Bluesfest Spotlight: Feeding the Volunteers

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Photos by Andre Gagne

Those of you lining up for your poutine, pizza and Pad Thai know that the vendors at RBC Bluesfest work hard to churn out enough grub to feed the festival hungry. However, just across the river over on Albert Island (aka: Volunteer Village), another kitchen is busy day in and day out preparing over 17,500 meals, fuel for the festival volunteers.

Christened the Outdoor Blues Café, famished volunteers turn in their tickets each day for a selection of food prepared by Chef Martin De Board and his team at Sodexo. Catering to different diets as well as not getting to repetitive with the food choices over the 10 days isn’t easy but they have a lot of experience feeding big name events from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to the British Open and Tour de France, to name a few. When Bluesfest came calling, De Board was eager to lend a hand (not to mention pots, pans and utensils).

“Satisfying such a variety of people is very difficult and almost impossible to say the least, especially these days with all the food and diet trends as well as dietary restrictions,” says De Board, who’s passion for food started at the age of six.

“We plan to make sure that there is something for everyone. Lots of variety within one frame work. Our goal is to provide a food service that has verity, that is as local as possible, that is quality and inclusive and as we can make it within the limits of the size of the operation.”

Size has never really been an issue for the accomplished Chef. He’s managed the food and beverage services of the prestigious Victoria Golf Club, worked for Westin Hotels, as well as being part of the Food and Beverage Team at Bear Mountain Golf and Country Club. While that club had 4 food outlets, 95 rooms and a banquet hall able to fit 300 people, the Ottawa Bluesfest 3,500 plus volunteers was a much taller order.

“We have planned to prepare to serve approximately 10,000 portions of the daily specials and preparing another 7 to 8 thousand of the other choices; like the Salad bar, the Grille, on the go meals like sandwiches and wraps and of course lots of fruit and sweets too.”

Besides the food prep and getting it all to the site, the Café has to work on keeping it all fresh and hot, properly stored and served when the lines start forming. That’s where Cathy Dewar comes in. She currently manages the Outdoor Blues Café having cooked up a course at Algonquin College called Restaurant International and running her own Savana Café. She typically arrives on Albert Island 2 hours before her volunteers do where she goes through the inventory and awaits the delivery from Sodexo.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with young people,” says Dewar referring to her students and the fact that most festival volunteers range between 15 and 17 in age. For many, this is their first experience in the food service industry and it’s a busy one.

“There are always number of challenges but like any food facility keeping the client happy is the main one, along with keeping the volunteers engaged and productive.”

Back a Sodexo, the day typically starts with an inspection of all the orders for the day. If the workload for something as large as Bluesfest wasn’t enough, they are still fulfilling other commitments. Ingredients are separated according to what section of the kitchen will be making them. De Board meets with his team and then they are off and chopping.

“By mid-day we start gathering all the items in loading bay fridge and placing the order for the next day. Once everything’s gathered and recounted we get to go outside for a short drive and join the team on site,” he says, telling Ottawa Life that the next step is loading it all into the onsite fridges before debriefing, getting some feedback and then heading back to the kitchen for the end of day prep.

“On the back end there are approximately five of us planning, ordering and receiving the food orders, prepping, cooking and delivering to the site every day.”

It’s not just all fries and burgers. This year’s menu includes a round-the-world vacation sampling of dishes from Greece, Italy and India. The volunteers eat well and considerations are discussed long in advance. For example, coinciding with Canada’s 150th, the team tossed together The Great Canadian BBQ.

“We meet prior to the festival a few times and then send a menu around with lot feedback,” says De Board. “This bounces back and forth until everyone is satisfied with the end result.”

If you visit Albert Island’s Outdoor Blues Café, most volunteers will tell you all about that satisfaction. Well, that is, they’ll tell you once their finished desert.