Wheeling for meals

Jun 28, 2000 at 12:00 am


There’s the Grand Prix where you trudge across Belle Isle in the hot sun, paying $2.50 for a bottle of water, $3.50 for a slice of pizza, $5 for earplugs and $10 for a program.

Then there’s the Grand Prix beyond the paddock gates. Here, corporate sponsors wine and dine in hospitality tents. The scruffy grass of Belle Isle is covered by something called kiwi tiles. Tables are covered in white linen. There are piles of program books, free for the taking. A well-stocked cooler is full of drinks. Everyone is wearing nifty shirts emblazoned with dozens of embroidered logos of corporate sponsors.

At PPI Motorsports (Precision Preparation Inc.), a racing team whose sponsors include Pioneer Electronics, MCI, Telefonica and Toyota, the logistics of serving 750 meals at the race track on a weekend is left to Chef Tim Kowalec, who lives in Troy when he is not traveling with the team. Until recently Kowalec was an owner of Boodles, a Hazel Park restaurant.

He flies to race cities on the Tuesday before the race and stays till Sunday. He orders everything he needs from Sysco, a national restaurant supplier. He can’t order in advance because there’s no refrigeration while the kitchen trailer is being hauled from one locale to another, and no storage.

"We’re like a ship at sea," says Kowalec. "I might know that I need four cases of foil baking pans for the season, but I don’t have anywhere to put them."

Some race locales, Kowalec points out, may be short on amenities. "If we’re set up in Elkhart Lake, Wis., there’s nothing but farmland. The power supply is primitive, so we have our own generators. We have our own water supply."

During the week, Kowalec cooks for the team. He calls it "get-and-go food" with an emphasis on healthful eating. On the weekend, the food goes upscale for the corporate sponsors.

I ask Kowalec if he took the job because of the cool shirts. "Everyone thinks it’s a glamour job," he grins. "I’m not watching the races. I spend all my time in the kitchen. They call me the cave man. The kitchen is my cave."

PPI’s kitchen, new this year, is the envy of the CART paddock. Built into a 53-foot tri-axle trailer, it includes five industrial refrigerators, an industrial freezer, two large convection ovens, four warming cookers, a six-burner industrial stove, three sinks, no dishwasher.

No dishwasher! Yikes.

"This seems kind of small," I say, looking around at the spotless counters and wondering where all the mess is that one generates when cooking dinner for a small family, let alone a racing team. Kowalec laughs and introduces assistant chef Gary Borkenhagen, who is washing dishes. And the rest of the staff?

"Just the two of us," Kowalec says. "It’s buffet style," he adds, as if that explains something.

PPI Motorsports driver Oriol Servia finished third in the Belle Isle CART race on June 18, the best finish ever for the team. The celebratory dinner featured beef tenderloin stuffed with crabmeat and grilled yellowfin tuna.


Tune in to the Food Network tonight, Wednesday, June 28 at 9:30 p.m., to see Mac & Ray’s restaurant (30675 N. River Rd., Harrison Twp.) on "The Best Of." Now, we’re not suggesting the tip-off came from the MT, but our readers did vote the waterside restaurant "The Best of Detroit" in a whole bunch of categories this year. Watch, or go see for yourself. Call 810-463-9660 for reservations. ... Don’t miss the 12th annual Comerica Michigan Tastefest this weekend in the New Center area. Music, fun, a street market and, of course, food from some of the area’s leading restaurants. Go to www.tastefest.org for more info.

Elissa Karg writes about food for the Metro Times. Got a food tip? Tell us about