How would you like to cook for 400 guests every night? That is the daunting task facing Chef Odell Ward each night at the Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre on the north side of Indianapolis. Beef & Boards is in the middle of its 41st season. For the past 30 years, Odell Ward has created meals in the small, compact kitchen tucked into the back corner of the theatre building.
Odell Ward began his career in the culinary arts as soon as he graduated from High School. He started as a cook in a national seafood restaurant chain. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and honed his cooking skills as the chief cook at an NCO club. When asked if he had any formal training, Ward responded that he “learned on his own.” The fruits of his self taught experience are showcased nightly at the buffet offered prior to the performances on the stage at Beef & Boards.
What does it take to prepare an all you can eat buffet for 400 or more guests? Chef Odell explains that his staff is composed of nine when he has a total compliment: Head chef (Odell), 1st assistant chef (Sam Arbabi who has been with Odell for 28 years), 2nd assistant chef Jerome, 2 line carvers, 3 runners, and one pantry worker. The preparation begins several hours prior to the serving time. This author was in the kitchen with Odell at 3:00 pm. The staff was already bustling around preparing the salad and fruit bar fixings, putting ice into the salad buffet lines. Jerome was checking the fish in the ovens, and Chef Odel was keeping his eye on a huge pan of what would be beef stroganoff sauces. Whisk in hand, he calmly but carefully stirred this tan colored mushroom laden mixture. I saw him check on a large plate packed with tender beef soon to be added to the sauce and noodles.
The highlight of his two buffet lines is the roast beef. Odel insists on using only inside round roasts and the end of each serving line offers both well done and medium cooked roasts to the patrons. With a big smile on his face, Odell said “The beef has to be perfect, considering our name.” Well said, Chef.
Most of the items are made from scratch, with some pan stock kept for the next day’s meals. Odell will never use canned vegetables. Prices occasionally will dictate that some items are left off the menu. “We have to control costs,” Odell said “but we seldom have to omit anything due to price.”
He hedged a bit when asked to name his favorite recipe. “I like them all, especially the ones that people ask for.” Odell finally admitted his red cabbage was really his favorite.
Odell Ward truly loves his work and the staff of Beef & Boards. His gentle demeanor hides the total command he has when in the remarkably small kitchen area. When asked if he would follow the same career path if he could do it all over he instantly replied “If I could do it here at Beef & Boards I would.”
I asked Chef Odell if he would recommend his career for a young person to pursue. “If you truly enjoy cooking, then yes, it’s a great career. If you are cooking only for a paycheck, then no.” With a grin he added, “But remember the things people will always do: eat and die.”
Chef Odell Ward provides a scrumptious and bountiful all you care to eat buffet prior to each Beef & Boards main production. The preparation of this two line buffet is truly a production in and of itself. And just like the stage counterpart, the meal must go on. Chef told me of the night when he and two others were his only staff. He had to utilize only one serving line instead of the usual two, but, as he said “You have to do what you have to do.” Every patron was able to enjoy the buffet. Chef Odell Ward made sure of that.