Cobo Center Increases its Local Offerings
Scott Sundermeyer was a little unsure about interviewing to be executive chef at Cobo after a friend pointed him toward the job back in 2015.
“I went on the interview reluctantly,” admits Sundermeyer, imagining himself in Cobo’s seasoned mid-century-era original kitchen. “I was mistaken. I was thinking Cobo Hall. This is Cobo Center.”
The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority completed its five-year, quarter-billion-dollar renovation that year, including a new 8,000-square-foot state-of-theart kitchen and tasting room in the former Cobo Arena. Natural light filters through the lofty three-story central atrium that brings it all together with expansive vistas of the Detroit River lending a vibe more like an upscale hotel or even a cruise ship than a convention center.
Sundermeyer started at Cobo in late December 2015, less than a month before the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). With all the large-scale decisions and menus already in place, Sundermeyer had focused on follow through.
“I really made it my job to observe. I put 17 miles on the first Monday and 15 miles on Tuesday. I kind of jumped in at the right time,” says Sundermeyer, who actually works for Stamford, Connecticut–based Centerplate, the management company that runs Cobo’s food and beverage services.
With 623,000 square feet of continuous exhibit space in addition to breakout meeting space and the 40,000-square-foot Grand Riverview Ballroom, Cobo hosts everything from the all-encompassing auto show to events hosted by just about every automotive manufacturer, Quicken, the NAACP, plus product launches and shows, conferences and even weddings.
“It’s very dynamic. This place is always changing,” says Sundermeyer. “We try to service our customers with what they’re trying to do. Food is the focus, but sometimes it’s not their number one focus. I try to make it their number one focus. I try to do restaurant food in a resort setting.”
The auto show, says Sundermeyer, is a completely different animal: He accommodates roughly 150 clients simultaneously, some counting on food to help keep an audience captive. With roughly 806,000 people streaming through Cobo, Sundermeyer crafts a multitude of menus, large and small, to cater to a global audience, pan-Asian to German. More than preparing foods, he manages executing concepts.
“I have to come up with something as good [as possible] within the confines I have,” says Sundermeyer. “I’m not confined by the flavor; I’m confined by the presentation. Timing is critical. It’s orchestral in nature. All the components have to work.”
A native of Metro Detroit, Sundermeyer cut his culinary teeth at the iconic Golden Mushroom in Southfield. With Chef Milos Cihelka’s blessing, Sundermeyer left to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After finishing CIA in 1988, Sundermeyer became a culinary management trainee at the Dearborn Hyatt. He moved on to the Hyatt Hilton Head in South Carolina, but eventually returned to Metro Detroit as Ford Motor Company’s first executive chef. He later transitioned into the healthcare industry, landing at DMC as Harper Hospital’s executive chef.
“My experience is rooted in large institutions, so this wasn’t scary or overwhelming to me like it might be for some people who haven’t worked in such a large place,” says Sundermeyer, pointing out Cobo had its top sales year in 2016, thanks to the added capacity from the renovation. In his first year, Sundermeyer’s Cobo hosted President Obama, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, plus Vice President Joe Biden. “I’ve done some interesting things.”
He’s had to react quickly too. News of a Monday morning Detroit Economic Club event only arrived on the previous the Friday afternoon, when it was bumped from a smaller venue. Sundermeyer suddenly had two hours to determine the menu and order enough food for 1,800 guests.
“When I order chicken, I’m almost ordering all the purveyor’s chicken,” he says. “No one else has the volume that I have, outside of stadiums and casinos.”
But nothing requires more attention, planning and space than the auto show, when Centerplate prepares and serves so much food that they add to their existing 12 walk-in refrigerators and large freezer, three refrigerated and one freezer tractor trailers, plus three portable refrigerated units the size of shipping containers within the building.
Buying local is difficult for Sundermeyer, who needs such large quantities and to ensure suppliers maintain proper processes. Though they’re only open for a handful of specific events, Sundermeyer aims to use local foods with the food court and Cobo’s two small restaurants Go Natural and wine bar Cork and Grind. He also won the 2016 Best Sweet Dish award at the American Cancer Society’s Cattle Baron’s Ball with his housemade rub featuring Bell’s Brewery’s Kalamazoo Stout.
“I try to deliver an experience that you would not expect here,” says Sundermeyer, adding that he accomplishes that by pairing innovation with the technology Cobo’s kitchen offers with its AltoShaam three-part cooking system of six ovens, 50 food warmers and three blast chillers, allowing the kitchen to cook, dehydrate, smoke and steam almost everything.
“I can do 3,200 plates or feed 15,000 people with a buffet,” says Sundermeyer, who crafted a porchetta dish, featuring prosciutto and pork belly with an apple cider glaze, for the 2017 NAIAS charity preview. It was a hit. “This is why I took the job.”
“I’m not limiting myself to convention center food if I can make a capers vert blanc or housemade kimchi with sriracha. One of my missions now in life is I am an umami hunter. It’s subtle, but an enhancement that makes my food better. It’s elusive. I’m able to give a product that’s usually unexpected. People ask me: ‘Is it your dream job?’ It’s darn close.”