Interview With Erik Peters, Club Med's Corporate Chef, Founder of the Club Med Wine & Food Festival

Erik Peters left college to become a "ski bum," but after a bad man-versus-nature accident, he reverted to cooking, a hobby that always came naturally. His first job with Club Med was as an assistant sous chef in Copper Mountain, Colorado, and his next gig took him to Playa Blanca in Mexico. "The entire kitchen staff spoke Spanish," Peters says, "and the G.O.s [Club Med's name for staffers] spoke French." He lasted only two months there before going to New York. Soon he was off to St. Lucia and, eventually, Turks & Caicos, Italy, Switzerland, and Morocco. 

By the age of 27, Peters became Club Med's first American executive chef, and he eventually worked at the company's world headquarters in Paris. Today he is responsible for all of North America, including the Caribbean and Mexico. (And, yes, he finally learned to speak Spanish.)

Now he is based in Miami, where he can be found doing cooking demos for high schoolers with the Slow Food folks and attempting to recruit at Le Cordon Bleu when not at the office.

But planning the Club Med Wine & Food Festival is no small task. Peters referred to the 2010 event as "the second official, official event" after having coordinated eight "unofficial" ones at properties from the Bahamas to Ixtapa and Cancun, Mexico. Judging by the buzz around the Punta Cana property in the Dominican Republic, where this year's event took place, the 2011 fest will be even better. And, surely, official.

New Times: How do you come up with your invite list?

Erik Peters: Some chefs I look to bring because of their notoriety, like Rick Moonen, Bernard Guillas and Dr. BBQ. Others have been with me since the beginning, like Sean [Bernal], Stefano [LaCava], and Julian Alonzo. I'm trying to get Bobby Flay next year.

Do you always invite the same chefs from Miami?

I give preference to those who come back year after year, and I always look for new people. I like people who represent different demographics: French, Puerto Rican, Mexican, South American.

What do the chefs get out of this, aside from a free vacation?

I invite the chefs down for them to have fun, expand their culinary networks, and inspire the culinary staff onsite. They get to stay three to seven nights depending on their level of commitment. 

How do you prep for this big event?

Two months before, we have the chefs paired up and we send them wines to create menus around the pairings. Then I ask them to send me their ingredient lists, and I tell them which items they may have problems with. But the chefs are expected to bring nothing.

I noticed some grumbling from the chefs about not having access to all the ingredients they requested.

Here it's a major challenge to get product. After all, this is a Third-World country. It's tough to get things that aren't produced here. But all the chefs have been tremendous when it comes to adapting. 

And what does the typical Dominican diet consist of?

They have a simple diet. Lots of fruit; stewed chicken, pork, and beef; rice dishes are common. Cacao, rums, and sugarcane, though I haven't experienced any alcoholism here more than anywhere else. 

Does this event really give a boost to Club Med's numbers?

Several hundred people came just for this event. We even had a special group from Phoenix. It's our "shoulder season," and we got 30 percent more [guests] than normal. 

Will the event be held at other locations?

It will always be at this property during the first two weeks in June. Next year will be bigger and better. 

Why Punta Cana?

It's Club Med's largest property -- we have the most beds here. And the infrastructure in this country is ready to support an event like this. 

What do you mean by "the country"? I thought this was exclusive to Club Med. 

We approached the vice minister of tourism and the local chef association. We have everything here to have a massive wine and food festival like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. There are 75,000 beds in the hotel zone. And Punta Cana provides easy access from every major city in Europe, North, and South America. 

Do you think the locals will get onboard?

We can provide them with an opportunity. That's one of the reasons we are trying to create the Caribbean as a culinary destination. It should be. D.R. has everything it needs to offer. And it will benefit the country by helping the economy. 

What's your biggest challenge?

Putting on the event with zero cost. This year, we got KitchenAid to send us an amazing setup, and we're trying to get wines to sponsor the event.

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Riki Altman