Joanna Wood brings you the exclusive behind-the-scenes story from last Tuesday's drama from the Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane.
It's 5pm and Michael McIntyre is on stage in the Great Room at London's Grosvenor House, the flagship hotel of the JW Marriott group, preparing for his role as guest host at the 26th Caterer and Hotelkeeper Awards or Cateys. There's a pause in proceedings while something is checked and McIntyre scrutinises an image of the famous bronze statuette. "A rather fetching size eight, holding a massive shellshe's rather hot, is Catey," he giggles.
Watching him from the sidelines are one or two curious spectators - some of the Grosvenor House's key "fix-it" staff, who have been working hard since 1pm to get the show on the road. Thanks to them the 105 tables are looking beautiful, particularly when lighting systems are tried out and everything twinkles as if scattered with magical fairy dust borrowed from the latest Harry Potter premiere.
Among the on lookers are some of the hotel's longest-serving staff who between them have clocked up nigh on 100 years' experience working on the Cateys. Two, Ghanaian-born Prince Addo and Anthony Asenso - 61 and 75 years old, respectively - have helped to put on 25 Catey evenings and are part of the conference and banqueting team responsible for getting equipment ready or moving it about on site. The tableware and glassware, for instance, wouldn't have been to-hand for the table-setters if these two and their colleagues hadn't cleaned and transported it to the Great Room. Given that there are 1,050 guests, sorting the tableware is no mean feat.
Popping in-and-out of the Great Room are Klaus Lehr and his colleague Miho Barbarich, both senior floor managers responsible, among other things, for marshalling the teams of waiters and controlling serving times on the event. "We're in charge of the execution of the event," confirms the German-born Lehr, explaining that during the dinner there are three dispensing points: one each in the two satellite kitchens on either side of the Great Room, the third in a hot kitchen that links the satellite areas together. "We couldn't do a dinner for this number of people without three points - everybody would be waiting far too long for their food."
Lehr and Barbarich are happy that everything is under control. They intend to operate a system of dividing the dining room into five sections with a maitre d' for each area during the dinner and are confident that any small mishaps ("usually guests deciding to change tables, sometimes a batch of corked wine") will be dealt with smoothly and efficiently on the night. "We've got 105 waiters - one for each table - quite a high ratio."
Barbarich leans over a table and moves the tassel of a sky-blue cord holding a rolled napkin so that it aligns with the others on the table. Meanwhile, someone is methodically going round the room with a vacuum cleaner. The Great Room had a thorough clean before the tables went up, earlier in the day. This is a final, belt-and-braces facial.
Brett Hercock, the Grosvenor House's director of catering operations, strides by. Like all the conference and banqueting administrative staff, he will be taking an active role during the evening. "Everyone likes to do the Cateys because it's the main industry event of the year," says Hercock's boss, James Melville, director of event planning.
SMOOTH KITCHEN OPERATION
While McIntyre runs through his gig on stage in the Great Room, food preparations are well under way in the Great Room's satellite kitchens. It's a well-drilled operation, with the pre-prepped elements of the meal being plated ready for the off in a couple of hours' time.
Executive chef Richard Arnoldi is overseeing the production of a set of complete menu dishes for Caterer's photographer. He's in charge of his second Cateys and has been working on refining the menu for months. "We've had four tastings since the spring," he says. "The idea was to keep things light and fun using as many indigenous ingredients as possible, while at the same time try to reflect British cuisine's history by using spices and ideas from around the world - that's why we went for a tandoor-smoked salmon as part of the starter, it's a little twist."
As an American, Arnoldi is still getting to know British producers, so relies on the expertise of his suppliers in sourcing national ingredients. Forman & Field, for instance - who delivered the smoked salmon; or butcher Russell Hume for the outdoor-reared veal which forms the central element of the main dish. Arnoldi has a team of 40 chefs helping him and is confident that, as with his front-of-house colleagues, pre-planning is the key to a smooth event. "We thrive on events like this - otherwise we wouldn't be in the industry. But I'll sleep really well when it's done!" he admits.
It's 5.15pm: chief steward, Paulo Fernandes, takes a call on his walkie-talkie. Just when things look like they are going to be boringly smooth and exactly-to-plan an emergency call goes out to everyone at Grosvenor House involved in the event. Central London has been hit by a ferocious, monsoon-like downpour, with the result that the hotel's subterranean kitchens are in the process of being flooded.
"I've never seen anything like it out there," says Melville, rushing through the Great Room. "Park Lane is like a river. The water's come down through the Ballroom toilets."
He confirms that the hotel's water pumps are working. "It's happened before - we are built over a river - but not for a very long time. Now it gets a little interesting," laughs Lehr.
"Everyone out of here," shouts Arnoldi as people begin to pour in for the mop-up operation. Very soon, there's no one left on the scene who hasn't got a mop and bucket. The flood couldn't have happened at a worse time. It's only just over a couple of hours before everybody sits down to eat - booted-and-suited waiting staff are already arriving in the Great Room for a final briefing due to happen at 5.20pm. Unsurprisingly, this gets put back until 6pm.
Unaware of potential disaster in the kitchens, McIntyre finishes his rehearsal and stage technicians are pumping ear-splitting, jump-out-of-your-skin music in a sound-system test. In a corner of the Great Room, the disco lights of a dance floor are being tried out. Last-minute scene-setting photography is being done.
The clock ticks on towards 6.15pm. Melville appears in his glad rags. "It's all sorted," he grins. "Everything's cleared up." His smile gets wider as he looks around at the Great Room. Linen is crisp and white, glasses and cutlery shiny, the twisting, serpentine glass vases holding simple michaelmas daisies are eye-catching. Didn't some Elizabethan playwright say: "All's well that end's well"?
MENU FOR THE 2009 CATEYS
Supplied by Matthew Clark
Fantinel, Prosecco Extra Dry NV, Italy A finely balanced wine with aromas of blossom and pear and a lively mousse.
Kleine Zalze, Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2008, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Produced from low-yielding bush vines, this Chenin Blanc has an appealing citrus nose. The off-dry palate combines a crisp mouth feel with soft tropical fruit flavours, complementing the sweet notes of the starter.
Gonzalez Byass, Altozano Tempranillo-Shiraz 2006, Castilla, Spain
Succulent cherry and plum flavours, enhanced by a twist of new oak - a satisfying accompaniment to the earthy flavours of the main course.
Bowen's Folly, Noble Late Harvest Riesling 2007, Robertson, South Africa
A luscious nectar that brims with intense aromas of honey, apricot and citrus. Concentrated flavours of marmalade and a balancing foil of acidity are the perfect partner for the dessert.
- Kitchen brigade - 40
- Maitre d's - 6
- Waiters - 105
- Wine butlers - 35
- Doormen - 2
- Cloakroom staff - 10
- Barstaff - 24
- Equipment staff - 6
- Klaus Lehr, senior floor manager: 18 Catey events
- Miho Barbarich, senior floor manager: 17 Catey events
- Prince Addo, back-of-house steward: 25 Catey events
- Anthony Asenso, back-of-house steward: 25 Catey event