Catering for large numbers is a challenge for any chef, so to offer a choice and cook to order for multiple guests who must all be served simultaneously could be considered crazy at the best of times. But ever eager to improve the service he offers guests, executive chef Henry Brosi has introduced à la carte banqueting to the Dorchester in a bid to broaden his group dining offer.
"We were looking at ways of providing a better banqueting service, at the same time as some of our top clients were beginning to ask for a choice of dishes," says Brosi, who has headed the 120-strong kitchen brigade at the Dorchester for 15 years.
As a result, à la carte banqueting was first introduced into the Penthouse, which can accommodate 16 covers, and the Pavilion (34 covers), three years ago. Both are situated on the hotel's eighth floor with a separate kitchen.
"This provided us with the ideal scenario for experimenting with a choice of menus within a banqueting setting, because the numbers were small," says Brosi, winner of the Catey Chef of the Year award in 2007.
The initial concern was that there would be a huge amount of wastage and certain elements of the menu would have to be pre-cooked. Wastage is avoided by ensuring numbers are accurate when the orders are taken. In principle, everything is cooked to order, with only vegetables and starch items being regenerated.
"Having pre-cooked items on the menu would produce an inferior product and we are only concerned with maintaining and improving standards," he says. "We could not afford to offer this service if there was wastage and standards dropped - we've managed to avoid both by cooking to order. In fact, we've found the à la carte service has improved the quality of our banqueting."
Once Brosi was confident about which dishes worked best for an à la carte service and with all the necessary equipment in place, he introduced a choice of dishes to functions held in the Dorchester's largest banqueting space, the Ballroom, in 2009.
"We need 20 chefs to prepare an à la carte function for up to 480 covers in the Ballroom, whereas we only need 14 for the standard, no-choice menu," says Brosi. "One of the key elements to the success of an event is the front-of-house service, with all waiting staff fully understanding the components of each dish. This helps when they take down the orders once guests are seated.
"Nigel Sandiford, the hotel's operations manager, food and beverage, does a wonderful job and is spot on when it comes to training staff, organising and planning every event. Each table captain briefs his team of five to six staff regarding which guest is having what dish, so that it is served to the right person according to the table plan. Logistically it can be dangerous, but it works."
Cooking starts as soon as the orders are taken, with the starters being served within 30 minutes. The main course will follow 20 minutes later, with the desserts being served after a further 25 minutes.
For some main course beef and lamb dishes, Brosi will roast a whole joint, whether it be rib eye, sirloin, fillet or saddle, which he will slice at the point of service to the required numbers. A beef fillet takes 35 minutes to cook and a saddle of lamb 45 minutes. "We get a better yield this way and it allows us to react quicker to guests changing their minds about the dish they would like," he says.
With regards to guests who change their mind, having seen a dish they would prefer, Brosi prepares an additional 5% of each item to allow a dish to be swiftly swopped.
About 10% of all banquets in the Ballroom and nine out of 10 functions in the Penthouse - out of a total of 105,000 banqueting covers served annually at the Dorchester - now involve à la carte service. At lunch events, the fish dish isthe most popular, but this changes at dinner when about 60% select a meat dish, 30% fish and 10% the vegetarian option. The best selling dishes across all functions are roast fillet of beef and beef Wellington.
"From the chef's point of view, you usually know exactly what you are going to serve at a 480-cover function, but with à la carte service, you can never be sure of the numbers, so it is much more challenging," says Brosi. "But it is a great means of impressing clients.
five tips for a la carte banqueting success
Ensure orders are accurate in order to be cost effective
â- Choose dishes that can be cooked quickly in large numbers and which have limited steps - no more than four - on the plate
â- Only start cooking once the orders have been received
â- Ensure that all the equipment and china required for a choice of dishes are available, alongside the necessary storage space
â- Brief front-of-house staff thoroughly to ensure the right dishes are served to the correct guests
a la carte banqueting: the argument for and against
AGAINST: THE RITZ, LONDON
John Williams, executive chef of the Ritz, London, says that offering a choice of dishes at a function will involve a certain amount of regeneration of the food, something he believes will prevent the dishes being served from being top-notch.
"Some hotel managers think that choice is everything, but I really believe it is not the way forward in terms of quality," he says.
"The maximum number we serve for a banquet is 60 and the menus we offer are designed to ensure every dish is cooked Á la minute and of a quality that would be served in the hotel's restaurant. For instance, we cook all our poultry on the carcass to ensure maximum flavour and moistness and that is not something you could do if you are offering three main courses.
"The only choice we offer is a vegetarian option or a request to meet a dietary requirement. A la carte banqueting complicates the matter and won't produce better quality food."
For: THE SAVOY, LONDON
The three-year refurbishment of the Savoy allowed a new banqueting kitchen to be installed with the specific aim of offering an Á la carte service for the first time in the hotel's history. And from the outset, the new kitchen brigade and front-of-house staff were trained to offer a choice of dishes.
About 30% of functions at the Savoy now operate with Á la carte menus, with prices starting at £80 per head for a choice of three dishes at each course in the Ballroom, which can cater for up to 400 guests. In the six private dining rooms, which can serve up to 50 covers, the menus - offering a choice of six dishes at each course - start at £88 per person.
Mark Scholfield, director of event sales, says that every event at the Savoy is tailored to guests' requirements and offering an Á la carte menu takes that level of personalised service one step further.
"Guests really do feel they are coming to something special and not just another cookie-cutter hotel event," he says. "The feedback we've received is that it helps to make an event at the Savoy even more memorable and as one of the only hotels in the UK to offer Á la carte dining, it really means we can look after our guests to the highest degree."
Among the most popular Á la carte dishes are marinated pineapple with seared sea scallops and tiger prawns in a Thai dressing; and pan-fried Scottish beef fillet with crushed Julienne beans, green asparagus and piquillo peppers.
A LA CARTE BANQUETING MENU AT THE DORCHESTER
Henry Brosi serves a choice of three or four dishes at each course to 480 guests attending a function in the Dorchester's Ballroom. The Á la carte three course service costs £80 per head at lunch and £95 per head at dinner. A four-course dinner menu costs £115 per person.
A typical event may offer the the following dishes:
Starters â- Ham hock and English veal terrine, tomato chutney
â- Shellfish ravioli, young spinach and shrimp bisque
Intermediate â- Wild mushroom risotto with truffle cream and spicy spear
â- Confit of salmon with pickled smedji mushroom and vermouth espuma
â- Passion fruit and vodka sorbet
â- Tomato tart, rocket Parmesan salad and tapenade oil
Main courses â- Fillet of beef on bubble and squeak, red wine shallots and mustard sauce
â- Oven-baked halibut, lobster mash, thyme jus and curried carrot purée
â- Tempura vegetables, smoked tofu, red wine liquorice and ginger beurre blanc
â- Chocolate combination: white, milk and dark Valhrona cake with coffee ice-cream
â- Fennel panna cotta with Mandarin soup and peppered shortbread
â- Citrus terrine, passion fruit jelly with a passion fruit and banana sorbet