Serving up four or five courses of fine restaurant-quality food simultaneously to hundreds of diners is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Caterers thinking about helping themselves to a slice of the profitable banqueting market need to take a long, hard look at what they want to achieve - and plan, plan, plan with military efficiency. Kathy Bowry reports.
The execution of a conventional banquet is the most stressful form of catering service to provide, according to consultant David Clarke of CDIS-KARM, a member of the Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI).
"A large number of banquets are now delivered by using cook-chill with rethermalisation of plates," he says.
"The advantages this system delivers are effective time and resource management, menu extension, no modification of recipes, improvement and flexibility in service, reduced waste and improved portion control, resulting in increased profitability.
"It requires a method of production and delivery that encompasses good practice using temperature controls to protect food from risk of contamination while preventing any bacteria multiplying."
The cook-chill method allows for cooking ahead of the event, blast chilling and refrigerating in batches until the number of covers is made up. Then all that has to be done is to regenerate and serve. The basic kit needed for a cook-chill banqueting operation is a combi-oven for cooking and regeneration, refrigeration unit, blast chiller, and a mobile hot cupboard if the point of service is remote from the kitchen.
At One Great George Street, a conference and wedding venue in Westminster, London, executive chef David Wilkinson has developed his own particular version of cook-chill.
"All sit-down meals are plated but I precook the veg and garnish and regenerate that while cooking, say, the chicken and fish on separate plates just before service and then combining," says Wilkinson.
"For us, this works best, and we can concentrate on the presentation. This way we can do a large number with a small staff. The biggest sitting we have is 280 covers - we can do 300, but that is pushing it."
The kitchen at One Great George Street has recently been refurbished to provide the means to keep up with the growing banqueting business. Responsible for the refit was Mike Bridger, new business development manager of Airedale, a member of the Catering Equipment Distributors Association.
According to Bridger, the old kitchen focused on the needs of a 60-seat brasserie and busy café-bar when, in fact, banqueting, which accounts for a whopping 94% of turnover, is where the focus should have been.
Now, dedicated banqueting equipment includes two bratt pans and two 150-litre jacketed boiling pans, both by Charvet, two 20-grid Rational gas combi-ovens and a 10-grid electric one, plus a wheel-in Storer blast chiller.
"Bratt pans are extremely versatile for poaching, braising or even shallow-frying," says Bridger. "They are mainly used for items like poached chicken in sauce or beef bourguignon, salmon or any fish poached in sauces and so on.
"The boiling pans can be used for vegetables and also for soups, stocks and large volumes of liquid items. Remember, it is very important to have hot liquids such as soup closer to the service area, because there is less chance of accidents if staff have less distance to travel."
Two Victor Banquetline 100 hot trolleys were initially introduced to cope with service to no fewer than 19 function and banqueting rooms. Wilkinson liked them so much he ordered another two. "I found them far more efficient than the ones we had before and so much easier to move around," he says.
"They are very adaptable, and I particularly like the ‘stable door' on them. They cope with everything - they hold heat well and regain heat quickly too. And with the amount of fork buffets we do, we need to ensure the food is piping hot when it gets to the function room before it goes on the buffet heaters."
Many miles further north, a banqueting operation has been set up by Jane and David Saxon of the five-star Moresby Hall Country Guesthouse, near Whitehaven in Cumbria.
The Saxons saw the potential of their business as a venue for smaller conferences and weddings, and now Jane and her two assistants are producing food for 30 to 40 diners using a cook-chill process centering around an Opus 10-grid SelfCooking Center from Lincat.
"The difference it has made to the business is phenomenal," says Jane. "In fact, since we got it a year ago we are doing three times as many covers as we were before. It allows us to prepare food freshly on the morning of the day of the event, blast chill and store until we assemble the plates, taking as much time as we need over presentation.
"We cook the food in gastronorm containers, which we then blast-chill in batches in the Studio 54 blast chiller and then move to one of the two Inomak refrigerators. When it is time to plate up, we lay out 32 plates on a large worktop and then put the completed plates on to a trolley with a plate rack, present it to the combi, where it locks into place, put the probe in and shut the door. I still cannot get over the fact that it only takes 8-9 minutes to regenerate.
However, despite the popularity of the cook-chill method, there are some who prefer to cook and serve for banqueting. The Corporation of London's Guildhall kitchens, which can produce 1,760 banquet covers across the Great Hall and the two Crypt rooms, is one such operation and chose to stick with the cook-serve method when its banqueting kitchens were recently refitted.
"By staying with cook-serve they felt they could offer their clients the best banqueting meal in London," says FCSI consultant Andrew Humble, of Humble Arnold, who specified the refit.
"Rational combis and other prime cooking kit are used, but the food is served immediately on cooking and is not chilled and then reheated. The food is cooked in a basement kitchen and either served across the pass to the two Crypt halls or is transferred in heated trolleys via a pair of dedicated lifts going up one level to the Great Hall servery."
[Charvet ](http://www.charvet.co.uk)01342 717936
[Foodservice Consultants Society International](http://www.fcsi.org.uk)
Humble Arnold 01438 821444
[Inomak](http://www.inomak.com) +30 210 66.24.224
[Lincat](http://www.lincat.co.uk) 01522 875500
[Studio 54 ](http://www.kb-catering.com) 01642 701982
[Victor Manufacturing 01274 722125