Claire Clark is smiling and looking relieved. As chairman of the Association of Pastry Chefs (APC), she has just presided over its annual dinner, and has two reasons to be cheerful. "I did my speech at the beginning so I could enjoy myself for the rest of the evening," she explains. And second? "Everybody has agreed that the food tonight has been different to a usual banqueting meal."
For that, she has Simon Young to thank. Young is the recently appointed executive chef of the Carlton Tower hotel in London, who has made it his mission to get the hotel's banqueting operation noticed. The problem with hotel banqueting operations these days, he says, is that they are often old-fashioned, and lacking in imagination and quality.
"I've been in business for 21 years and I can remember, in five-star hotels, when everything was boring chicken and sauce, and turned potatoes," he says. "I want to bring in something more modern, more seasonal. I've tried to bring a bit of funk."
Young used to work at Conran's Great Eastern hotel by Liverpool Street station in London, and it's the Great Eastern's pursuit of a younger, more style-conscious crowd that he wants to continue. The challenge nowadays in banqueting is to get away from the tried and tested (read "dull") dishes and harness the excitement of the restaurant world to even the largest events.
With this in mind for the APC dinner, he decided to bring together a dream team of former colleagues and chef friends to prepare the meal, each looking after a separate course. Lining up for the amuse-bouche was Tony Fleming from the Great Eastern hotel. The starter belonged to Michelin-starred chef Richard Corrigan, who worked with Young at the Sheraton Park Tower in 1987 and is now at Lindsay House in London. The main course came from Young himself and the pudding from Tony Hoyle, head pastry chef at the Grove hotel in Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire. Finally, the petits fours were conjured up by German chef Matthias Schuebel, head pastry chef at the Mina A'Salam hotel in Dubai, owned, like the Carlton Tower, by Jumeirah International.
At the same moment, Sydney Aldridge, head chef at Terminus at the Great Eastern, in attendance to help Fleming, is telling his team there are only 10 minutes before their amuse-bouche needs to go out. Mild panic ensues, because there should be 30 minutes - and, in fact, there are; the disinformation is just Aldridge's way of keeping himself amused.
It probably doesn't matter anyway. Fleming has already laid out nearly 300 plates (to be on the safe side) with a balsamic-glazed celeriac disc on each, on to which is being placed a celeriac râmoulade made with nut oil, truffle oil and mayonnaise. On top of this go discs cut from 25 ballotines of foie gras, each rolled in dried trompette powder.
The idea behind the dish, explains Fleming, is for the sharpness of the balsamic glaze to balance the richness of the foie gras and râmoulade - with an apple jelly to sweeten everything on top.
It tastes yummy, and I tell him I think it's an impressive dish for a banqueting operation - at which he recoils. Fleming, you see, doesn't like the word "banqueting", and nor does the Great Eastern hotel. Echoing Young's earlier comments, banqueting has too many connotations of chicken consommâ and gloved waiters. "We do private dining for up to 170 people," he corrects me.
Enter Corrigan, who tells the main kitchen, as if he is exhorting a platoon of soldiers to go over the top: "We are going to recreate a bit of Lindsay House for one moment of your lives. I'm not going to say anything more, just make it beautiful."
The piece of art in waiting is a starter of squid stuffed with chorizo and feta-like cheese, with a salad of mussels and clam made with shellfish juice, and a garlic and parsley bath. The dish appears at Lindsay House in season ("it's summery, it's beautiful", Corrigan says), but he explains why it can transfer so easily to a large-scale event. "For 230 people, that's a lovely dish," he says. "It all looks as good as it looks in the restaurant because that's the beauty of this dish - it's all mise en place and it just comes together on the plate."
When watching 30 plates spread out on the pass, it's easy to appreciate the importance of organisation as the service staff collect them. There is, and probably will always be, a battle between chef and waiting staff as regards care of the food. With the amuse-bouche - "Gently!" is the shout - you can see how too much speed jeopardises the apple jelly's perilous position atop the peak of the foie gras. But with Corrigan's dish, any hanging around would mean a glaze forming over the juice. "This is why I have a small restaurant," he says, laughing.
For the main course it's all hands on deck, with the Great Eastern team coming through to another section of the Carlton Tower's vast network of kitchens, along with canapâ chefs and anyone else who's just watching.
Young explains how he sometimes might have only six chefs working an event (even as few as four to do canapâs for 400), but on this night there are about 50 of them at various stages.
The main has already required one chef to hand-make 750 tiny ravioli, filled with caramelised onions and the confit thigh of the guinea fowl that forms the centre of the dish. This is accompanied by asparagus and pumpkin, with a vegetable nage to finish.
"Not enough people are seasonal on banquet menus," says Young, again calling for the same principles that drive creativity in the restaurant kitchen to be applied to banquets.
Perhaps the toughest job goes to the Grove's Hoyle. The audience are, after all, pastry chefs. But he isn't afraid. "It's an honour but it's just like preparing for anyone else," he says. He does, however, pull out a special treat - single-estate Gran Couva Valrhona chocolate (£25 per kilogram, he confides). He serves this in a shot glass as a chocolate cream topped with raspberry foam and iced chocolate powder (courtesy of the Pacojet). This is served on a plate with a sesame tuile and kaffir lime and pendang leaf Thai-flavoured ice-cream. Three separate elements on the plate is certainly more than most banqueting puddings would manage.
The final delights are Schuebel's petits fours. He has been in the country for three days but has created a treat which, even before anyone has tasted one of them, is spectacular - chocolate platforms adorned with Szechuan peppers, star anise and rose petals.
Schuebel's precise preparation mirrors what Young believes is the secret to banqueting. Despite the pressure of the circumstances, Young says that the hard work is in the mis en place, not the service. "You need to check, check and check again," he emphasises. "You can't run out of anything."
He continues: "Be specific in your ordering. Take each dish and break it down, and have a form which tells you how much to order for 10 or 100 people. Make sure you weigh every ingredient to make sure you're reaching your GP. If you're doing 400 and you've miscalculated, there's a hell of a lot of money at stake."
On top of this, Young says that basic systems must apply across any large-event operation. "It's about systems, organisation and planning ahead," he stresses. "Order two days beforehand and then prepare a day before. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can fix it. Never prep on the day."
But Young is happy to take on a challenge. "Anything's possible," he says. "We've done a soufflâ for 300 people before." In fact, after cooking for the APC, one of the next big events the team is looking after is the AA dinner and awards for the new guidebook.
Is he worried? Of course not. "I love it," he says, "I can't wait. I want to get us on the map for being top."
Tips from the top Simon Young, executive chef, Carlton Tower, London
- "Regeneration can be abused. We will regenerate garnishes and potatoes but I find some things, like French beans, don't work as well. It's trial and error with vegetables - see how they come out."
- Serve up fantastic bread. It's what the customers get first and it creates a good impression.
- Canapés can be great for profit revenue on functions. Encourage the client to include them in the evening.
- The menu doesn't have to be complicated to be different.
Gary Klaner, executive chef, Landmark hotel, London, and this year's Craft Guild of Chefs Banqueting Chef of the Year - Keep the menu design clean and workable. Don't try to be clever.
- Test your menu. Photograph it. Standardise it.
- If your kitchen design allows it, use a conveyor on the pass.
- Organisation and communication are key. Make sure you have several pre-event briefings so everyone knows what's what.
Nigel Parkinson, events manager, Restaurant Associates - Always take into account the logistics of transporting food when designing menus. It must be "butler-proof".
- Avoid using beef. Individual preference as to how much it's cooked slows the service down too much.
- Try writing individual instructions for each member of staff, and distribute these at briefings.
- To counteract shortfalls, try to slightly overstaff.