Meet the Chefs of Sodexo Live!: Chef John Ogden

Published on : 6/15/22
  • John Ogden knew early on that he would have a career in the culinary arts. Inspired by his grandfather, who was also a chef, he was a natural at it, shucking oysters at 14 in a raw bar  and working his way up in various restaurants. He has been with Sodexo Live! for five and a half years in his current role as culinary director for airport lounges and we caught up with the Chicago resident and talked about the unique challenges of working in venues that never formally close down.

    Interviewer: Tell us about your background. When did you become interested in the culinary arts?

    Chef John Ogden: I was attracted to becoming a chef by my grandfather, who was also a chef. Oddly enough, he was in the transportation side of being a chef as well, and I'm in airlines. He was a chef at the Pennsylvania railroads for many years. It all came very naturally to me, up until I moved to Chicago, where I went into corporate feeding with a company called Lettuce Entertain You, which operates many different restaurant concepts. From there, I went to work at Macy’s, then entered the airline world with Sodexo Live!, where I oversee lounge menus for cities all over the country. So, my background really runs the gamut! 

    Interviewer: What is a typical day like for you?

    Chef John Ogden: A typical day is creating menus and trying to innovate around the regional flair and cuisine of the country, so travelers truly experience something different from city to city.  We've got everything from Miami to Seattle, which are very different types of cuisines. So, I spend a lot of time organizing the team, training the chefs and developing menus that they can execute and scale. A lot of new lounges have full kitchens, but I oversee a lot of the legacy ones where the kitchens are very limited, so we have to get creative with our problem-solving. 

    Interviewer: How many people do you serve a day?

    Chef John Ogden: Of the lounges I oversee, it’s right around 25,000 people a day. Airport lounges are different from other venues because it's 365 days a year. Football stadiums, for example, do that much in a day easily and even five times that, but they have a week to prepare. We just push it out 365 days a year. Airports are always open, so the teams have to regularly be “on.” The food has to be easy to execute, as well as trendy, healthy and mindful of the traveler.

    Interviewer: Travelers are a very particular kind of diner. What are some considerations when creating a menu for them?

    Chef John Ogden: Somebody eating at a sit-down restaurant has more time. People who are traveling want new and innovative things, but at the same time, they want what’s familiar to them. Nobody wants to try an octopus salad for the first time before they get on a six-hour flight, but if they're sitting at a restaurant, they're going to try it. So, there's a balance we need to find in presenting things to people in a familiar way, but still putting a twist on it so they see that and feel that there is some thought behind it.

    Interviewer: Travelers nowadays have a more sophisticated palate. Have you noticed any food trends lately that people are asking for? 

    Chef John Ogden: We're doing more of a vegetable substitution for proteins, so we might do a cauliflower steak versus a jackfruit meat substitute. We'll take the actual vegetable and make it feel like protein and make it feel hearty. A good example is a black bean burger. I lean more toward the “Let's just take a black bean and make it into a burger form and go that route.” But we do see a lot of the plant-forward stuff definitely gaining in popularity.
    Interviewer: Do you do seasonal and localized menus?

    Chef John Ogden: Yes, we do well with Chicago, specifically. I used to partner with an inner-city farm there, so our produce team would teach inner-city children how to grow their own food. They had acreage in Chicago and we would team with them and purchase items through them and get them excited about herbs and horticulture. Probably the most regional menu that we've done recently is in Charlotte — fried green tomatoes, pork barbecue and fried pickles. All very on brand for the famed Charlotte BBQ scene. 

    Interviewer: Where do you find culinary inspiration? 

    Chef John Ogden: Ingredients inspire me. I'll walk through the farmers market on the weekends and just look to see what looks great and just get the mind spinning around, whether it's a zucchini blossom or whatever is fresh. And it's very regional. That way if you get the pockets of rain for two weeks in Chicago, then you know one vegetable and one fruit might look better than they would normally just because of the amount of moisture that we had. So that kind of stuff keeps me on my toes. 

    Interviewer: What are the most rewarding aspects of your role at Sodexo Live!?

    Chef John Ogden: Really just pushing the boundaries of innovation with the equipment we have. I always quote the line from Apollo 13, which is, “I don't want to know what it was designed to do. I want to know what it can do.” So, in that instance, I'm looking at a rice cooker and trying to figure out what I can cook out of a rice cooker that's beyond rice. So yes, you get your pasta and your grains, but you're also making a cake in a rice cooker. You can make gumbo, jambalaya, all these things that you wouldn't think you would be able to be make in a rice cooker. That kind of stuff is very cool and rewarding. But ultimately, the most rewarding side is when I go visit a unit and they say, “Chef, when are you going to come back and teach us some more things?” Interacting with the team, seeing their excitement, that's the best part.