Contemporary presentation is key to The Terrace’s success

To see how a traditional standalone function centre approaches the festive season, we visit The Terrace at Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens – which operates as a tearoom-style café by day and dedicated function centre by night.

Described as “Melbourne’s best kept secret for receptions and corporate events”, the Terrace’s food operation is run by major hospitality management organisation Delaware North and by the beginning of November demand for corporate functions is already starting to ramp up.

“And when we reach December, the corporate side really takes over,” confirms Head Chef Jason Debski – keeping the Terrace staff busy with end of year events, workplace Christmas parties and Christmas style lunches and dinners across the festive season.

As the name suggests, The Terrace sits on high ground overlooking the gardens’ ornamental lake, with floor to ceiling glass doors which can open up to an outdoor terrace to create a fresh, open air environment.

Given its idyllic location, every opportunity is taken to utilise the venue’s surrounds to full advantage. “We do festive season functions both day and night, a lot of them in the Terrace itself as well as our outdoor function area,” Jason says.

At 5pm the tearooms close and the Terrace changes over to a full function centre, and by 6pm corporate events are often in full swing. These range from casual canapés outside on the Terrace to the more formal sit-down presentation.

“We run with two sets of teams – daytime and evening crews – so we’ve pretty much nailed any staffing issues,” Jason explains. “The major logistical challenge for us is simply turning the room over – resetting it from the daytime tearoom configuration, which is a very different style in that customers go up to a counter to order.

“Redressing does take time and while we make sure to start the evening with a fresh team, it’s important to also have a crossover period so the daytime and evening crews can help each other out. We’re very big on that – everyone helps each other because we are under the one roof and it builds a sense of camaraderie.”

As the festive season gets into full swing, the pressure is on and it’s imperative that the operation works as a well-oiled machine.

“You don’t realise until the busy season starts how much you rely on your staff,” Jason confirms. “We’ve built up a solid core of people can rely on, and also over the last couple of weeks we’ve been training up a new team to make sure we can handle the extra workload and keep everybody happy. For most of the year, we’ll be doing weddings and social functions so when the corporate business comes in December, it’s a different focus for us.”

Recently there has been increased interest in lunchtime corporate bookings, which Jason attributes to time-poor work environments: “I think with more people are working longer hours and even working weekends, sometimes a lunchtime is all people can afford to have off for a function, or they would prefer that rather than give up their Friday or Saturday evening.”

To accommodate the demand for lunchtime functions, an area has been sectioned off which can accommodate 30 guests – this enables the Terrace to continue its tearoom operations during the day while still catering for function guests.

While traditional festive fare such as turkey, roast beef and all the trimmings has been somewhat of a function menu mainstay, in recent times the demand from customers has shifted a little.

“We now find that customers often prefer a function with share plates, live cooking stations and what we call interactive events,” Jason explains. “So it’s a shift away from that traditional approach of everyone sitting at their own tables – the old seating plan of tables of 10 has really fallen away. Today people prefer to sit at long communal tables where they can take food from a shared plate, and they also want to move around and mingle more.

“A lot of people love that sense of interaction – especially from the corporate environment, where different departments don’t always get the chance to socialise together, so they see a festive season function as the opportunity to break down some of those barriers and get out and mix. Especially coming into Christmas, everyone’s focus is on sharing and being communal.”

The live cooking stations feature an interactive element to add a touch of theatre and fun – such as shucking fresh oysters to order, then adding dressings, or finishing off meat on a char grill before plating.

“We tend to plate a certain percentage of function food back of house, then put some elements together front of house as well,” Jason explains.

“A lot of clients like the fact that the live station brings everyone over to one area while the focus is on what’s being cooked and served, as opposed to the old-style presentation of canapés being brought out on platters, which allowed people to stay in their own distinct areas. So again it’s about encouraging people to mingle and that’s a big part of the appeal of that style.”

This contemporary approach to presentation also necessitates changes in the style of food itself. “These days as opposed to a traditional single plated entrée, it’s quite popular to have an entrée served while you’re standing, and this might be smaller serves of several different foods – a variety of substantial canapés rather than a standalone entrée.”

Asked to characterise The Terrace’s festive season function food in general, Jason describes it as “modern Australian with a strong emphasis on seafood, lots of salad and a real focus on freshness. Given that so many of our functions are outdoors and that we have the Botanical Gardens as a backdrop, we try to take on that ambience and reflect it in the food.

“This is a fresh, garden environment so we serve lots of salads especially in summer so the overall impression is nice, light, healthy food. In seafood our most popular menu items are prawns, snapper and shellfish which is always in high demand. There’s also a great response to our char grilling at the live stations, especially with lamb cutlets – most customers want a red meat option as well as seafood and lamb seems to be increasingly what people are going for.”