The chef with no name 24 January 2020 How James Cochran lost the rights to his own name, and his triumphant comeback with Islington restaurant 12:51
In this week's issue... The chef with no name How James Cochran lost the rights to his own name, and his triumphant comeback with Islington restaurant 12:51
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House party

01 January 2000
House party

Staff working Millennium Eve at Sydney Opera House will receive Aus$1,000 (£415) for the night, up to three times as much as for a normal New Year's Eve. Depending on where they are located in the vast, warren-like building, shifts could run from 8pm until 2.30am or 8pm until dawn.

It sounds like easy money, but there are plenty of strings attached. Anyone found imbibing even a single sip of alcohol will be instantly dismissed and receive no payment. "We thought about letting staff stop for five minutes at midnight to bring in the new millennium with some Champagne, but it's just too complicated," says Paula O'Connor, operations manager at the opera house for Sodexho, which has held the contract for the past six years. "Midnight will be their only chance to restock, and do tasks such as taking rubbish out. If we stop for five minutes, it will be 20 minutes before we get fully going again."

Despite the high rewards on offer, O'Connor anticipates that rostering for Millennium Eve will be a nightmare. Some 15,000 people are expected to party at the opera house, Sydney's main venue for opera, concerts and theatre. Of these, 1,700 will attend Lord Mayor Frank Sartor's private party and have a bird's-eye view of the fireworks on the adjacent Harbour Bridge. About 3,000 will go to a ball, at Aus$750 (£311) per person for unlimited food and drink, entertainment, and a view of the fireworks.

A further 1,300 will celebrate with a gala evening in the opera theatre, with pre- and post-performance dining, and unlimited food and drink until dawn, at a cost for the best view of the fireworks of Aus$2,000 (£829.87) a ticket. And there will be an additional 2,250 spread between the concert hall and the 120-seat fine-dining Bennelong restaurant.

The steps outside the opera house will also be used to advantage. In recent years, this spot has been a prime location, with as many as 30,000 people crammed together. This year, there will be restricted access to the area. About 8,000 Sydneyites selected by ballot will have the right to party on the steps, eating snacks provided by Sodexho and drinking Champagne out of plastic cups - glass will not be permitted for safety reasons. Unlike in previous years, they will not be permitted to bring their own food and drink.

To service these different parties, some 600 back of house and front of house staff will be required. On a typical New Year's Eve, O'Connor would need about 400 staff, hiring casuals to top up the 300 staff permanently located at the opera house. Each year no-shows run at about 10%. Taking this into account, O'Connor will have to hire 660 people for Millennium Eve. But higher levels of remuneration could mean a lower than usual no-show rate. If all 660 show up, the wage bill could be Aus$60,000 (£24,800) over budget. O'Connor thinks that this is unlikely to happen, but is taking no chances on having too few staff.

Getting staff home on Millennium Eve could also be problematic. Because of tight security, the roads around the opera house are likely to be closed for most of the evening. Many staff members will have to wait until the morning to be bussed home on specially organised transport.

If hiring casuals is fraught with difficulty, getting key staff should be easier. Sodexho is in the fortunate position of being able to relocate staff from other venues to staff up for Millennium Eve. It already operates the catering at Stadium Australia, the main venue, in Sydney suburb Homebush, for next year's Olympic Games. Some 300 of these staff members will transfer to the opera house for the evening.

Those who are new to the opera house will receive two days' intensive training, during which time they will have to learn to find their way around the building. To this end, O'Connor is considering colour-coding passageways, so that waiting staff who are sent to different parts of the building for supplies will be able to find their way back to their area. At one point, there was talk of pop star Michael Jackson giving a concert at Stadium Australia on Millennium Eve but, much to the Sodexho management's relief, he changed his mind. "If he had come, our resources would have been severely stretched," says Jonathan Knight, chief executive officer of Sodexho Food and Management Services.

For staff who work Millennium Eve, there will be plenty of challenges. Under the Responsible Service of Alcohol Act, it is an offence to serve alcohol to anyone who is, or appears to be, intoxicated. If a person sustains injury as a result of being over the limit, then Sodexho as a company and the individual who served the alcohol could be held liable and fined as much as Aus$5,500 (about £2,300).

On a night such as Millennium Eve, when guests are likely to drink more than usual, deciding who has had too much will be a difficult call, one which is best avoided where possible. "We will have to make plenty of soft drinks available and supply lots of food to soak up alcohol," says O'Connor.

Staff who work the evening will also need to be fit. O'Connor recalls that she once tracked the distance she covered in a typical day walking around the opera house's many passageways - it was 35km. When she hires people, she deliberately walks quickly to see whether would-be recruits can keep up with her. In interviews, she asks them to move a chair and sees how quickly they can do it. "If they do it slowly," she says, "I tell them that if they want to work here they will have to consider doing it more quickly the next time."

Despite the difficulties, Millennium Eve will be a good opportunity for Sodexho to show its muscle ahead of next year's Olympic Games, due to run from 15 September to 1 October. During that time, the opera house will become the venue for the triathlon event, taking place over two half-days from 7am until 2pm.

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