FORT KENT, Maine — For most hosts, the request would give them nightmares: Throw a party with no idea how many people will be attending or what dietary restrictions they might have.
But for Executive Chef Erin Dow, owner of Winthrop-based Eatswell Farm, it’s more like a dream come true.
The Fort Kent native is back in her hometown with her crew this week serving thousands of elite athletes and their coaches, technicians, media, volunteers and spectators as the exclusive food service provider for the 2011 International Biathlon Union World Cup races at the 10th Mountain Lodge.
Dow thrives on what is known as “festival catering” in the food service business — feeding large numbers of people at events ranging from rock concerts to high-level political fundraisers.
“My first catering job I did solo about nine years ago,” Dow said during a break this week at the 10th Mountain venue. “I was told there would be 100 people and at the last minute they told me there would be 300 and one of them was [former President] Bill Clinton.”
But that’s exactly the kind of challenge Dow welcomes.
“We call these kinds of events ‘extreme catering,’” she said. “We come in, work around the clock for however long it takes, swear we’ll never do it again, go home, recover and go on to the next job.”
For events such as large-scale concerts or the biathlon, Dow often works with fellow festival caterer Kerry Luther who has fed everyone from members of Aerosmith to ZZ Top.
“I worked for or with him for 15 years,” Dow said. “Kerry has a reputation in the catering industry as one of the top dogs.”
Together, they have forged a reputation based on dependability and getting the job done — no matter what.
“It’s not me or [Erin],” Luther said. “It’s all of us — the staff and crew who pull this off.”
Pulling it off in Fort Kent meant arriving with three 30-foot trailers holding every appliance, utensil and food storage case needed to prepare 700 fixed meals a day plus a full menu for the event’s concession tent.
“When we got here there was an empty tent,” Dow said. “We even built the wooden floor.”
Dow said neither she nor Luther turns down a catering challenge.
“We never say no,” Luther said. “In fact, that’s why we are double-booked tomorrow,” he added to Dow.
“In fact, I know,” Dow shot back. “Double-booked for the third time this event [but] I made a call and we’re all set.”
In a new twist on their catering system, Dow and Luther have incorporated Guiding Stars, a Maine-based nutrition guidance system becoming popular in stores such as Hannaford Bros. and Paradis Family Supermarkets.
“Guiding Stars is a really easy to use nutritional rating system,” Lori Kaley, Guiding Stars scientific adviser, said.
Simply put, the Guiding Stars system rates food based on the amount of vitamins, dietary fiber, whole grains, protein, fats and added sodium or sugars are present per 100 calories.
“Each food is given a certain amount of positive points or debit points and from that an overall score of one, two or three stars,” Kaley said.
The more stars, the more good nutritional value per 100 calories is packed into that food selection.
At the biathlon venue, Dow said, the system allows athletes and spectators alike to make balanced food choices.
“With Guiding Stars when the athletes hit the soft-serve ice cream machine — which they love, by the way — or go for a waffle, they know which other foods they should then select to get the nutrients they need,” Dow said. “We have tags on the food and tip cards on the tables to guide them.”
Kaley said the beauty of the system is it can apply to everyone from elite athletes to the average consumer or spectator at the biathlon.
“Well-being and performance are all linked to what you eat and how well you take care of your body,” Kaley said. “By eating well the spectators will feel good watching the sport and the athletes can get what they need by eating the same nutrients but in a lot higher quantity.”
When it comes to feeding high-profile clients, Dow said, she’s pretty much seen it all.
“A lot of celebrities have strict diets like vegan, macrobiotic or food allergies,” Dow said. “We can work with that and we always keep in mind those people — like these athletes — are on the road a lot and for them the one comfort is often the food.”
While Dow has a reputation for never panicking under extreme stress — though she did admit to yelling at Luther on occasion — she did say working the Fort Kent biathlon has produced a bit of additional stress.
“This is my hometown,” she said. “I’m working with my parents, with friends of my parents and with my old teachers [and] the stakes are a bit higher here since I’m homegrown in Fort Kent.”
At the same time, Dow said, she is thrilled to be showing off the town to her workers whom she routinely calls in from around the country.
“One of the staff had his car battery go dead in town,” she said. “He put the hood up and could not believe within minutes he was almost assaulted with people helping him.”
As for Dow, as long as people keep calling on her to prepare food, she’ll keep saying yes.
“It took me a long time to figure out why we do this job,” she said. “It comes down to a desire to succeed at something that is quantifiably impossible to succeed at, given the lack of head counts and variables in weather and infrastructure [but] just like marathon runners, we recover and look for the next one to run.”