Chicken-beef-chicken-beef: what’s the alternate?

It may come as a surprise to many Australians, but the concept of “alternate service” is a dinky-di local custom. That’s right, no one else in the world would dream of serving up their guests two completely different meals alternatively around the table.
 
We know of many US clients who think this is an absurd idea. “What if people get jealous of the other guest’s dish?”, they ask. Similarly, event organisers in the UK think we’ve lost the plot- “but what if the guests don’t like what they’re given?”. 
 
EXACTLY THE POINT, we scream! This is the beauty of alternate service- you can swap, share, steal or savour the dish of your choice. With a set menu, with only one option served, you miss all of this excitement.

In Australia we love the idea of getting to an event, reading the menu and knowing we have a 50/50 chance of scoring our preferred dish. There is no better conversation starter at the table than the pre-dinner “which dish are you hoping for?” banter.
 
Alternate service is an amazing insight into human behaviour. On the one hand you have the polite guest, who tentatively enquires of the person sitting next to them, “would you prefer the chicken? I mean I’m happy with it myself, but if you don’t want the beef, then I’d gladly swap”. On the other hand, there are the people who ignore the traditional code of event dining and ask the waiter directly for the option they want.  Some consider this to be the height of rudeness– you get what you’re given and then you are expected to negotiate with your fellow diners if you have a strong preference!
 
Many will often groan if a waiter skips a seat and the alternate service is thrown out of whack. You had done the math, this is simply unacceptable! Unless of course you end up with your preferred choice. Then we’re complimenting the waiter on a job well done – all negotiations over.

The point is, we like choice (and a gamble) and if we go to an event, whether it be a wedding reception, corporate dinner or awards night, and don’t get to play the chicken-beef-chicken-beef roulette, then we think we’ve been duped.
 
However, times are changing and the standard chicken-beef-chicken-beef combo is fast going out of fashion and in some cases simply is no longer practical. 

With the rise of dietary requirements, the kitchen is having to prepare not only the two alternate dishes, but also about five other varieties of the meal for the gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, lactose intolerant and nut-free guests. As a result, event and wedding planners need to spend a little of their time considering their menu selection.
 
Firstly, it is becoming less practical to have two meat dishes on the menu. While it still comes as a shock to some chefs who wonder why anyone wouldn’t eat meat, the number of vegetarians and pescatarians (vegetarians who will eat fish) in our society is on the rise.
 
To accommodate this, a popular trend now is to have lamb and fish, along with a designated vegetarian option. Although it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it (lamb-fish-lamb-fish…) there is some logic behind this changing of the guard.
 
Lamb is generally accepted by all religions that permit the eating of meat and can often be more succulent than chicken. It also appeases those lovers of red meat who traditionally had bee-lined for the beef option (Sam Kekovich may have had some influence with this…).
 
Fish (usually a white fish such as snapper or barramundi) is often preferred by the non-red meat eaters, pescatarians and the health conscious, as it provides a slightly lighter option than the lamb.
 
While the vegetarian option will not traditionally be served alternatively around the table, caterers these days will provide a sufficient number to accommodate even those guests that didn’t notify the organiser of their dietary requirements ahead of the event. It is suggested, however, that if you do have more than 20% vegetarians attending your event you make it one of the two alternate options.
 
As for the gluten free, vegan, lactose intolerant and nut-free guests, don’t panic! It is simply about selecting an option that can be easily adapted to suit your guests’ needs. It may be as simple as removing a garnish or sauce from one of the options- a good Chef will advise you during the planning stage of your event and, with two alternate options to adapt, it should be easy!
 
Finally, a word of warning to guests attending events – if you fail to warn the organisers of your special dietary requirements by the RSVP date, don’t be disappointed when you end up with a few lettuce leaves on the plate or are left to “pick around” the bit you can stomach.

The 5-types of alternate diner

The doing-you-a-favour negotiator – they sow the seed before you’ve even picked up your knife and fork - “would you prefer the chicken? I mean I’m happy with it myself, but if you didn’t want the beef, then I’d gladly swap”. Hint Hint.
 
The begging-negotiator – they want the beef and they’ll do anything to get it- “if you get the beef, can I have it, I promise to give you the chocolate dessert if I get it – pleassseee…”.
 
The sneaky-stealer – they encourage you to take a bathroom break just before the meal is served, then they swap the dishes while you’re away and start eating before you get a chance to protest.
 
The hedge-my-bets sharer – usually someone you know well who decides they will hedge their bets and propose that you share your meals so you can “try” both options.
 
The hedge-my-bets cheater – again, usually someone you know well who proposes you share, until they land their preferred dish and change their mind. “On second thoughts, I’ll stick with the chicken”, they say as they quickly gobble it all up.
 
Which one are you? What’s your preferred meal of choice, chicken-beef, lamb-fish or another combo?