Interview: Daniel Traster, Culinary Director | PBS Food

Kitchen Careers: Daniel Traster, Culinary Director

Kitchen Careers is a regular feature that goes behind-the-scenes with chefs, bloggers, critics and others in the food industry to get the inside scoop on what its like to cook, or eat, for a living.
Meet Chef Dan Traster
When chefs prepare recipes on television or at a live show, they have a lot of behind-the-scenes help. Most often the dishes have already been prepared ahead of time to save time. The Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show host three consumer shows a year in Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, DC featuring television cooking personalities and various exhibitors. Daniel Traster serves as Culinary Director for the shows where he heads up the behind-the-scenes team. What are you responsibilities as the Culinary Director? I support our presenters in their stage demonstrations. This includes sourcing their ingredients and equipment needs for their recipes, overseeing volunteers in the production and set-up of the recipes, and creating a temporary prep kitchen and operational cooking stages for each show we do. If I am doing my job right, all the presenters need to do when they arrive to the show is walk on stage to a perfect set-up and begin demonstrating their craft to the audience.

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show (Courtesy: Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show)

What led you to your role as culinary director? In 2006, I was the Dean of Culinary Arts at Stratford University. Denise Medved, founder of the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show, approached me about presenting at that first show and supplying culinary students to volunteer in the prep kitchen. After my presentation, I spent the rest of the weekend at the show helping out in the kitchen. When Denise asked if I wanted to return as a presenter, I explained that I was leaving my job to be a stay-at-home dad for my newborn daughter and that “stay-at-home dad” probably wouldn’t attract much of an audience. She concurred, but a few months later, she reached out to me to see if I was interested in a job as the show’s culinary director. Since the job let me work primarily from home and wouldn’t force me to sacrifice the time with my daughter, I jumped at the opportunity.
Volunteers backstage plating samples for audience members. (Photo Credit: Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show)
What is the timeline for preparation with each show? While it takes a year for the company to put together a show, my job works on a six-week cycle. Six weeks before the show, the presenters must submit the recipes they plan on presenting. I spend a week reviewing the recipes and clarifying with each presenter any questions I may have about the procedure or ingredients. It takes another week just to compile the food order and to compare presenter equipment needs with our equipment inventory. Next, I have to purchase any required equipment not in our inventory and to place orders for the ingredients. Throughout this time, I’m also recruiting volunteers and a few professional chefs to work in the prep kitchen. Two weeks out, I put together a spreadsheet with notes describing in detail the set-up for each presenter. That leaves the final week to pick up food orders, put together the kitchen on site, and get everything ready to support a weekend packed with star-studded culinary presentations. What are some of the challenges in doing three shows in different parts of the country? The biggest challenge is working in cities where I don’t know the local markets. While I’m familiar with Washington, DC, I must rely on other culinary professionals, whom I’ve often only met over email, to take care of the ingredient purchases and to recommend sources for volunteers. The first year in a new city is a leap of faith that the folks I hire will come through for me. Fortunately, they’ve never let me down. And once I have a good team in place, subsequent years are much easier.
Take a peep at Chef Dan's backstage prep kitchen (Photo Credit: Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show)
How do you turn a convention center into a space that is on par with a professional kitchen? It isn’t easy. We rent a lot of large equipment and spend a day laying out the space and connecting it to gas and electric lines. Another day is spent unpacking an extensive inventory of kitchen smallwares. Having spent many years working in the culinary industry, I insist on an efficient professional layout that keeps the volunteers working efficiently and keeps the food sanitary and safe even though the kitchen is in operation for only two days. How do you compile your staff of volunteers? I reach out to local culinary colleges and high schools. Their students love the opportunity, and I get a team of people with the culinary skills needed to execute a show of this magnitude. Most people would be surprised to know that the staff largely consists of culinary students. Why do you value giving this opportunity to students instead of professionals in the industry? I believe culinary students get more out of the experience than industry professionals. The students get a chance to network and learn beyond their own classrooms. It gives them exposure to a real-world kitchen and provides them something special to add to their résumés. I believe in supporting these chefs of tomorrow as they are just beginning, and I hope that their experience inspires them to continue in the field.
Students from area culinary schools volunteer backstage. (Photo Credit: Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show)
Can you describe the interactions between the students and the celebrity chefs? The interaction varies widely depending on the chef. Some chefs let the students do all of the work on their own while the chefs tour the show floor. Others want to work hands-on with the students to teach and coach them in the production, a perk that the students really value. Of course, one-on-one interaction with a picky presenter can be challenging for students. We have had students prepare the ingredients for a presenter, per their written instructions, only to have the presenter come in and criticize the production. In our last show, one presenter told a student that his preparation of a dough was completely wrong and that he must not have followed her recipe. She insisted on remaking it herself. I had to laugh when her dough looked exactly like his. After making it a third time with the same results, she eased up on her initial harsh assessment of the student’s work and seemed to develop a bond with the student, who never once suggested that the flaw might lie in the recipe itself. For students, the opportunity to volunteer in the show is a very unique experience, what are some of the benefits for these students? At the most basic level, students get to work with industry professionals, and in exchange for their work, they get to see the show for free. The access to professionals of this caliber is rare for culinary students who might not work with a big name chef directly but rather for a sous chef or lead cook for their first year or two in the industry. Another unusual feature of volunteering at the show is that we don’t prepare recipes from start to finish for diners to eat. Instead, we prepare food to a range of specifications for a chef to complete on stage. This may include a finished dish to show the audience, but it more often requires the cutting and preparation of ingredients only to certain stages, so the presenter can demonstrate the steps in the recipe on stage.
Student volunteers work alongside professional chefs in the prep kitchen. (Photo Credit: Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show)
What three PBS personalities would you invite to dinner (animated, muppet, or living)? I have a five-year-old at home, which means that half of my focus during any dinner party is spent keeping my daughter entertained. If I could have Elmo, Sid the Science Kid, and Angelina Ballerina to keep her occupied, I might be able to enjoy the food. As a contractor for the Metro Cooking shows, what do you do during the remainder of the year? When I’m not working on the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show, I’m either writing or volunteering. My first book, Welcome to Culinary School: A Culinary Student Handbook, came out in 2009. My second, Fundamentals of Cost Control, will be out in 2012, followed by a book on menu planning a year later. All are culinary school textbooks. When I volunteer, it’s most often with my daughter’s school, Tyler Elementary in Washington, DC. You have had a lot of great experiences and currently have this very unique job, looking back, what do you wish you had known? I wish I had known at an earlier age how approachable big-name culinary professionals usually are. As a culinary student, I was too intimidated to call or email a big-name chef out of the blue. I have been pleasantly surprised how often many of them will reply to an email.

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