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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

Laced With Caution

Food is purchased anonymously, menus are secret and meals are tested for poison. At the G-8 summit, the heat is on the executive chef.

June 09, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

SEA ISLAND, Ga. — There are eyes on Todd Rogers all the time now.

Standing among the food runners and prep cooks, between the saute station and the garde-manger, are the people the government sent to watch him.

Federal agents have been in Rogers' kitchen for weeks, memorizing his movements so that this week, when he cooks the most important meals of his career, they can detect the telltale flicker of a wandering hand or an unexpected ingredient.

At the Group of 8 summit, when leaders of the world's eight richest nations gather for three days at the Sea Island resort in coastal Georgia, the old art of food tasting is being elevated to a science. At past summits, food was treated as an element of international pageantry; menus were distributed to the public beforehand, advertising the next day's terrines and tapenades in exquisite detail.

At the 1996 summit in Lyons, the president of France ordered grand chef Paul Bocuse to go easy on the salt. Bocuse apologized in advance for the fish souffle, which he felt was under-salted.

But this year's food comes wrapped in state secrets. Ingredients were purchased anonymously, so suppliers may never know they provided food for the event. Menus were kept secret from the kitchen staff.

And Rogers, the resort's executive chef, has learned to carry out the complex ballet of food preparation under the close watch of food safety and counterterrorism experts, who whisk samples away to laboratory equipment on the premises.

Sometimes they fly the samples to a lab in Atlanta. Rogers just keeps cooking. He can't think of any event that's put more weight on his shoulders.

"I more or less block it out," said Rogers, 43, a genial West Virginian in cowboy boots and handlebar mustache. "I guess it'd be like acting. You're focused. You can't afford to look around while it's going on."

The pressure of cooking for dignitaries has been known to corrode minds. As students, chefs are taught the parable of Francois Vatel, a 17th century chef who was ordered to cook several dinners for King Louis XIV. He agonized the first night when a roast failed at one of the 25 tables.

Early the next morning, a sleepless, panicky Vatel was waiting for an order of fish to come in for the next day's dinner. Certain that it would not arrive, he ran to his sous-chef and said, "Sir, I shall not be able to survive this disgrace." Then he went to his bedroom, braced his sword against the door and ran it through his heart.

That kind of tension has been compounded in the post-Sept. 11 world, where poison is seen as a viable strategy for terrorist groups.

With every administration, White House measures to protect the president have become stricter, said Tony Vallone, a Houston restaurateur who has served six presidents, including George W. Bush, over the last 40 years. At the most recent dinner he served to Bush, agents "were in the kitchen, outside the kitchen. We have an underground wine cellar. Every two steps going down, there was another agent."

Bush caused a stir last year at Buckingham Palace when he brought his own staff to oversee food preparation, according to London newspapers. In Thailand, health ministry officials reportedly injected Bush's food into laboratory mice before serving it to him.

The greatest protection is randomness. Whenever possible, Secret Service agents select food for the president from a large number of plates, said William Carter, a former agent who lives in Nashville.

At a well-publicized, large-scale event like the G-8 summit, where guests once wandered between open buffet tables featuring cuisines of the host nation, security becomes exponentially more complex.

About 5,000 meals will be served on Sea Island. Food passes through many hands on the way to the table, and each additional handler increases the risk of intentional sabotage.

"People are the big vulnerability, frankly," said John Parachini, a security analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica.

That scrutiny has transformed Rogers' kitchen. Every morsel of food was swept from the premises, said Barry Bennett, a spokesman for the G-8 summit. Then food was gathered from suppliers all over the nation through intermediaries, the same way Air Force One acquires its food, Bennett said.

"It gets drop-shipped to a place and then it comes to us, and no one knows who ordered it," Bennett said. The kitchen staff is not informed of the day's menu until the last minute, when all the necessary ingredients are provided "like a 30-minute version of 'Iron Chef,' " he said.

"If we announced that the dessert at the state dinner was strawberry shortcake, then that would make strawberries a target," Bennett said.

Last weekend, as the summit approached, an invisible security barrier rose up around Sea Island so that no food could move on or off the site. Rogers began to have dreams about food shipments.

"Once the wall goes up and security is tight as a drum, that builds my anxiety because that's the unknown," Rogers said.

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