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Real food for Real Talk!
Behind the scenes with catering for the R. Kelly show
Jeff Schmehl at work - photo by Lee Futch

IN 1977 I wasn’t allowed by my adoptive parents to see a Led Zeppelin concert. I chose not to go to Berlin to see the wall come down. Nowadays I seize every opportunity to experience life to its fullest.

During six weeks of up to five shows a week, road chef Jeff Schmehl and his HSG Catering crew will travel over 12,000 miles preparing three meals a day on show days for R. Kelly’s Double Up tour. That’s 80 people for breakfast, 120 people at lunch when the local crew is fed, and 100 meals for dinner.

I was pumped to have the chance to work on and see the R. Kelly show. When the tour came to the Savannah Civic Center I was a part of that local stage hand crew that the Civic Center’s Operations Manager Marc Williams orchestrated in conjunction with Wayne Roelle of IATSE Local 320 and Alicia Blakely from theILA Local 1414. By the time the last truck was loaded at around 3 a.m. Thursday, over 80 locals had helped put the concert on.

Load-in began at 8 a.m. By the noontime 30-minute lunch break I was hungry -and leery - as we were being fed by the show. Often that has meant pizza; not exactly conducive to eating then returning to work. This was different; there was a catering truck on the premises.

I ate a lot of fruit salad, a loaded roast beef sandwich which I grilled on a compact griddle set up on the buffet table and a flavorful bowl of soup with perfectly cooked noodles. In the interest of this article I also had a hamburger, a big cookie and a small salad.

At 3 my job was done until 10:30 when we’d break the show down. Chef Jeff and crew were between lunch and dinner service and I was on my time, not the Civic Center’s, so he gave me a tour of the truck.

The 53-foot long trailer’s commercial kitchen contains: two sinks, a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, a deep fryer, two convection ovens, a 48 inch tilt skillet, a five-gallon kettle, a grill, a hood system, and four burners for sautéing and a steamer. There is a 250 gallon fresh water tank and an 80 gallon hot water heater. The kitchen is electric. For power they can either tap into a power source at the venue, or the truck has a 125 kilowatt generator with a 150 gallon diesel fuel tank.

Driver Paul Griesbauer told me he is pulling a total weight of 61,000 pounds. The rig has a 240 gallon tank and gets 6.2 miles per gallon. In 2007 the truck traveled over 100,000 miles with acts such as Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flats and The Police.

There isn’t much down time for the five-man catering crew. Jeff explained: “Our days start at five in the morning and we get back on the tour bus (where they live while on the road) anywhere between ten and twelve at night. We catch a few hours of bumpy sleep and we do it all over again...”

At dinner service I watched Jeff and sous chef Chad, expecting a high energy performance. What I saw was well tuned calm; the food flowed out of their kitchen.

Each night has a theme. For this Mexican Night, Jeff’s menu is Beef Fajitas, Chicken Fajitas, and Tortilla Fried Tilapia a variety of salads, a terrific black bean and roasted corn chowder, a wild rice green and wax bean mix where the beans still snapped, and a tub of ice cream with strawberry sauce, chocolate sauce and whipped cream garnishes. Jeff keeps vegetarian dishes separate.

I ate dinner twice about 45 minutes apart to see how everything held up. It was terrific both times. I wanted to eat a third dinner with Keyshia Cole if the opportunity arose, but I watched opening act J. Holiday instead.

I called HSG owner Bob Schneeberger a couple of days later. He chose to have an electric kitchen because at some venues the truck is parked inside the building and has to run clean. Propane wasn’t an option because some tunnels don’t allow it -forcing the re-routing of trucks carrying it. The kitchen design was his and was executed by Carlin Manufacturing at a cost of over $300,000.

The performers had some special requests for the show of course: fruit platters in the dressing rooms for Cole and Kelly, Evian water, chocolate milk, a variety of teas, and Throat Coat for Kelly.

I had to go back to work before Kelly’s concert ended. Jeff and crew were packing up; jigsaw-fitting the last pieces into place. And then they were gone.

A few hours later R. Kelly, his security team and his entourage emerged and walked amongst us. It was a bit surreal as I’d never seen a star and his entourage.

Kelly has big-time star presence. He waved, smiled and disappeared. At 3 a.m. we were done. It had been a quite a night.

Jeff’s crew would be starting all over again in just two hours in Greenville followed by another show the next night in Richmond. I’d go home and sleep until noon.