For some cooks, the prospect of putting together a meal for nine guests can be daunting.
For Sarah Leavell, whipping up a multi-course dinner for 900 guests is just another day at work.
“Well,” Leavell said, laughing, “in this job, there really isn’t a ‘typical’ day.”
Leavell is the executive sous chef for the BOK Center and the Cox Business Convention Center, two of the city’s most high-profile venues for large gatherings, from rock concerts to rodeos, gala celebrations and corporate conventions. The two facilities are managed by ASM Global.
As executive sous chef, Leavell is responsible for coordinating all the kitchen’s resources to realize the menus developed by executive chef Devin Levine.
“What we do in the kitchens is very event-driven,” Leavell said, “and the menus are tailored to those events, whether we’re serving people who are attending a boat show or a formal ball. When you’re serving so many people, you have to make sure that every dish is perfect — that the 1,000th plate that goes out looks and tastes as good as the first plate.
“That’s what makes this job such a challenge, and such fun,” she said. “I’ve worked in fine-dining restaurants, where you are making basically the same menu every day. But it’s cool to know that every day, you’re going to be making something a little different from what you did the day before.”
Leavell has worked for ASM Global for five years, after spending several years hold various positions at the Canebrake, the award-winning restaurant at the Wagoner Country resort and spa.
Leavell, a native of Muskogee, began cooking as a youngster, a responsibility that because more imperative when her father suddenly died when Leavell was 18 years old.
“My interests were more in the way of art and fashion — I loved working with fabrics, colors and textures,” she said. “But any plans I had were put on pause, because I had several younger siblings — the youngest was 18 months old at the time. I really couldn’t leave home, so I started looking around for a job that interested me and would allow me stay and help with the family.”
She enrolled in the Indian Capital Technology Center’s culinary program, “just to get my feet wet,” Leavell said. It was there that her instructor, Georgiann Belton, encouraged her to take part in Oklahoma ProStart, a program developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to prepare students for jobs in the culinary world.
“I owe a lot to Georigann,” Leavell said. “She took took someone who was terribly shy and unsure, and really helped me out of my shell.”
When Leavell landed a job at a Muskogee restaurant called Flair, she realized that cooking was what she wanted to do with her life.
“When I first started, I didn’t realize that cooking was as much about color and texture as it was about flavor,” she said. “When I realized a career in food would allow to me to work with all the things I enjoy, I was hooked.”
Leavell also was determined to help other young people interested in careers in food. She has remained active in Oklahoma ProStart since graduating, mentoring students and serving as a coach for the culinary competitions the program annually hosts.
“I was very pleased, when I had my first interview with Chef Levine, that he and ASM Global were supportive of my being involved with ProStart and working with kids,” she said. “ASM Global wants their employees to be involved in the community.”
Bryan Crowe, ASM’s Vice President & General Manager of BOK Center and Cox Business Convention Center, said, “We couldn’t be more proud of Sarah. ASM Global operates hundreds of stadiums, convention centers and arenas around the globe, which boost local economies, employ area residents and provide meaningful opportunities for the communities we call home.
“In addition to ProStart,” Crowe said, “the ASM Global Acts Foundation and Scholarship Program further strengthens our philanthropic efforts and solidifies our intention to make a difference in the communities where we do business.”
For Leavell, the reason for wanting to help the next generation of Oklahoma chefs is a simple one.
“I love my state, and I want it to do better,” she said. “One thing I got from working at the Canebrake, which was all about using seasonal, local ingredients, was a real appreciation of the food scene in Oklahoma, and understanding what this area of the country has to offer the food world.
“I want our next generation to appreciate that as well,” Leavell said. “They’re the ones who are going to help build northeastern Oklahoma in to a true food destination.”