Q&A with Executive Chef James Katurakes
The towering plants that greet visitors in the Westwood Lobby of the Orange County Convention Center are not merely for aesthetics. They also supply fresh, locally sourced ingredients for Executive Chef James Katurakes and his team at Centerplate, the Convention Center’s exclusive food and beverage provider. To mark the second anniversary of the Center-to-Table Gardens program, “Chef K” discusses how Centerplate and the nation’s second-largest convention facility are leading the way in sustainable agriculture.
How is the Convention Center a leader in innovative urban agriculture?
Centerplate, in partnership with the OCCC, is a proud leader in the innovative aeroponic urban agriculture trend. We grow the freshest lettuces, greens, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers in the Center-to-Table Gardens. Aeroponic growing is considered more economically sustainable than traditional farming because it utilizes up to 95 percent less water. The vertical tower design also reduces overall land use by taking up to 90 percent less land space while growing plants three times faster.
The Center-to-Table Gardens program is nearing its two-year anniversary. What have you learned during that time?
The Gardens continue to provide learning lessons and opportunities for improvement as time goes by. Typical plant growth, from seedling to mature plant, is about six weeks in most aeroponic growing applications. The onsite Gardens produce fully grown plants in about four weeks because they’re grown in a climate- and element-controlled environment. We’ve also discovered that some varieties of herbs and edible flowers produce healthier plants if merely trimmed versus being replanted after every harvest.
In addition to supplying healthy, locally sourced fruits and vegetables, how else do the Gardens engage and educate visitors?
Both Centerplate and the OCCC host numerous garden tours for clients, visitors, students, restauranteurs, chefs and local businesses, educating each about sustainable methods of cultivating nutritious food through modern growing techniques. The Center-to-Table Gardens are a tangible and effective example to all visitors of the goal to improve access to healthy food choices, to connect individuals with nature and to educate everyone on the value of the environment.
What are some of the most popular meals the Convention Center makes with ingredients sourced on site?
Centerplate has created several retail concepts offering healthy and sustainable menus at our Center Garden and Florida Fresh Market concepts. These offer selections utilizing harvests from the Center-to-Table Gardens for fresh salads, wraps and soups. The Florida Fresh Market concept changes side salads quarterly to include fresh, seasonal Central Florida offerings.
In what other ways is the Convention Center’s food operation a model for sustainability?
Centerplate contributes to the Center’s overall waste diversion through its own comprehensive organic recycling program. Organic (food) waste is collected and taken to Harvest Power, a local waste-to-energy facility, where it’s converted into clean energy. Centerplate also works directly with a variety of local organizations to fulfill the needs of those seeking assistance by helping to facilitate the donation process for clients, ensuring viable food and beverage products are donated to the most suitable recipients. Since 2008, Centerplate has donated food products to Second Harvest Food Bank and other food pantries, expanding their ability to help tens of thousands of Central Florida residents in need.