Planning for a major event is always a logistical challenge, but when that event is overseas it’s a whole new ballgame. Language, currencies and cultural differences are also thrown into the mix. Fortunately, though, the language of food is fairly universal, and you can usually find ways to adapt and work around challenges.
I have been lucky to have catered my first international event for Krug champagne in New Zealand in the 1990s, and presented Australian cuisine for heads of state at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games in the US and the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. For these events, we showcased Aussie produce such as lamb, barramundi, prawns, salmon and bush tucker. Before the event, we had to apply to the relevant authorities in both countries to export and import the food.
In 2015, I catered an event in Hong Kong to celebrate the anniversary of a global financial company. We turned the convention centre into a restaurant for 500 people for four nights in a row, with an a la carte menu where guests could choose the dishes. While the centre could knock out a Chinese banquet for 10,000 people, asking them to do a three Michelin-star experience with a Chinese twist was difficult. The client came to me at the end and said the venue was in trouble because guests had never experienced anything like it at that venue before and may expect it in the future. My first step was to go and work with them on the menu, write the recipes and do a tasting. Once we got the food right, I turned my attention to the front of house, building a food and beverage plan that was more than 100 pages long, including staffing hierarchy, sequence of service and every detail on how we would deliver the best possible event, I even ran a dress rehearsal on how the service would works with the full team just before the first evening.
When you are catering for an international group the dietary requirements may be different. In Australia it’s easy to source halal meat, for example, but that’s not the case in a lot of places overseas, so you need to adapt the menu. I recently catered for a 12-day incentive tour in Russia and Hungary for food buyers and sellers for a foodservice company. We largely chose dishes that could be shared on the table so people could try a range of local delicacies, and if adventurous try something a little more risqué. By providing choice, dietary issues can be minimised and only medical requirements need to be addressed.
I travelled to Russia for a site inspection a year before to visit all the restaurants and venues we were considering and speak to the chefs. It’s important to do this in the same season that the event will be held so you know what kind of produce is going to be available and get an idea of what the weather’s going to be like. I work with destination management companies on the ground who know the landscape and can help smooth any cultural issues. We went to 100 restaurants in two weeks, and often had two breakfasts, four lunches and four dinners per day to find the right experiences. I went through every menu and chose each dish that I wanted to try. In some places we tasted one dish and walked away because it wasn’t the right restaurant for our group.
When I cater overseas, I try to play to the strengths of the destination and give guests a flavour of where they are and what the restaurant or caterer represents. Our final itinerary included a space-themed restaurant Voskhod in Moscow, a modern, sophisticated restaurant where guests got to try pavlova (which they thought it was a Russian dish!) and food eaten by astronauts in outer space. Another night we went to Bunker 42, which is in an old Cold War bunker 19 floors below the ground. We also dined at Russian president Vladimir Putin’s favourite restaurant, Podvorye, which is very traditional. The food was shared in the middle of the table with bottles of vodka and people help themselves. Another highlight was an amazing gala dinner in Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg, with an extravagant silver service banquet fit for a tsar, waiters in period costume and ballerinas and opera singers performing.
I went to meet the staff at the restaurants in the afternoon. They didn’t speak English, so I had a translator accompany me the whole time. Working out a budget in four currencies was a minefield, but the businesses we were dealing with wanted to be paid differently. Throughout the trip, we paid in euro, ruples, forint and Australian dollars. It’s not easy, it takes time.
There may also be cultural sensitivities you need to consider. Podvorye, for example, serves classic Russian cuisine on share plates on the table. You’d never ask them to do a sit-down plated formal meal. It’s about playing to the strengths of the venue and making it work for both venue and client.
Regardless of the country, the same principles apply. I break the menu down, ask for the price by the bottle and dish, choose the menu that best suits the group and venue, develop the budget and put everything into an easy-to-understand plan. Every event presents its own challenge that I enjoy conquering.