In May 2012, 28 world leaders flew to Chicago to attend the NATO Summit. The organizers gave the job of feeding the heads of state to the executive chef of Tulsa’s Cox Business Convention Center, Devin Levine – perhaps because he had already successfully catered five PGA championships.
Levine cooked lunch for former President Barack Obama (“It was just a simple meal; I served stuffed quail breast wrapped in pancetta,” he says), but his main duty that night was to cook meals for the European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron… as well as their 1,400 collective staffers.
If you want to find Levine nowadays, you’ll have to be buzzed in through a door at the Cox Business Convention Center complex. There, you’ll see him in a cavernous, 25 thousand-square-foot space – in which one of the finest kitchens you’ll ever see is being built.
“I designed the entire layout,” says Levine, because, after over fifty years in the business, “I knew what I wanted.”
There are four walk-in coolers, each as large as a palatial living room. Huge Rational brand combi ovens can cook 3,000 steaks, previously seared on the mammoth grill, to a desired degree of doneness. What looks like a miniature tractor stands ready for what Levine calls the hardest job, pulling hotboxes full of plated meals – usually a lot more elaborate than a simple steak, carefully planned with the client in a months-long process – out and through the kitchen to the ballroom … without disturbing the plating.
A big empty space is used to set up tables for salad preparation.
“When we get going, my staff can dish up 5,000 salads in 75 minutes,” he says.
And how many people are on his staff, pray tell? Hundreds?
No, fourteen. Two sous-chefs, eleven line cooks, and Levine himself. They stand ready to cook and serve, say, 800 members of Tulsa’s elite for the yearly Carnivale charity dinner, or 5,000 nurses from Saint Francis. Most chefs would be a frazzled wreck just thinking about, but Levine loves it.
“The fast pace of a busy night, everyone working at a hundred miles an hour … you just get that fever,” he says.
A young, intense-looking woman interrupts with a quick question.
“That’s Sarah Leavell,” Levine explains, “and we’re lucky to have her. She was sous-chef at the Canebrake,” a lauded luxury resort in Wagoner that closed in 2016.
He continues: “I’ve always empowered my staff. When I was head chef at Southern Hills, I’d let them do the nightly specials. I have my finger on everything, but I don’t micromanage. I know what’s going on, but I let others have free rein. Well, not quite free, but controlled rein.”
Levine is busy and, though he’s always happy to reminisce about his career – which started at age nine when he walked into a burger joint for a meal and ended up doing prep work whenever he found the time – right now, he’s eyeing the future, planning for safety in a dangerous new world. They’re building a grand new ballroom at 41,000 square feet. It can hold 700 diners and still maintain rigorous social distancing. All dishes will be served with lids, and buffets will consist of sealed prepackaged items. And the ballroom will be new, gleaming and elegant.
But does all of this hold the same magic that he felt as a kid?
“It’s still fun!” says Levine. “It’s always fun. I have fun every day.”
Honey-Apricot Roasted Chicken on pearl couscous, figs, apricots, cherries and pistachios
4 airline fresh chicken breasts with skin
2 tablespoons flour
Salt & black pepper to taste
¼ cup light olive oil
1 cup apricot preserves
½ cup honey
½ cup sweet Thai chile sauce
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
½ cup cilantro, chopped
3 cups pearl couscous, cooked, drained and cooled
½ cup dried figs, chopped
½ cup dried cherries, chopped
½ cup dried apricots, chopped
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons light olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup glazing sauce
½ cup toasted pistachios, chopped
In a small sauce pot, add all ingredients for the sauce and bring to a light simmer over low heat; set aside until needed.
Pre-heat oil in non-stick skillet. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper; dredge in flour and sautée on both sides until golden brown.
Brush glazing sauce over breasts and bake in 350° oven for approximately 15 minutes.
Glaze chicken breasts again and return to oven for another 5-10 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 165°.
Mix cooked couscous with figs, cherries, apricots, cilantro and oil; season with salt and pepper and add some glazing sauce and stir till combined; heat in skillet just before serving.
Mound couscous in center of plate; top with glazed chicken breast and drizzled additional sauce over all; sprinkle with toasted chopped pistachios. Serve with roasted squashes, grilled asparagus or roasted peppers.