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Top Tips For Curating A Stand Out Menu
Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s (MCEC) Executive Chef, Peter Haycroft, is the creative mind behind the menus at Australia’s largest event venue. For more than 16 years, Peter has been tantalising event-goers’ tastebuds. From intimate dinners to conference feasts to feed 5,000, he’s done it all.
Here are his top tips for curating a stand out menu.
If there’s one morsel (pardon the pun) of advice that I can’t emphasis enough to event managers, it’s don’t underestimate the power of food!
People remember the food long after the event is done and dusted. It’s impossible to keep your guest, audience, performers, or crew for that matter, alert and enthused if they’re hangry.
In the past, conference food (rightfully) got a bad rap for being too heavy, fried and boring …and as for the coffee, let’s not even go there!
Fortunately over the past decade, conference food has undergone an evolution. This has been largely driven by changes in society – people are more socially aware and better travelled.
Client expectations have changed dramatically, even over the past five years. There was a time where vegetarian was the only alternative menu option. Now at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, we offer at least six dietary selections – including gluten free, nut free, vegetarian, vegan, dairy free and fructose-friendly – that we consider to be ‘regular’.
Dietary requests also don’t mean you’ll be dished up B-grade fare. There’s an expectation that alternative menu options are prepared with as much thought and consideration as any other – and rightly so!
Other considerations that go into the mix when preparing catering menus that will appeal to people with a wide range of culinary likes and dislikes include cultural requirements, people’s passion for international flavours and food trends. There’s also the all-important budgetary requirements and timeframes as well as seasonal availability of produce. Yes, it’s quite a juggling act, but so fulfilling when it all comes together.
Here’s my top three tips for designing a standout menu. You’ll find these top tips apply whether the event is for 20 or 5,000 people.
1. Listen to the client brief
The client is in the best position to provide information about the guests who will be attending their event. They have valuable intel, so it’s important to ask questions and read the cues.
If the event is aimed at health instructors for example, you know that they will be after healthier fare but with higher amounts of protein.
If the client has dined with you previously ask what they liked and didn’t like. Ask if there is a theme for their event, because you know they will love it if you are able to tie this into the catering.
If budget is tight, we offer a ‘Feed Me’ menu. It provides excellent value for money, the quantity is abundant and the dishes feature seasonal produce which also helps cost-effectiveness.
2. Exceed guests’ expectations and experience
Event organisers (aka the client) want happy guests, and happy guests want their fill of good food.
You might choose something warm for morning tea, which is more substantial and helps keep attendees energised until lunchtime. Something sweet for afternoon tea is always a good idea to satisfy any afternoon sugar cravings.
If there’s one thing attendees take seriously, its food. They want fresh, creative and healthy menus that cater to a variety of dietary needs. To do this properly, you really need to know your menu and know your produce, and everyone on the team needs to do so as well.
Around 22 per cent of our attendees have some form of dietary requirement, which is quite a substantial number. Unsurprisingly, guests with dietary requirements have the same expectations in quality and variety of food, so plan accordingly and don’t make dietaries be an afterthought.
Variety is key as well! A simple way to ensure there’s balance is with full day packages that cover morning and afternoon tea, lunch, dinner and cocktails. If your event runs over multiple days, make sure you change up the items being served each day – people don’t want to think they have regurgitated leftovers.
Make sure your food looks as good as it tastes. People eat with all their senses and everything needs to be 100 percent Instagrammable as you are more than likely to be tagged!
If possible, add some theatre into your culinary presentation. Think about how you could present and serve food in a less traditional way. We believe your food should form part of the event experience and be a talking point for attendees.
A great way to do this at MCEC is with our interactive EAT stations, which bring Melbourne’s street food scene to life. The experience is completely immersive and fun.
Consider creating quirky names for your dishes that tie in with conference theme. Event organisers are always on the lookout for something new, so it is important to review your menus annually if it’s a reoccurring event.
3. Stay ahead of the trends
Keep informed about industry and culinary trends. If a trend makes sense, adopt it as part of your repertoire.
Two values (not purely trends) that MCEC is really passionate about are caring for the environment around us and looking at healthier and more sustainable alternatives.
When we talk about caring for the environment around us, we are looking at sustainability through an environmental lens (e.g. not using plastic bottles or plastic straws) as well as showcasing local, seasonal produce which gives your event a sense of place and authenticity.
We also support the people around us – it’s great if you can support food rescue programs where possible. We donated 74,265 meals to OzHarvest last year.
We’ve found customers are increasingly interested in healthier food and plant-based alternatives. At MCEC, we’ve worked with a nutritionist to develop well balanced menus, ensuring our guests are offered the freshest and best ingredients.
The origin of food continues to be of great interest to our customers. People want to know where their produce comes from.
Our popular Conference Menu features the 100-mile lunch and dinner option, inspired by all things Melbourne. This option sees all of the main ingredients sourced from local farms and markets within a 100-mile radius of MCEC. This enables us to champion the incredible local food producers, as well as allowing us to leave a lighter carbon footprint.
Guest post by Peter Haycroft | Executive Chef, Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre
Peter Haycroft is Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Executive Chef.
He joined the southern hemisphere’s largest kitchen in October 2015 where he now heads up a team of 15 chefs and more than 70 kitchen assistants.
Peter is passionate about supporting Victorian producers, and focuses on creating the venue’s dishes in-house using the best seasonal and local ingredients.