Just weeks ago, the whole world watched as Team USA dominated the Summer Olympic Games in London, England. America came home with 104 medals, more than half of the medals came from swimming and track and field. Our own Brittney Reese from Gulfport won gold in the women’s Long Jump. Following her event, she proclaimed to millions of spectators and the television audience that South Mississippi meant everything to her, and she won gold for us all.
As the athletes prepared for their individual events during the two weeks of competion in London, the great state of Mississippi was also proudly represented behind the scenes. Executive Chef of the IP Casino Resort Spa, Chris Poplin, and Chef Calvin Coleman of Naomi’s Catering, were chosen to participate in “Spirit of the Gulf.” The event was presented by BP as part of an ongoing partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee. It was a celebration of the culture, cuisine, and unique qualities of the Gulf Coast, with an emphasis on fresh Gulf seafood.
Both Chef Coleman and Chef Poplin were nominated by their peers to be ambassadors of the Magnolia state. “When I found out I was selected, I was beside myself. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was so honored,” Chef Poplin said. “I was absolutely stunned! I was just so thrilled that my name went into the hat at all. Wynn Radford, who was one of the project managers for “Spirit of the Gulf” contacted me with the news. I was so humbled and just overwhelmed to have been selected to represent my state. Nothing will ever top this…not ever,” Chef Coleman said.
This was Chef Poplin’s first trip to Europe, but Chef Coleman had been to London twice before. The gentlemen had about five week’s notice to prepare for their journey, and although they were busting at the seams in anticipation and excitement, mum was the word until all the details were in place. The trip was seamlessly organized and planned out but there was much work to do. “The folks at BP were amazing. There were so many things to co-ordinate and it was such a tremendous body of work for everyone concerned. It was very impressive,” Chef Poplin said.
Eight Gulf state chefs traveled together, divided into two teams, four in each group. Chef Poplin traveled with Louisiana chef, Michael Sichel, Florida chef, Justin Timineri, and Alabama chef, Chris Sherrill. “The group included two chefs from each of the four big Gulf states. I was in Team A,” Chef Poplin said. They stayed in a beautiful hotel just blocks from Buckingham Palace in Westminster. “The experience was just phenomenal, and the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” Chef Coleman said.
When each chef was chosen to represent their state, they were given a particular category of seafood to work with and a dinner course. Chef Coleman was given oysters and soup. Then they had to present two recipes using the seafood category and the dinner course that they were assigned. Renowned Louisiana chef, John Folse, made the final decision as to which recipes would be presented at the London Olympic Games. Chef Folse and his staff out of Donaldsonville, Louisiana had the very difficult job of getting approval for each and every ingredient in every recipe for transport through Customs in Great Britain. Not everything was approved, and as denials came through, each chef was contacted and told what had to be exchanged. “Oysters were not permitted, so we switched to a seafood gumbo which has alligator sausage and a bit of pork. They then denied the pork, so we had to switch again to 100% alligator meat and once the recipe had been exchanged and changed over and over again, we finally got approval. This also happened with the other chefs and their recipes. Then one week before we were leaving, Chef Folse contacted me to advise me that the gumbo I had freshly prepared in Donaldsonville that was shipped frozen, had been confiscated at Customs because they would not allow the allligator meat to come in (it was 30 gallons of gumbo). They also confiscated Chef Folse’s recipe because it was heavy with cream,” Chef Coleman said. As soon as he stepped off the plane in London, Coleman had to rush to the kitchen at USA House and remake all the gumbo. Chef Folse had made arrangements to have everything he needed.
The execution of getting all the fresh, just caught seafood from point A (the United States) to point B(London, England) was a feat of biblical proportions. Thanks to the expertise of Chef John Folse and his assistant and Director of Communications, Michaela York, everything worked out but there were many setbacks along the way. Calculating the enormous number of shrimp, crab meat, etc. that were necessary to prepare each dish was an astronomical undertaking. Just for one dish alone, it required several hundred pounds of fresh seafood. UPS was the shipping agent of choice and they did a phenomenal job. The enormity of the task, packing and shipping, as well as dealing with Customs, the catering company and Great Britain, made the logistics almost uncomprehensible.
Originally, the plan was that each chef would do their own individual dishes. Because of the many problems with Customs, two of the culinarians did not have dishes to make! The two, one being Chef Coleman, had to totally recreate their dishes. They used fresh produce and ingredients from Great Britain and the seafood that Chef Folse had sent over from America. All the chefs pitched in and helped one another, they worked as a team. “It was made almost seamless for us, all the difficulties were handled by Chef Folse in the States, and the BP project managers who were in London,” Chef Coleman said.
USA House was a specially designed hospitality venue for all the American athletes and American guests. It was set up in the Royal Academy of Arts which is a college, and it encompassed three full stories. The kitchen had food going out constantly, 18 hours a day. USA House was a hang out for the media and many summer and winter Olympians of yesterday as well as those who had just medaled. Chef Coleman met Greg Louganis, and the Women’s Volleyball team among others.
Chef Antonn Mosimann, who is a very famous, iconic chef in England, assisted the American chefs with his catering company, Mosimann’s. “Spirit of the Gulf” consisted of four separate events, each with 700 to 800 guests. The southern chefs were provided with a full staff, and they could not have been more generous or accomodating. “They worked so hard, above and beyond, stepping aside from their normal jobs and responsibilities just to help us. They were all so great,” Chef Poplin said. The Mosimann team did all of the prep work and they got all the ingredients together for the southern chefs. “I was floored by the camaraderie by all the Americans in London. We were all like one big family. This includes being able to work with the international mix of culinarians from Mosimann’s Catering. They came from all over the world just to have the opportunity to work in London at the Olympics, and they left their jobs and their lives behind for four weeks,” Chef Coleman said.
One of the biggest hurdles for the southern culinarians was that the Mosimann team, although extremely talented, were totally unfamiliar with southern cooking. They had no experience with the use of celery and cajun seasonings, or the making of a roux. In addition, English was not their first language. “We had the delightful experience of teaching them how to cook cajun, creole and good ol southern food. We like to think that they learned as much from us as we did from them,” Chef Coleman said. Although our ambassadors were given schedules and time lines as well as a list of expectations for their Olympic experience, things were constantly changing from moment to moment, day by day. “We had to think on our feet because you never knew what was going to happen, but Mosimann’s were so organized, and it was if they had worked together forever, rather than just becoming acquainted for those four weeks,” Chef Coleman said. The Mosimann staff worked no less than 13 hour shifts everyday, seven days a week.
Security was ever present throughout the Olympic Village and at all the sports venues. The USA House was always well guarded by the U.S. Secret Service. Schedules of events and the comings and goings of the culinary staff were closely monitored. Credentials were necessary for everyone, but the entire process was very low key. “I never saw anyone misbehaving or acting inappropriately during my entire stay. People were very respectful and kind to one another, everyone was there to have a good time. I was particularly impressed with the American athletes, everything about them made me exceptionally proud,” Chef Poplin said.
There were many athletes from Team USA who attended the “Spirit of the Gulf” festivities, and everyone had a wonderful time. “I was introduced to athetes from the women’s swim team and the sculls team. I also met Kayla Harrison who won the gold medal for the USA in Judo. Someone who I enjoyed so much, she was such a sweetheart, was retired Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee,” said Chef Poplin. Sports Illustrated for Women magazine voted Jackie Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century. She is known for winning 3 gold medals, one silver, and two bronze during her participation in Olympic Games during her career. The Women’s Rowing team won a bronze medal in London as well. Team member Natalie Dell was so appreciative of Chef Poplin coming to London to cook for Team USA, that she insisted on putting her bronze medal around his neck and took a picture of them together. “She was so kind to me, so generous, and I will always treasure that moment. The medals are completely embossed with great detail, and are very heavy. They are really beautiful things,” Chef Poplin said.
Our Mississippi culinarians were welcomed with open arms. Team USA and all the guests were so moved that Chris Poplin and Calvin Coleman traveled from such a great distance to cook for them. Everyone came away with a new understanding and a new affection for America’s deep south. They loved the food, and enjoyed every minute they spent with our Mississippi ambassadors. BP hosted two special parties in honor of the southern chefs at USA House, one being very casual and the other was coat and tie. To show his appreciation to the Mosimann’s culinary experts that he worked most closely with, Chef Coleman is surprising them with special gifts that are all iconic symbols of the United States and his beloved Gulf Coast. Two of the chefs invited him to visit their homelands of Jordan and Sweden, and asked him to cook cajun food in their restaurants during his stay. Chef Coleman is very eager to go to both countries and said he will most definitely take them up on their very generous offer.
Chef Coleman and Chef Poplin attended a number of competitions during the Olympic Games. Chef Poplin saw the men’s and women’s swimming events, and Chef Coleman saw the final Women’s Volleyball match. Both witnessed medal ceremonies where Team USA won and they said they experienced a flood of emotions. Chef Poplin is a huge sports fan and has always enjoyed watching the Olympic games on television. For Chef Coleman, the entire Olympic experience was brand new, but he found it riveting. “To watch the American flag raised and hear our national anthem played as the medals were given to our athletes…you couldn’t help but get chills and feel overwhelming pride,” they both said. “I was in awe,” Chef Coleman added.
There is a possibility that our Gulf Coast chefs will cook with the Mosimann’s caterers once again during the Winter Olympics of 2014 which will be held in Russia. They have extended an invitation to all the southern chefs to be a part of their team. When asked about what the London Olympic experience meant to him, Chef Coleman had this to say, “I was very pleased to see that Mississippi is not perceived in a derogatory light, as is sometimes believed by other parts of the world and across our nation. People came away with fond memories and good thoughts of Mississippi. I was also very proud of our Olympians, they were so gracious, respectful and classy. But when I came home…I was very happy to have my feet back on American soil. There is no greater country in the world than America,” Chef Coleman said.
As the Executive Chef at the IP Casino Resort Spa, Chef Poplin is employed by Boyd Gaming Corporation. He is in charge of all eight of the IP’s restaurants, including each staff for each dining establishment. He is responsible for upper management, menu development, training, and most of the administrative duties. “If it were not for my excellent staff, and those that do all the cooking at our restaurants, we would not have won so many culinary awards without their efforts. My boss of ten years now, Stephen Morgan, Director of Food and Beverage, is the brains behind our entire food and beverage operation. and he is a great guy to work for. I really love my job,” Chef Poplin said.
Chef Calvin Coleman is 2nd generation owner of Naomi’s Catering. He was raised in the food service business, and has enjoyed an illustrious career in the Culinary Arts. He has worked for the Hilton Corporation, Whitey Herzog and Anheuser Busch at the St. Louis Cardinals stadium, the Chicago Bears and coach Mike Ditka as well as in his restaurant and night club, and for the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame doing catering. While employed with a Tour and Travel companay that managed sports themed facilities, Coleman was asked to assist in the opening of the first Planet Hollywood in London, England. Born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there is nowhere else in the world he would rather be. “I love to travel, and I love to go visit other places but I always can’t wait to get back home,” Chef Coleman said.