Hailing from Nairobi, Kenya, and able to speak seven languages, Allan Wambaa, executive chef of Aramark’s pacificwild catering at Portland, Ore.’s Oregon Convention Center, is fluent in cuisine on a truly international level.
His resume, too, takes on a global flavor, having worked as the personal chef to the royal family of Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd bin Khalid Al-Saud and with restaurant and catering legend Wolfgang Puck at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, among other postings.
But while his resume is decidedly global, Wambaa’s work at the Oregon Convention Center remains truly local, as Portland is known as a center of the farm-to-table trend.
“Coming here I knew that one of the biggest things about the Portland market was farm-to-table and sustainability,” Wambaa said. “I was familiar with these after working with Puck. I realized early on in my career it was important, especially if you want to become a well-known chef.”
To leverage the locally sourced food scene to the maximum effect, Wambaa works with local farmers and takes chefs to local farms every quarter.
“Seventy percent of the food we serve here, depending on season, is grown locally, and that includes our beers, wine and spirits,” Wambaa said. “It’s hard, but we’re in a good market. We can attract a lot of customers that come here because they know we’re based on the farm-to-table concept, sustainability and being able to showcase all Portland and the Pacific Northwest has to offer. We’re lucky to be able to have what we have here.”
Wambaa said his customers also clamor for another of Portland’s best known features: street food trucks. Options can include a mini-food-truck setup that includes a mac and cheese station with pork rinds, a mashed potato bar with different local toppings and an action station where chefs cook in front of guests. The convention center can also arrange for local farmers to come and set up a fruit stand or a mini farmers market, or bring in artisanal cheesemakers to showcase Pacific Northwest cheeses. Wambaa said he can also bring in his pastry chef to describe the preparation of various food items.
In order to stage an exceptional food and beverage experience, Wambaa advises planners to really get to know their group, especially when it comes to issues such as food allergies. Also, it really pays to strive for an accurate representation of what the number of attendees will be.
And although local is definitely the convention center’s mission, Wambaa still finds a way to incorporate cuisine styles from the various far-flung places he’s lived.
“I do bring a little bit of Kenyan cuisine into the fold, but also flavors from around the world, which makes my menus unique and exciting, for all the landings I’ve had in my travels around world,” he said. “My goal here at the convention center is to create a very, very unforgettable Portland experience, cooking from the source, to put the flavors and passions of the Pacific Northwest on my customer’s plate. That is very dear to me.”