Simmering With Satisfaction

September 8, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Whether it’s serving more than 8,000 guests at DeVos Place, coming up with a private dinner for Amway founder Richard DeVos and his guests, or catering a Chinese wedding with authentic food at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Josef Huber is at the helm.

As the Amway Grand Plaza executive chef, Huber leads the 80 to 100 employees that cater occasions at the hotel and the adjoining convention center. He starts his day at 7:30 a.m., going over voicemails from the captain who headed the previous day’s catered events and going over any financial or other issues that may have come up the day before.

At 8:30 a.m. Huber gathers with the staff who will be managing the next day’s events, as well as with the several chefs who work with him. At the 60- to 90-minute meetings, the staff reviews the following day’s agenda, preparing for any changes in the menus and going over last-minute needs and details a day in advance.

“Once we get up from this table, we’re pretty much all set,” he said.

Following the meeting, Huber reviews his payroll and schedules, making sure people are in and where they are supposed to be. He prefers to tend to those details himself in order to keep updated.

“It gives me a better feel for what’s going on if I do it myself,” he said.

Next is preparation for lunch, which Huber said is eaten early in Grand Rapids, typically between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Following lunch, Huber said the time period between 1 and 5 p.m. is used for client and vendor meetings, hiring interviews and tastings. He also tries to squeeze in a workout at MVP Metro Club.

The Grand Plaza offers complimentary taste sessions for those holding an event with more than 150 people. For weddings, up to five people can come to taste the entire event menu to make sure it suits them. Clients can also review what the tables, china, silverware and glassware will look like. The tasting is an important part of making sure the client is satisfied, Huber said.

“We have never had a complaint about a wedding,” he said.

For DeVos Place galas with 2,000 to 3,000 guests, Huber said six to eight committee members are treated to a tasting, with several choices of salads, entrées and desserts offered to determine what will work best for the event.

“By the time they get up, we know exactly what they want,” he said. “I think it’s well worth it.”

Following the tasting and meetings, dinner service preparations begin. Huber said though he oversees the restaurants, he does not do much in terms of management, adding that he helps make sure the restaurants have all they need with staffing, china, silverware, glasses, kitchen utensils and other necessary implements.

“I really don’t cook much in the kitchen,” he said. “The sharpest tool I have is a pencil.”

Huber said one reason why he does not have to do much micro-managing is that the Amway has had the same staff of chefs for about four years.

“It’s almost on autopilot,” he said.

At the Amway Grand Plaza since 1997, Huber said he was happy to get the position and appreciates the quality of life that Grand Rapids offers. After working in Palm Beach, New York and San Francisco, he said he enjoys the short commute to his house, the friendly, open people and the community.

“I didn’t get it wrong, I got it right,” he said of the move to West Michigan from sunnier climes such as Florida, California and Hawaii.

Huber said in the bigger cities, the lifestyle was too hectic, with a work schedule often stretching from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. or later, plus a three-hour, round-trip commute.

“It’s not worth any money in the world,” he said.

Now he is able to enjoy more time with his wife, Amy, who is a West Michigan native, and their 10-week-old son, Gabriel.

Huber said he worked hard to make it to Grand Rapids. The Austrian native came to the United States in 1989 as an exchange student, working in the French Pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot Center. He then returned to Europe and earned his designation as a master chef before returning to the U.S. to work in Palm Beach, New York, and Greenwich, Conn.

While in Palm Beach, Huber unsuccessfully interviewed for the Amway Grand Plaza position three times before moving to San Francisco. While at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel there, he talked to Gerhard Schmeid, Amway Grand Plaza food and beverage director, who arranged for Huber to have another interview — a successful one, after which he was hired in 1997.

Huber said the hotel was in need of a culinary turnaround and wanted more value both from and for the customers. He added that he enjoys his work at the Amway Grand Plaza because of the choices and variety within the organization, including fine dining, casual dining and catering.

“I always liked the idea of several outlets,” he said. “It’s a big variety, and it never gets boring, especially with banquets.”

Some of the more unusual banquets he has worked on include meals for a variety of international visitors from places such as Africa, South America, China, Japan and India. A group of 700 that included people from India was one of the more challenging, he said, because of the diners’ vegan diet.

Huber and his staff have also been responsible for banquets at DeVos Place since its opening. He said the meals served there now are better quality than when it was the Grand Center. Before the new convention center was built, meals had to be wheeled from the hotel on carts through an adjoining tunnel. The new facility is equipped with its own kitchens.

“I think the quality of food has gone up tremendously,” he said.

The opening of DeVos Place has certainly made everyone involved a lot busier. Huber recalled one day in October 2004 when he served 8,125 people during two simultaneous events. One was a meeting of the Right to Life organization, in which James Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” was the main speaker. The other event involved ProNet, an Alticor company.

“It was just crazy,” he said of the night, which generated $300,000 in revenue, not including the restaurants.

DeVos Place also has helped boost the number of large parties, which previously took place at the Amway Grand Plaza. While the hotel has a 750-person banquet room limit, the convention center can hold upward of 4,000 in a room. With more space, Huber said groups are selling more seats at events. As the larger groups fill DeVos Place, Huber said that leaves the Amway open for smaller, 300-to-500 guest events, which are becoming popular.

Huber said many of the clients represent repeat business, making the process more comfortable for clients because they know what they are getting and have been satisfied in the past.

“It’s usually a very easy meeting,” he said.

There are also more groups coming to Grand Rapids rather than holding events in Detroit, Lansing or Traverse City, Huber said.

“I think it’s really going to get busy over there in the next few years,” he said of DeVos Place.

And he is part of the clientele. To keep the restaurants abreast of his expectations, Huber eats in the Amway restaurants three nights a week. He encourages the chefs to also eat in their restaurants to assure that the quality is good.

“It’s a different perspective when you sit in the restaurant and eat,” he said.

Maintaining consistency is the most difficult part of his job, he said. With challenges that range from seasonal changes to human error, Huber said consistency is the key to a good product.

“You can be consistently bad and still be good,” he said.

As for Huber’s favorite food, he says he does not have one, but enjoys food that is cooked correctly and well. “The novelty of luxury is really gone for me,” he said of dishes such as lobster. “I just like good food; it doesn’t matter what it is.”

The best part of his job? Huber pointed to the coffee cup on his desk from the upstairs Starbucks coffee shop. “I get complimentary Starbucks coffee.”

But joking aside, Huber said he loves the variety of his position at the Amway Grand and is not looking for a change any time soon.

“I think it’s one of the greatest jobs you possibly could have.”   

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