Vacations are for letting down your hair, and letting out your waistline. And nobody knows that better than Club Med, which feeds vacationers 31.2 million meals -- breakfasts, lunches and dinners -- plus untold snacks and nibbles -- a year. And feeds them twice as much as normal at most of those meals, so they say.
A typical vacationer at a Caribbean Club Med eats nearly a pound of meat and a pound of fresh fruit a day, according to Richard Gire, food and beverage manager at Turkoise, which became the newest of 95 villages in the Club Med chain when it opened on Turks and Caicos Islands on the eastern tip of the Bahamas in December.
What's more, the typical guest drinks a half liter of wine a day at meals -- that makes 3,752,000 liters annually at Club Meds around the world -- and a quart of beer per person at meals and a quart of soft drinks, coffee and alcohol at the bar -- 7,000 bar drinks a day at this single 492-bed club. At most clubs California jug wine is served at the table; at Turkoise, which is an "upscale" Club Med, the wine is French and bottled, the beer is draft.
The first couple of days of each guest's vacation is simply a frenzy of eating. The guests consume 25 percent more food on Sunday, the first full day of the Club Med week, than on Friday, explained Hans Viertl, chef de cuisine for the 14 clubs in the Western Hemisphere. They see the lunchtime buffet and pile up their plates, and then, said Viertl, "they eat all they take." By Monday they slow down a little, and eat progressively less each day. On rainy days, or when there is a chill in the air, they pile up their plates again, eating as much as double what they would ordinarily eat. And now with Club Med offering both early and late breakfasts and selling hot dogs and hamburgers during the day and until the disco closes at 2 a.m., "People eat all day."
After all, food is part of the entertainment, along with water sports and shows. The first meal one encounters upon arrival at Club Med is Saturday lunch, and it is a culinary rendition of Fantasy Island. Aisle after aisle of tossed salads and composed salads, salad bar and fruit bar, hot buffet and cooked-to-order stations, cheeseboards and bread display and dessert extravaganza -- and in a corner a quiet little woman dipping homemade sorbets.
Every lunchtime, one learns, there are the salads of potato, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower and fresh artichoke halves. There are the hamburgers and hot dogs and french fries. There are meat brochettes and fish brochettes and a half dozen or so cooked vegetables. The baguettes and gigantic country breads are baked there, daily. And then there are the specials of the day -- curry with all its condiments, or couscous and its side dishes, perhaps three different fish saute'ed to order and sauced three different ways, or for homesick Americans, turkey with stuffing. Over the week the menu runs from Caribbean fish fritters -- accras -- to Chinese spaghetti.
Each guest fills his or her plate with an entirely different meal. At one large round table of eight guests, one might be lunching on a plate of curry and rice, another on all cold salads, one on just fruit and cheese. One lunch might look all-American, another totally French, a third Caribbean and a fourth North African. From the array one could satisfy any kind of diet: all meat, no meat, salt-free, low-fat, spicy or bland, even kosher if one requested ahead.
Turkoise has been testing the newest trends in Club Med feeding, and it is particularly well equipped to do so. Its kitchen facilities are up to French restaurant standards, "like Bocuse, Troisgros," said Viertl. The bakeshop, butcher shop, cold buffet room, hot buffet room, breakfast room and vegetable room are equipped with such modernities as a 10-layer trolley that rolls right into the oven and then to the refrigerator, and a refrigerated proofing room for French bread that automatically warms the baguettes in time for them to rise for the dinner's baking.
Everything at the club is imported, even the concrete, and certainly the pasta machine and the Teflon slings for cradling the baguette dough. But the couscousier -- large enough to cook 18 kilos -- is a makeshift contraption of colander taped to stockpot. This kitchen simmers soup in 240-liter pots and its frying pan is so large it must be emptied by cranking. But it still has an island look, with Viertl zipping around in shorts and white jacket, and on his feet white clogs, which he changes only for the disco late at night.
At this upscale village the cheeses and wines are French, the fresh fruit is varied, and main dishes are plated in the kitchen rather than served family style. Turkoise is experimenting with different formats each night, but basically Club Med has decided after 35 years that its guests are not content with a single-entree dinner and want more choice. In addition, the length of meals is being extended to accommodate the French, who like to eat late, and the Americans who prefer dining earlier.
As for Americans themselves, said Gire, they may eat differently in California and in New York, "but when they come here they eat the same." Part of that is Club Med's doing; said Gire, "We drive them a bit" to try French food -- the buffets are a French catalogue of pa te's, terrines and cheeses -- but still "they want bar salad every day." Americans have grown more sophisticated in their tastes over Club Med's years; now steak tartare and frog legs draw hardly a grimace, and leg of lamb has grown popular, "but it has to be very cooked," warned Viertl. One problem at Club Med is that, serving entrees to 400 people in 40 minutes, the kitchens cannot tailor the cooking of meats to individual tastes.
The most astonishing observation in this -- or any -- Club Med kitchen is that it is not computerized. This is a kitchen that not only deals with 2,000 different food products, with freezers that hold 20 tons of meat and larders storing 100,000 pounds of dry and canned goods, but everything must be brought from Miami -- fresh items by plane weekly and longer-lasting goods by barge every two to three weeks. If necessary, unexpected needs can be filled by charter plane, but "that costs a fortune," said Gire, who lets nobody forget, "Here we are a bit at the end of the world."
This single club uses 100 pounds of bananas and 150 pounds of cantaloupes a day, 200,000 dinner napkins a month. Gire would love to serve fresh orange juice rather than frozen, but says "we would need a plane of oranges every day . . . even if we could afford it, we could not find a plane every day." As for fish, the club cannot find sufficient safe supply even on such an island, so frozen fish is used at all the Western Hemisphere clubs except Haiti, Santa Domingo and Guyamas, which is famous for its fresh shrimp.
Worldwide, Club Med guests consume 4.8 million baguettes and 15.6 million croissants a year, all made on the premises. Twenty-three million eggs must be shipped to these out-of-the-way places annually. Even more difficult are the supply problems in Mexico, where no food at all can be imported. It takes four to five days to transport lettuce from Guadalajara to the villages in Mexico, said Viertl, by which time the lettuce "looks tired."
Record-keeping is crucial not only because of inaccessibility of supplies, but because the kitchen staffs of each club are changed every six months, with only a few days overlap for one staff to show the ropes to the next. Chefs for all the clubs are trained in Pompadour, France, where there are two kitchens, one for guests and one for training. And the recipes are devised there, though individual chefs have free rein to use their own recipes in the villages.
Then, Viertl visits eight to 10 of his 14 villages annually in the busy winter season, concentrating on those where the staff is young or there are problems. He brings a staff of three, including a pastry chef, and stays two weeks except in cases like Turkoise, where he stayed a month when the village opened, overseeing the kitchen staff of 40 -- plus 22 in the dining room, 15 at the bar, 9 at the annex restaurant and 10 in administration.
What he aims for is food that is entertaining, but beyond that, consistent in quality and served on time. Even at the brand-new village, meals were never late, service never delayed. Consistent quality was another matter. Dinners ranged from elegant roast duck and pastas rolled, cut and cooked in front of the guests to turkey cutlets that were painfully reminiscent of college dining hall food. The fresh fruits and vegetables were in stunning array, but the frozen vegetables and canned fruits tended toward tasteless mush. Scrambled eggs tasted steam-table-corrupted, and the bacon was neither fully cooked nor trimmed of its rind.
But country breads were far superior to Washington's best, and there were always elegant surprises such as terrine de foie that came close to fresh foie gras. At the bar each evening popcorn was popping and exotic things like Tunisian meatballs were saute'eing. The pin a coladas were not made with fresh pineapple, or even frozen, and the tropical drinks cost as much as $4 (even soft drinks were $1.60), but that didn't stop anyone from savoring them exuberantly at the side of the pool.
The show is the thing. The amazing array of Italian foods for one night's buffet, the freshly boned and stuffed turkey galantines modestly displayed among dozens of other cold buffet dishes at lunch, the hot soups that appear as quickly as the weather turns rainy -- only to be ignored when the sun comes out mid-lunch. This from storerooms that have enough pepper on hand to make an eight-foot-high stack of boxes. And with the dread of running out of something crucial.
Had Turkoise run out of anything crucial, Gire was asked? "Not yet, but it will happen for sure," promised Gire. And sure enough, the next day the water pump broke down under the sea, and since all the water is processed by the village itself, the supply ground to a halt. Water was needed for washing vegetables, cooking them, cooling them, washing dishes and rinsing them, not to mention for toilet and laundry facilities.
The 4,000 gallons of mineral water were pressed into service, and bottles were delivered to each room. Trash barrels were filled with water to be scooped for bathrooms and for dishwashers. Ice was melted down on the stoves for washing. Laundry was simply postponed. The chamber orchestra played with dirty feet and called its concert "unshowered music." And Viertl changed the lunch menu to offer the anxious guests some comfort food: cheeseburgers. A hundred and twenty of them were consumed at lunch. And the return of the water was celebrated the next day by a champagne party -- 36 magnums worth -- for the 240 guests. HANS VIERTL'S GUACAMOLE (4 servings) 1 small jalapen o pepper, seeded and diced 2 ripe avocados, peeled, pits removed and chopped 1 small onion, finely chopped 2 teaspoons lime or lemon juice 1 tomato, seeded and cubed 1/2 cup grated white cheese Salt to taste Coriander leaves for garnish, if desired Tortilla chips for serving
Pure'e the pepper in a food processor or blender. Remove and mix with remaining ingredients in a large bowl, seasoning to taste. Garnish with a sprinkling of coriander leaves and serve with tortilla chips if desired. PINEAPPLE PORK (4 to 6 servings) 3 1/3 pounds lean pork 1 3/4 ounces pork fat 1 tablespoon sugar 2 tablespoons flour Salt and pepper to taste 1 onion, chopped 3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1 garlic clove, chopped 1 teaspoon minced red chili pepper 1 tablespoon butter 1 cup beef bouillon 1 pineapple, cut into pieces (about 5 heaping cups)
In a pot, brown the meat in the pork fat on all sides. Sprinkle with sugar and cook on low fire, stirring constantly, for 3 to 5 minutes. Add flour, season to taste and cook, stirring, 5 more minutes.
In a separate skillet, cook onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili in the butter about 2 minutes and pour beef bouillon over this mixture. Then, pour the entire mixture over the pork and bring to a boil. Cook in covered pot over low fire for 1 1/2 hours, adding the pineapple during the last 1/2 hour. Season to taste. GROUPER OR SALMON STEAK "MY WAY" (6 servings) 4 limes 6 grouper or salmon fillets, thinly sliced 1 cup chopped leeks 4 teaspoons butter 1 cup tomatoes, chopped 1 cup whipping cream 2 tablespoons white wine Salt and white pepper to taste
Squeeze juice from the limes into a shallow dish. Marinate the fish fillets in juice for 1 hour on one side only.
Brown the leeks in 2 teaspoons butter for 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, cream and wine. Cook on medium heat 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened.
In a saute' pan heat remaining butter and cook the fish fillets on medium to high heat 1 to 2 minutes -- on nonmarinated side only. Season to taste.
Put sauce onto serving plate and place fish on it. This way, your fish has two different tastes.