Michael Poompan is the Executive Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Denver. Since moving from San Diego to Colorado, he has been diligently working to incorporate sustainable practices in his new operation. We talked to him about his focus on sustainability, his recent move from Southern California, and what about cooking continues to excite him after many years in the industry.
When did you first know that you wanted to become a chef and how did you get your start in the industry?
I did not plan to become a chef and my culinary passion came to fruition over time. After graduating high school, I worked for both Disneyland and a nearby hotel. In college, I enrolled in a handful of culinary arts classes to learn how to cook and a teacher informed me about an internship opportunity at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Having enjoyed my exposure to the culinary industry so much, I decided to make it my career. I have now worked for Marriott International for 12 years, spanning five amazing properties.
You recently moved from San Diego, CA to Denver, CO. How different are the food scenes in those two cities? Do they have much in common?
When I left California, I was told Denver was known for meat and potatoes. Upon arrival, I discovered a dynamic and growing destination with a vibrant food scene. Denver and San Diego both have strong culinary communities that celebrate local agriculture and food artisans, producing ingredients that inspire new dishes. Both cities also have a robust collection of craft breweries and innovative cocktail bars. While I miss the cross border collaborations we did in San Diego with chefs from Mexico and wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe region, I have found ways to bridge past and present. For example, I have had the opportunity to recently introduce our sommelier to some of the best wines from the Valle, and I’m sure a guest-chef dinner is not far behind.
Do you approach creating dishes or a menu differently in Colorado than you did in Southern California?
I moved to Denver in the winter, which has given me the opportunity to think differently about ingredients and locality. In California, there are many ingredients available year round from local farmers in different microclimates. In Denver and Colorado, ingredients are available in alignment with the seasons, which allows me the opportunity re-examine new dishes and ones I have enjoyed making for some time with fresh creativity.
Since moving to The Ritz-Carlton in Denver, you’ve been focusing on sustainability in your operation. What are some sustainable practices you have been implementing?
We are focusing on waste elimination in our operations and have introduced a campaign to reduce plastic usage across the hotel, to measure and divert food waste to donations and compost, and to educate our Ladies and Gentlemen with small daily steps that impact our collective efforts. Ensuring your entire team understands the reduction goal and the reason we are trying to reduce food waste is key to setting your efforts up for success.
Food waste is a big issue in the world of sustainability. Is there anything you have discovered that helps with reducing food waste? (utilizing food waste in other dishes, etc.)
Everyone has a role in reducing food waste on our team, and for our chefs the impact starts when we write menus. A few steps we look at in menu creation are portion sizes, buffet sizing, and cross utilization of product. Reducing food waste can also be an opportunity to challenge your staff to learn a new skill. We can take something that is maybe imperfect or extra and through fermentation or dehydration turn it into something new. After the menu is created, our event specialists work to communicate our waste reduction goals to our guests so they can be a partner. Additionally our service, culinary, and stewarding teams work together during execution to ensure the right amount of food is prepared, waste is tracked and measured, and we are implementing our reduction steps.
What has been the biggest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in your mission to make the operations at Ritz Carlton more efficient and sustainable?
I have learned that initiatives often longer when implanting programs within a large organization. It is important to begin with a few key players and encourage them to teach others the how and why. Over time, the reward becomes seeing the volume of change one hotel is able to execute as a team.
Tackling unsustainability in an operation for the first time sounds incredibly daunting. Where should chefs that want to do this start?
I recommend starting with one thing you can do differently. Then build upon that while maintaining the sustainability goals for your team and operation.
You’ve worked in the industry for many years – what still sparks your excitement to cook and create?
When I began my culinary career, being a chef and managing a team was different. When a chef provided instructions, you did it. Today, we work to bring our team members into the planning of the work they do. For example, if I bring in an amazing find from the farmers market and challenge my team to create a dish, I will get several different presentations and flavor profiles. When we all learn from each other, this is how we develop new menu selections. It is important that our team knows they are contributing and that the work they do is important. I was thrilled to learn that three of the supervisors on the culinary team I worked with at the Hotel del Coronado have been promoted to management positions. Hearing this inspires me more than anything.
Photography courtesy of the Ritz Carlton.