Planning Your Function Menu
Know Your Market, Know Your Budget
“WHEN PLANNING FOR FUNCTIONS there are three elements that are imperative at the outset. You need to know your customer demographic, you need to know what type of function it is, and you need to know your budget. Armed with this knowledge you can start formulating a menu.”
This advice comes from chef Peter Wright, whose long track record in catering for large events includes stints as food program manager for the Winter Olympics and the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. He adds it’s also essential to bear in mind the differing dietary requirements of your guests.
“If you’re offering limited menu choices, they need to appeal to the majority, but current trends show a growing number of people with special dietary needs – it’s up to around 10 per cent now of guests depending on the demographic of the function. So it’s important that you offer menu choices which fit across multiple special dietary categories. For example, if you prepare a dish that’s gluten free, nut free and dairy free that covers three different categories.”
Peter also advises focusing on seasonal produce and sourcing the best and freshest ingredients. “There are so many suppliers now offering really great quality fingerfood, for example sushi and readymade fillings for canapes, which allows you to keep the kitchen focused on what it does best. You don’t have to do it all yourself and the same applies to desserts. Get your base ingredients in from quality suppliers and then finish it off so the focus is on cooking and serving rather than a whole lot of preparation.”
Having said that, advance planning is essential, with particular regard to plating and meal delivery. “You need to plan your service ahead of time, so you know how many staff you’ll need to plate up successfully in a relatively short period of time. And of course if you’re doing an outside function you also have to consider how you’re going to maintain the integrity of the food quality, especially in summer temperatures. Maintaining your food in its freshest possible state is extremely important, so be sure to invest in the right equipment. Don’t even think about cutting corners because the quality of your food is sure to suffer.”
From the start of the Spring Racing Carnival in early November right through to Christmas and New Year, function bookings ramp up across foodservice venues, with pubs in particular hosting an array of events from cocktail parties and anniversaries through to Christmas celebrations.
As National Food Manager and Group Executive Chef for Spirit Hotels, Gary Johnson oversees 88 pubs around the country which employ some 300 chefs and cater for an extensive range of functions. He says there’s been a move away from sit-down, centre of plate meals towards cocktail party style presentation with a larger variety of foods on offer. “People used to like to sit down at a table and indulge in a long lunch, but these days they’re more inclined to mingle and network. So with groups of 20, 30 or more we tend to position mini buffet stations around the venue, with a cocktail area so that guests have the opportunity to move around.
“There might be some dips, crackers and bread on the high bar when they arrive, then we’ll move through the crowd with hot platters – sausage rolls, grilled prawns and smaller items – and then we’ll open up a sushi station where we’re carving off pieces of tuna and serving it with wasabi, or a little barbecue station offering satay meats with bowls of fried rice. Midway through the function we’ll bring out something more substantial such as casseroles, wet dishes and salads and then finish with a dessert bar offering mini Magnums or a cheeseboard or chocolate fountain depending on the budget for the event. We generally find around 75 to 80 per cent of functions now follow this kind of template. The most important thing is we offer a wide variety of food - something for every taste so no one goes hungry.”
Markus Werner, Corporate Executive Chef for major corporate caterer Delaware North, says there is a greater desire for experimentation with food among today’s dining public. “People don’t just pick menus from the function kit anymore – everyone wants something different. Most of our Christmas functions, for example, have become more interactive, with street food as a major theme – we are taking premium ingredients and adapting them for less formal presentation, turning them into street food style. At many of today’s functions people want a laid back atmosphere, perhaps with a food truck. So we might serve a miso crusted scallop with Asian salad on top, but out of a food truck.”
He adds that in today’s social media-obsessed world, food appearance is more important than ever. “Every dish needs to look great because someone will take a photo of it and post it on Facebook. So if the lamb cutlet doesn’t cut it, don’t serve it – because someone will see it. It might sound crazy but we love this because it keeps us on our toes!”
This greater focus on the visual element of food is also driving demand for more innovative presentation styles. “At one function we served a dessert of baked honeycomb with chocolate and salted caramel in massive sheets and gave everyone a hammer to crush it into bite-sized pieces,” Markus tells us. “If I had done this five years ago, people would have said, ‘What’s going on? We want it individually formed and nicely presented’. But now it’s the opposite – rustic, a big sheet of rocky road just out of the oven – give it to me and I’ll smash it up myself. And the cameras go crazy for it! Everyone wants a photo of themselves smashing it up.
“But it’s only there once – then it’s gone, and you have to come up with something different next time. Because the next person says, ‘OK, now what can you do for me?’ And you need to come up with something new for the next event. There’s no sitting back and relaxing – sending your banquet kit out and waiting for the orders to come in. It’s a big competition out there.”