The challenges of contemporary function catering

Markus Werner and Asif Mamum from Delaware North share their insights

Catering for largescale functions presents its own special set of challenges, and nowhere is this is more evident than at major venues like Melbourne Olympic Park.

With food presentation styles and approaches rapidly evolving in this age of the ‘food selfie’, it’s imperative that a venue like Melbourne Park is at the cutting edge of contemporary catering. The responsibility for ensuring this plays out falls on the shoulders of Executive Chef Asif Mamum and Corporate Executive Chef Markus Werner, both of whom work for major corporate caterer Delaware North which is responsible for the venue’s food operations.

After working together for eight years at Melbourne’s Crown Casino, the pair re-established their professional relationship when Markus joined Delaware North and Asif commenced working at Melbourne Park shortly afterwards. Today they remain close colleagues, working hard to ensure that the function catering at Melbourne Park is something truly special.

“In recent years there has been a lot of change to the function menus,” confirms Markus, “as people are becoming more educated, they want to know about the provenance of food. Asif is working hard on the ‘paddock to plate’ concept, so that we’re able to pass this information on to clients.”

“I call it the Masterchef effect,” Asif adds. “After watching those types of TV shows people have a greater consciousness of what they’re putting into their bodies.”

“People weren’t so interested in this in the past, but now there is a greater demand for the information, which is one good thing to come out of Masterchef,” Markus explains. “As a leader in hospitality you have a commitment and responsibility to show your client you’re passionate about your industry, and people are now suddenly realising, ‘Oh, you’ve been doing this for years, but we didn’t know!’”

Along with this greater awareness from the dining public has come greater desire for experimentation with food. “People don’t just pick menus from the function kit anymore,” Markus points out. “Everyone wants something different. So most of our Christmas functions, for example, have become more casual, more interactive, with street food as a big theme – high end, in that you are using premium ingredients, but adapting them, turning them into street food style. In many of today’s functions people want a food truck, they want that laid-back atmosphere. So we might serve a miso crusted scallop with Asian salad on top, but it’s presented out of a food truck.”

“Function presentation is no longer the formal, sit-down thing it once was,” Asif affirms. “It’s more about having a good time, hanging out and chatting. So rather than sit a turkey on the table to carve it, you would do a live cooking station, or have the turkey in an individual bain marie with some garnishings.”

“It’s very important to ask yourself, what can we do differently?” Markus adds. “At today’s functions people want to be able to mix with each other as much as possible, rather than sit at one table and talk to the same bunch of people all night. Often the function room is empty because they’d rather be out on the concourse, overlooking the stadium. So we’ll have a live cooking station, perhaps with free range chicken marinating – you’re putting it under the grill, cooking it front of your clients, chopping it up on a butcher’s block and then presenting it as a slider in a nice charcoal bun, maybe with a pineapple chilli salad. You put your own twist on it and people say ‘wow, this is an amazing event’.”

Presentation style also extends to the naming of items on the menu, as Asif makes clear: “When we write menus we try to think of intriguing names that ask a question, that pull you in to the menu. What is ‘drunken chicken’, what is ‘naughty barramundi’?”

“You really need to look outside the square and have tasty, high quality end products,” Markus emphasises. “We’re always looking at new spices, new marinades to see what we can make out of them. In our kitchens today we have Middle Eastern spices, miso pastes, the general dry store is much bigger than it used to be, the pantry is much bigger. We’ve gone away from the old trend of 25 different barbecue sauces – now we only have one but we make it ourselves, so it’s more of a point of difference.

“Everybody is very accepting of spices now – you can put a bit of chilli in, and it’s not only accepted, but expected. If you do a Thai salad and don’t put fresh chilli in, people won’t be happy.”

“There are many more options today,” Asif says. “So you need to understand the demographic of your clientele and what they’re looking for. If I am serving a Christmas function for Gen Y, they won’t just want turkey but something more. We did two Christmas functions recently with lamb chops, prawns, steaks on the barbie, canapes and cocktails.”

Food presentation styles have also changed due to the popularity of the ‘food selfie’, as Asif explains: “Everyone wants to take pictures of themselves with their meal for Facebook and Instagram. They don’t just want a photo of the food sitting on the table so again, it’s all about interactivity.”

“You do need to be careful when you have your live stations or food trucks,” Markus cautions. “Every dish needs to look shmick because someone will take a photo of it and post it on Facebook. If the scallop doesn’t look good, don’t serve it – 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!”

“It used to be that you were given a plate of food,” Asif expands. “Now you’re plating up on stones, whatever … as crazy as it can be, as long as the food safety and hygiene requirements are adhered to.”

“We always have to bring in something new for dessert, so recently we baked honeycomb along with chocolate and salted caramel in massive sheets and gave everyone a hammer – you crush it and eat it from there,” 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.”

Asif tells us of a function he catered earlier in the year for the Victorian government. “I made a Victorian landscape out of chocolate – there was white sand, blue water, penguins. People were going crazy – I couldn’t see because of the flashes going off, and there was a long queue of people wanting to take photos of me and asking how I came up with this idea. So the trend is just to push and push more.”

“But it’s only there once – then it’s gone, and you have to come up with something different next time,” Markus adds. “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.”