Max Knoepfel is the executive chef at Music City Center, a post he’s held since the Nashville convention center opened six years ago. His long career in food and beverage includes serving as executive chef at the Walter E. Washington (D.C.) Convention Center from its opening in 2002 until 2005. He calls himself “a chef who does large events” rather than a “convention center chef.”
What is trending this year?
Well, pickling is in. We do it a lot. Also, cider everything. Also, sourcing is more important than ever. We only use cage-free eggs, and local farms’ cheeses and meats as much as we can.
I would say we mostly do deconstructed [not totally assembled] dishes. If it’s a dessert, it will have some deconstructed feel. If it is a 4,000-person buffet, then we attach big importance to the serving vessels—sample bites displayed amazingly—and fresh food assembled in front of the guest. We put house-made jackfruit salsa on our cherry-wood smoked pork belly. Guests love it. Makes you smile. That jackfruit is a star in the kitchen.
What are some other interesting trends?
With conventions, food restrictions and how to accommodate them is huge. We have to have keto, vegan, and dairy-free or dairy-subbed ingredients, and all ingredients need to be listed on the menu identifiers. Nightshade diet…yes, we’ve had requests, and we made it happen.
As far as the presentation, you need to be aware as the chef of how it will play on social media. Recently, I made a great duo dish of boneless beef short rib and seared diver scallops topped with a whiskey, bacon, and bourbon sea salt cotton candy. Well, every one of the guests took a picture. It was wild. But we are just a convention center, I say and smile.
What differentiates Music City Center when it comes to event catering?
We are the only REAL-certified convention center in the country. [Responsible Epicurean and Aricultural Leadership is a program that helps combat diet-related disease by recognizing foodservice operators committed to holistic nutrition and environmental stewardship.]
We work with the seasons and with the local farms and artisans in our Tennessee region.
We let our clients know that we can offer composting to them, as well as donations on their behalf to local organizations. We share our guidelines for working with seasonal products, for example, that a fruit or berry compote would be better than bringing in strawberries in January. We are concerned about our carbon footprint. We work with the boards of our clients and the budgets they have to create great food uniquely displayed, almost like a restaurant.
What are some of the rewards of your job?
I am always proud of what my team can do. They efficiently produce a four-day convention. They brag about how intense it was, but really, they are proud. And then we move on to the next event.