, multiply that by two thousand plates, and you’ve created three hours of additional labor.

Any meeting in the Islands larger than fifteen hundred people pretty much ends up at the Hawaii Convention Center by default. With nearly nine acres of event space, it’s the largest meeting venue in the state. Behind the scenes, the kitchen occupies thirty thousand square feet—more than half a football field. It’s not one cavernous space but rather a warren of cooking areas, hallways, storage rooms, walk-in refrigerators and garage-size freezers, all spread out over four floors. New employees at large companies sometimes take photos of their co-workers to remember their names. When the biggest kitchen’s current executive chef, Kevin Nakata, started working there, he took photos of the fourteen walk-in refrigerators to keep them all straight.

Cooking thousands of diners at a time requires meticulous planning, all the way down to the number of seconds needed to put a tomato on a plate. Above, Nakata demonstrates for his staff how to arrange the ingredients of a salad.

Ingredients come in such large quantities that they are moved around on pallet-jacks. The kitchen itself is so spread out that the staff uses adult-size tricycles to get about (except for the chefs, who are too proud to be seen on the dorky three-wheelers). One day during last December’s busy holiday season, the pedometer app on Nakata’s iPhone clocked fourteen miles—a half-marathon and then some—as he ran between the kitchen and the various events throughout the convention center.

Central command, the main cooking area, is on the fourth floor. It has concrete floors, fluorescent lights, white-tiled walls and all the warmth of a mental institution. Six satellite cooking areas throughout the first and third floors dispense finished food. They are essentially empty rooms with hood systems and gas and electrical hookups. Every piece of cooking equipment, from oven to stove to fryer, is on wheels so that it can be moved anywhere in the building.

The State of Hawai‘i, which owns the convention center, contracts with Chicago-based Levy Restaurants to manage the kitchen. Levy knows how to feed the masses. It runs the food concessions at more than seventy stadiums, ballparks, racetracks and convention centers around the country, including Los Angeles’ Staples Center, Chicago’s Wrigley field and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. The kitchen it runs at the Hawaii Convention Center must not only cook for the state’s largest gatherings, it must also accommodate a wide variety of tastes. At last September’s Amazing Hawaii Comic Con (attendance: 40,000), comic book and fantasy/sci-fi fans dressed as zombies from The Walking Dead, Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, and all sorts of other characters, wandered the exhibition hall snacking on sandwiches and ramen served from concession stands. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses held their international convention in Honolulu (45,000), organizers requested that alcohol not be served and that the food not be too exotic; the kitchen obliged with chili and rice, chicken Caesar salad, turkey and ham sandwiches, milk and juice. By contrast, the drag queens at the Universal ShowQueen Pagent (1,200) washed down scores of corn dogs with Blue Banana cocktails.

The Hawaii Convention Center has the largest full-service commercial kitchen in the state. Spread across four floors, it can feed more than ten thousand people at a time. Head chef Kevin Nakata (seen on opening spread) measures his days in miles traveled running about the enormous facility.

Almost all the kitchen equipment in Hawai‘i’s biggest kitchen is enormous. Whisks for the Hobart, the industrial version of the home KitchenAid mixer, could double as Gandalf’s staff. Mixing bowls could be sinks for rhinoceroses, if rhinos bothered to wash their faces. The bowls, too heavy and unwieldy to carry, sit on wheeled stands and are scooted around the kitchen like hospital patients in wheel-chairs. The ovens, which are the size of walk-in closets, hold forty sheet trays apiece; the ovens rotate the racks holding the trays like giant gyro machines. With four fully loaded ovens, the convention center can bake 2,240 pounds of chicken thighs, 128 prime rib roasts or 4,800 portions of fish all in one go.

One thing that isn’t bigger: Spam. Turns out, Spam does not come in a bulk size for institutional use. So to make, say, 2,300 Spam musubi, somebody has to open 230 cans of Spam. Despite the staggering scale, knowing how much to order and prepare for an event is relatively straightforward. For a plated, sit-down meal, the chefs make a test plate in advance and extrapolate from there. For example, two brussels sprouts per person for five thousand people means an order of 812 pounds of brussels sprouts. For a food service professional, calculations like that are as easy as peas. Although occasionally there are mistakes, like the time Nakata came up four hundred servings short of slow-cooked short ribs six hours before dinner. Someone miscounted, and Nakata had to rush to cook more.

Nakata, who has worked in restaurants and hotel kitchens for twenty-three years, grew up in the business; his family owned Nishi Catering in Liliha from the 1950s to the 1990s. He maintains an even and methodical manner, no matter what. When he discovered the short-rib shortfall, he kept his cool and did the only thing he could do: “Hurry up and cook more,” he says. The lessons Nakata learned: “Count three times” and “don’t assume someone else did it.”

The center’s thirty thousand square foot kitchen is a warren of cooking areas, hallways, storage rooms, walk-in refrigerators and freezers. It’s so spread out that the staff use adult-size tricycles to get around.

But sometimes there’s nothing to count, like the time Gary Matsumoto, the former executive chef and current food and beverage director for the convention center, somehow forgot to order dessert for a thousand-person event. Three hours before dinner he realized he didn’t have the guava chiffon cakes the menu promised. His first thought was to drive to all the Napleon’s Bakery locations on the island to buy their guava chiffon cakes. But there wasn’t enough time. “Sometimes, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it,” he says. In “panic mode,” he sprinted down the long hallway (apparently, panic mode still does not justify the use of the tricycle) and rummaged through the walk-in freezers until he found something he could use: frozen sheet cakes. He defrosted them, chopped them up and layered them with a guava sauce. Voilà! One thousand guava chiffon trifles. “The trick is not letting the guest know you’re changing something radically,” he says.

And sometimes the trick involves combustible gas and an open flame. Generally the kitchen stays away from odoriferous ingredients like grated daikon and raw onion; preparing hundreds of pounds of pungent vegetables and then holding them in Cambros (insulated food transport boxes) for hours before they’re served risks unleashing a noxious cloud that could overwhelm the dining room. Which brings us back to the brussels sprouts: Matsumoto has a weakness for them despite the smell. To serve them at one event, he employed an old bathroom trick. It turns out cooked brussels sprouts emit sulfur, which can be burned off by lighting a match. By applying a lit match to each of the Cambros with the brussels sprouts—poof!—the diners at the Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony (4,750) never smelled the vegetables coming.

Nakata has twenty-three years under his belt working in restaurants and hotel kitchens, but he also grew up in the business. His family owned Nishi Catering in Liliha from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Prep time at the convention center can look less like cooking than readying troops for battle. An entire wall is covered with a prep list, every dish broken down into its basic ingredients—“onion, round 50 pounds/garlic, fresh 5 pounds.” There are many questions to consider when cooking for thousands of people at once, when dishes can’t be prepared on the fly but must be cooked as far in advance as possible. For instance, how long can lobster hold without overcooking? How long can a particular sauce sit before it develops an unappealing crust? How do you thicken a salad dressing so it doesn’t run off the plate in case a long-winded speaker goes twenty minutes over?

“Every dish that we do, we have to engineer,” Nakata says. “When you come up with a concept, that’s great, but if you can’t translate it into a few steps, you can’t do it. You can’t have twenty-five steps because then you need twice the staff.”

When it’s time to plate the food, cooks line up along a conveyor belt, each with one task: placing a dollop of potato purée on the plate, stacking the filet mignon on top of the potato, arranging roasted vegetables on the side, spooning on the sauce. Such a line can assemble 1,900 plates in forty-five minutes.

Parties big and small are approached the same way—everything disassembled into its smallest components, with a plan of attack for reassembly. Time and temperature are tested and tracked obsessively. How long will this take to cook? How long will it take to put on the plate? How long can it hold? At what temperature should this be cooked? At what temperature will this be served? Is that speaker still talking? Nakata wears a headset attached to a walkie-talkie while he’s working so he can get updates from the servers in the dining areas and the cooks in the farthest reaches of the kitchen.

The Convention Center’s ovens are the size of walk-in closets and can hold forty sheet trays apiece. With four fully loaded ovens, the center can bake 2,240 pounds of chicken, 128 prime rib roasts or 4,800 portions of fish all in one go.

Planning takes months. For a fifteen thousand-person event, Nakata alerts his suppliers a half year in advance as to how many cases of yogurt and croissants he’ll need. Of course, sometimes he still comes up short. It happened last year during the Amazing Hawaii Comic Con. Ten thousand
 people had been projected to attend the three-day event. Instead, that many attended on the first day alone. The concession stands sold out immediately, and Nakata had to call every food distributor on the island for emergency bacon cheeseburger and pepperoni pizza ingredients.

And sometimes there’s too much food. At a convention for blood and bone marrow transplant specialists (4,500), so many conventioneers skipped breakfast that the kitchen was left with six hundred extra pounds of melon and eight hundred packages of cereal. The attendees of the subsequent anime convention, Kawaii Kon (12,000), took care of the leftovers in the form of melon boba drinks and lemongrass Chex Mix snacks.

Nakata has executed the largest events of his career at his current gig, but he says that when it comes to cooking, “it’s all the same basic principles,” whether he’s working at the family business or at the convention center. “Food has to taste and look good,” he says. “If you wouldn’t serve something to a family member, then it’s not good enough for our guests.” All thirty thousand of them. HH