Ever wondered how you serve nearly 2,000 guests in one smooth operation? Janet Harmer spends a day at the Grosvenor House hotel with the winners of the Conference and Banqueting Award at the Hotel Cateys, sponsored by Unilever Foodsolutions, to find out how the team copes during one of the biggest events in their calendar
Just eight weeks into his new job as executive chef at the Grosvenor House in London, a JW Marriott hotel, Nigel Boschetti is in the midst of co-ordinating the kitchen brigade for one of the hotel's largest banquets of the year - and all is calm.
The event is the 37th annual luncheon of the St George's Day Club, attended by 1,734 guests, and Boschetti, who previously headed the kitchens at the Lancaster London hotel, is pleased that the changes he has made to its preparation and service appear to be happening smoothly.
Potentially, the key change - to start the cooking of the central elements of the lunch, namely the rib of beef and accompanying vegetables, later in the morning than in previous years - could have created panic among the staff. But, with every single aspect of the organisation of the event planned to the nth degree, this is not the case.
"We can't cook everything to order for a banquet of this size, but we can do the next best thing and prepare as much as we can as late as is practical in order to ensure the food is as fresh as possible," he says.
"Ali Sadek, the hotel's executive chef, banqueting, was a little nervous about the timings, but it is important to push the boundaries and build confidence among the staff to show there is a better way."
The St George's Day Club lunch has been a permanent fixture in the events diary of the Great Room - at 1,779sq m the Grosvenor House's largest banqueting space - for the past 37 years.
Detailed planning of the event gets under way in January. For the past two years Patrick Falla has looked after this particular function. He is one of five event managers in the hotel's banqueting team, led by director of catering Claire Keene, and this is one of about 60 events that he is personally responsible for throughout the year.
"The format of the lunch is the same every year, with a traditional English menu that always revolves around roast beef and all the trimmings, so it makes it easier for us to organise," says Falla. "However, the client's expectations are high, so our challenge is to ensure that we always deliver the highest quality."
On the day of the lunch itself, the setting up of the Great Room begins soon after midnight when the previous night's event, the Building Awards, attended by 1,267 guests, comes to a close. Night porters come on duty at 1am to remove all the tables and chairs and vacuum and clean the room thoroughly before setting up the tables again. The size of the lunch means that tables are also put in position on the balcony overlooking the Great Room.
Falla arrives at the hotel soon after 7am to meet with the vice-chairman of the St George's Day Club, Richard Curtis, and the club's committee members who stayed in the hotel overnight. "One of my main contacts in the club, functions officer Barry Melton, unfortunately is stuck in Florida as a result of the ash cloud," says Falla.
"I'm always here early on the day of one of my events to make sure the clients have everything they need and that all preparations are going to plan."
By 8am, the laying of more than 170 tables gets under way, with two waiters specifically assigned to laying the linen cloths. Once all the cutlery and glasses are in place, the chairs are wheeled back in and the extra bits and pieces - place cards, menus and St George's flags - are added to the tables.
In the kitchen at 9am the ribs of beef go in the oven for one hour and 15 minutes. Then, after the joints are rested for half-an-hour, the mammoth hour-long carving session will begin.
It is now 10am, and the waiting staff are checking in with the senior floor manager, Klaus Lehr. Although the majority of the staff are in-house, those who are not are trained to the same level as the permanent staff to ensure consistent service.
The logistics of an event like this are co-ordinated by Grosvenor House's catering services manager, Georgina Wray, who has also been delayed by the ash cloud. She should have returned to work following a holiday in the Seychelles a few days ago, but is still en route via South Africa.
However, she does eventually appear before the end of the lunch and explains that she and her team planned, well in advance, every element of the lunch to ensure it ran smoothly.
"We have to make sure we have enough cutlery, china and glasses, as well as the linen, chairs and tables, and hire in anything extra we may need," says Wray. "Staff are obviously a key element in ensuring the event runs smoothly, and for today's event we've had eight managers, 190 waiters and 60 wine waiters on the floor."
Back in the kitchen, the carving of the beef is in full swing soon after 11.15am. "We have six chefs carving, four cutting the strings and two placing the beef on to trolleys," says Boschetti.
While the final touches are added to the tables - jugs of iced water, baskets of bread and stacks of candles - elsewhere in the hotel guests are beginning to arrive.
The lunch itself does not start until 12.30pm, but staff begin serving drinks at around 11am in the ballroom, where a pre-lunch reception is held, and in the Park Room in the main hotel, while cloakroom attendants collect coats and luggage. "It is not just the banqueting staff that are involved for an event like this, the entire hotel must be prepared," says Keene.
Back in the kitchen, the starters are nearing the end of what has been a three-day process. The moulds in which the smoked salmon parcels were made were lined with the fish on Wednesday and then filled with the smoked trout and mackerel mousse yesterday. Now, with seasonal leaves and horseradish cream as a garnish, they are all plated and neatly stacked on trolleys, ready to be served once the order is given.
As the lights are dimmed in the Great Room and the final candles are lit, the lunch guests - all male, except for a solitary table of women who helped organise the event - start to pour into the huge space soon after midday. It will take nearly half-an-hour for everyone to be seated. A sprinkling of Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red tunics provide some relief from the stream of sober-suited gents all wearing a single red rose in their lapels.
Once all the guests are in place, grace is said and two streams of waiting staff pour into the Great Room to serve the fish starter. At the same time the potatoes and parsnips that were roasted at 7am, together with the steamed carrots and broccoli, are being gently reheated to 130ºC in the Convotherm regeneration ovens. The Yorkshire puddings, which were made and baked yesterday, also go through the ovens for 10 minutes.
As the beef is returned to the oven to be reheated for 10-12 minutes, George Mcintosh, executive steward (food hygiene, health and safety), is monitoring every aspect of the lunch's preparation to ensure there are no risks to guests or staff.
His day started at 5.30am when he began his regular checks of temperature controls on all fridges and cleanliness of the kitchens. "I have got to be confident that the food being served is safe for the guests," says Mcintosh. "Today's menu is quite straightforward and does not pose any specific risks. However, even high-risk foods are safe if managed properly.
"We always adhere to Marriott's health and hygiene standards, which go way beyond any environmental health regulations. It is vital that we do so with the level of business we do here every year."
With all the starter plates cleared away by 12.56pm, the rib of beef to be served to the top table is carried out into the Great Room on a platter alongside a flaming "ER" to the triumphant sounds of the Band of the Blues and Royals. A nervous Mcintosh looks on, admitting that this is a moment he hates.
Chef de partie Bruno Konc carves and, accompanied by a dramatic drum roll, serves the first portion to the top table, which is the signal for the waiting staff to swiftly weave themselves through the tables to silver-serve the main course to the rest of the room.
The service of the rest of the meal - an apple and plum crumble, prepared the previous day and accompanied by a clotted cream ice-cream from outside supplier La Maison des Sorbets, followed by a selection of English cheeses - goes without a hitch.
With the guests now participating in a sing-along of traditional English songs - helped somewhat by the freely flowing wine - Boschetti is happy to sit down and review the largest banquet he has undertaken so far in his new role.
Since arriving at Grosvenor House at the beginning of March, Boschetti's focus has been on launching the JW Steakhouse in the space previously occupied by Bord'eaux. This has involved a trip to the USA, writing new menus and training staff.
At the same time he has also been considering new menus for room service, breakfast, the Park Room restaurant and the suites at 86 Park Lane.
"There is a lot to do, and I have not yet been able to implement some of the changes I would like to introduce to improve the banqueting," says Boschetti, who is the first chef in 15 years to oversee all food and beverage outlets, as well as banqueting, at the hotel.
He is pleased with the service of today's lunch. "The staff coped well with the later start times for cooking the beef, and I was happy with the quality."
Now he wants to make further changes, including the introduction of more plated food, which will require a revision of the banqueting menus. "This will help us to be more creative and bring a restaurant style of food to a large audience."
Boschetti says that the initial challenge of the job is getting to grips with its huge scope. "Ultimately, my intention is to put my own stamp on and improve the quality of the food throughout the hotel, as well as be known as the leader of large event catering in London."
BANQUETING AT THE GROSVENOR HOUSE
Banqueting accounts for 45% of the annual turnover at the Grosvenor House. About 300 functions are held each year in the Great Room, where the largest function held in 2009 was the London Metal Exchange annual dinner for 1,956 guests.
LARGE BANQUET GUIDELINES
â- Draw up a tally of the staff required and contact agencies if extra personnel need to be brought in for the event.
â- Consider the events being held before and after the banquet: will there be enough time to break down the last one, set up the next one and prepare for the big one?
â- Don't overcomplicate the menu. It is better to produce simple food to a high standard.
â- Plated service will allow for more consistency, but you need to ensure there are enough fridges, trollies and tables to do it properly.
â- Ensuring all hygiene standards are adhered to is paramount. Aim for great food, but safe food.
â- Always have a back-up plan if anything should go wrong, eg, a ready supply of ingredients if a dish fails, or spare equipment if an oven or fridge breaks down.
ST GEORGE'S DAY CLUB LUNCH MENU
23 April 2010 â- Parcel of smoked Scottish salmon with smoked trout and mackerel mousse, seasonal leaves and horseradish cream
â- Roast rib of beef and Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and parsnips, carrots and broccoli
â- Dorset apple and plum crumble served with clotted cream ice-cream
â- English cheeses and celery
â- Ascot blend coffee and house chocolates
Shopping list included: 25kg smoked mackerel, 40kg smoked trout, 110kg smoked salmon, 165 ribs of Scottish beef, 175kg potatoes, 120kg parsnips and carrots, 60kg broccoli, 500 eggs for Yorkshire puddings, 80kg Victoria plums, 120kg Bramley apples, 120kg crumble mix, 85 litres double cream
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Success is derived from quality service and value for money says Nick Ryan, channel marketing manager for hotels at Unilever Foodsolutions
Quality surroundings, good customer service and value for money are key to success in the hospitality industry and attributes that every hotelier should be striving for. This is why Unilever Foodsolutions is proud to have sponsored the Conference and Banqueting Award at the Hotel Cateys.
The award recognises the best in the industry and encourages others to aim for excellence. Our congratulations go to the team at the Grosvenor House hotel, London, whose flexibility, ability to succeed under pressure and quality of food sets them apart from the competition.
At Unilever Foodsolutions our expert hotel team can help you by bringing new and useful ideas to the table that will drive your bottom line.
We are trusted by our customers because we put them first, working as a team to provide solutions for all aspects of your business. In addition to our expertise, our premium product range makes it easy for you to cost-effectively and consistently deliver high-quality meals.