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Matthew Saravay: Culinary Event Wizard

by Laura Curtis
May 2011

A crowd leans in to see a demo of the latest kitchen technology while, nearby, hundreds file into the bleachers to hear from an international authority on charcuterie. Chefs prepare tasting dishes in a side kitchen, and down the hall a video crew films the sommelier competition. If you have attended the StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress, these scenes are familiar, but you probably have never seen the man who helps create these experiences, Matthew Saravay. Saravay runs the New York branch of Wizard Studios, the event company that has produced the past four Congresses. We admit that we have not made life easy for Saravay and his team. Every fall he’s charged with transforming an immense, bare hall into a bustling culinary fair by building multiple working kitchens, harnessing enough power to run them simultaneously, and controlling the lighting, sound, and appearance of the Congress to ensure that thousands of guests have a remarkable experience for three days—before he breaks it all down and starts planning for the next year. Miraculously, Saravay has returned to the challenge year after year and has helped create some of the most memorable moments in culinary history. Saravay spoke with us about his work at Wizard, how he survived the first Congress, and what multisensory stimuli can do to boost production value, both in events and restaurants.

Laura Curtis: Tell me about your background and how you got into events planning.

Matthew Saravay: I worked in restaurants all through college—in the front of the house, to support my social life—but I’m a theater guy. Putting on an event is really like putting on a production. Everything we do is a show. Everyone who works at Wizard in New York, we’re all theater people. It’s definitely something that separates us from most event production companies.

LC: What is Wizard, and what is your role in the company?

MS: We are a 20-year-old production company. We maintain offices in Orlando, Tampa, Marco Island, Naples, New York, LA, and Puerto Rico. I run our office in New York which is in its eighth year.

LC: How did Wizard get involved in producing the StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress (ICC)?

MS: We met Antoinette and Will through a referral at Biz Bash. The ICC was a small show, but StarChefs had plans to grow the event into what we know it as today. The first ICC we worked on (which was the 2nd Annual ICC) was in the Silverstein property at 7 World Trade Center. It was on the 53rd and 54th floors. The views were breathtaking, but working on two separate floors with concrete floors, curtain walls, and steel bars was challenging.

LC: Had you produced many culinary events?

MS: The ICC was our first culinary event. We were not culinary people then. We were getting lists for Paco Jets and immersion circulators, which were new to the industry at the time and were definitely new to us. We learned quickly. We built a 400-seat theater and a separate 254-seat theater, prep kitchens, exhibitor space, and workshop spaces. We were using dolly carts and palette jacks to carry industrial kitchen equipment.

And then came the issue of power. With all the heavy equipment that had to be turned on at the same time we needed 48,000 amps of power. The two floors offered 800 volts. The workshops were all scheduled for the first day. Imagine all the stress that goes into opening a new restaurant. We had to open 36 at the same time, with six sessions every six hours. We ran into a lot of obstacles, but we figured it out.

LC: I’m surprised you wanted to continue producing culinary events after that experience!

MS: We were surprised too! StarChefs is a dynamic company. They’re passionate about what they do, and so are we. After the chaos, Antoinette said we would never produce the show again, but a month later we got the RFP. The better you understand a group the greater your productivity. Our business model is to treat clients like gold so they come back year after year. We earned the privilege of producing the past four ICC’s.

LC: Has Wizard produced culinary shows other than the ICC?

MS: Yes. After the ICC we produced Cook, Eat, Drink, Live, a project of Elise Kroll. It was one of the first times I realized the genius of Antoinette. She had said that the ICC is like fashion week for the culinary industry. Well, Elise Kroll started CEDL to marry the high end of fashion with culinary arts. We were asked to produce the show when it was in its third year. We raised production values and made it more intimate.

LC: What is your definition of production value?

MS: The production value is, in my mind, what the guest experience is about. Whether it’s a trade show or an awards show, it’s all about what happens on the stage. In a trade show, the show floor is your stage. There’s always a backstage area where all the frenetic running around and problem solving takes place, but when you walk out onto the trade show you should be in an environment that matches the guests’ expectations.

LC: You’ve mentioned the importance of including multi-sensory stimuli in event planning. What are multisensory stimuli, and what do they add to an event?

MS: Think about restaurants. Zagat rates a place based on service, décor, food and price. It’s not just about taste. In the same way, event production is about more than what you see. By engaging sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell we create a multisensory experience for customers.

With light, I can make an ugly ceiling disappear. I can focus your attention on what I want you to see.

Including scent in event technology is an incredibly powerful way to tap into people’s emotions. Cinnabon isn’t always baking, but they push scent through their store.

Manipulating acoustics can include using timpani to build anticipation of what’s behind a door. Sometimes it’s the absence of sound that’s important.

Touch can be the texture of the floor you’re walking in on, the seat quality, or the feel of the menu.

Take the qualities of these factors together, whether it’s a restaurant or multisensory event, and it affects guest experience.

LC: How do you build multisensory experiences at the ICC?

MS: ICC is a unique trade show with a very specific, high-end vibe. They’re doing something different than a typical Javits Center show. The people walking the floors are decision-makers for restaurants all over the world. StarChefs needs to portray an image by having plush carpet and pleated draping. We need to create gathering areas. It’s always good to be near the beer garden. In that way we’re working to create a sensory experience.

LC: What is the ultimate goal in producing an event?

MS: From my perspective, we’ve done a good job when we get asked back to do it again. When I was just out of college my mentor asked, “When is a sale a sale?” I thought it was when they wrote the check, but he said, “It’s only a sale when the client reorders the goods.”

Each sale is a chance to earn the privilege to do the next event. That’s my goal. I want to do the next one and the one after that, and I want you to tell your friends.