For a convention center on an island, sourcing local is easier said than done. But Wayne Michaelson, executive chef for Levy Restaurants at the Puerto Rico Convention Center, has wholeheartedly accepted the challenge.
The convention center’s new menu, just launched this spring, features dishes made from local ingredients, bringing more of the food creation and preparation in-house.
“What we’re trying to do is bring our food to a whole different level,” Michaelson said. “People have a concept of convention center food. We’re elevating that with better quality and better presentation.”
Things like fresh-baked rolls and desserts from scratch, mushrooms, cucumbers and peppers from local farms, and herbs from a source in the mountains are infusing a new energy into the culinary program.
“If I could get beef, it would be perfect,” he added. “We do use local pork and local chicken, but beef is the most challenging.”
Fortunately, one of the center’s signature dishes features airline chicken, butchered in-house and served atop a mixture of prosciutto and provolone cheese. The chef slices up Yukon potatoes to accompany the chicken, which is all bathed in a fricassee sauce.
While butchering may seem like a time-intensive process for a team that is required to serve thousands of guests at a time, the chef believes it’s well worth the effort. “Sometimes you have to do it yourself to get the product that you want,” he said.
Michaelson also incorporates local flavors in dishes like yuca-stuffed mofongo (an edible orb of mashed, fried plantains often served in a broth), and turkey cutlet with yuca mash.
Regardless of what he’s making, Michaelson says he turns to local purveyors and tries to shorten the journey food takes from production to table: “That’s what I’ve emphasized since I’ve been here — the freshness of everything.”
Levy Restaurants Executive Chef Wayne Michaelson
Puerto Rico Convention Center, San Juan
It’s been about 35 or 40 years since Wayne Michaelson started cooking, but he’s lost count at this point, having worked mostly in hotels during his long career.
“I grew up by my grandfather’s farm and we always had fresh vegetables in the kitchen,” he said. “From there, it was natural to go into cooking in restaurants.”
He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked his way across Puerto Rico and the United States, including at the famous New Orleans institution, Commander’s Palace, Old San Juan’s Hard Rock Café and the Marriott Macon City Center in Georgia before landing at the Puerto Rico Convention Center a little over a year ago.
He recently refreshed the menu for the center, aiming to elevate the cuisine to that of gourmet restaurants in the area. The menu comprises 30 new dishes, and includes options such as fresh-baked rolls and pastries, and chef’s tables where guests learn about the food they’re eating.
“We’re bringing the food into a new era,” he said. “Levy has given me the tools to create and explore outside the normal boundaries.”