Can you outline the scope of the food and beverage offering at Handa Opera on the Harbour – Carmen?
Often described as the largest pop-up restaurant in Sydney, the food and beverage offering at Handa Opera on the Harbour (HOSH) caters for a broad spectrum of patrons that flock to the annual event. We have four retail outlets across the venue with tailored menus, service styles and venue layouts. This year we are serving Spanish-inspired menus, tying in with Gale Edward's acclaimed opera production of Bizet's Carmen.
The Qantas Garden Bar is a casual and relaxed space where we serve a range of freshly baked coca, a Catalan-style pizza, as well as fresh-made sangria and a range of snacks.
The Northern Cantina on the harbour offers small items and main course dishes such as Spanish-style lamb shanks from an open kitchen to enjoy in the open-air.
Up the first flight of stairs is the Southern Terrace, where we serve a wide range of Spanish themed salads, charcuterie, authentic hot tapas and sweets. Further up on the Northern Terrace, is a similarly large offering of cold items with the added highlight of freshly prepared paella. Guests can peer into the kitchen to see our chefs manning two large paellerias, full of steaming hot paella, which is served with Andalusian cabbage salad and crusty bread.
Above the Northern Cantina you will find our exclusive Platinum Club, where guests can enjoy a bespoke three-course menu with accompanying wines. This is a truly unique Sydney dining experience, directly above the floating stage, with incredible views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The undercover formal table-service restaurant and bar also features an expansive Spanish boqueria for a more relaxed and informal dining experience.
During the interval, all outlets serve freshly made churros with rich chocolate sauce and the Platinum Club offers a Spanish sweet selection with matching champagne and wines or tea and coffee.
Can you describe the kitchen set up?
The kitchen set up is different every year based on the cooking requirements of each cuisine and the specific requirements of each outlet. Every outlet has its own dedicated kitchen, which I design several months ahead of the event to allow for equipment procurement, electrical and water connection viability and overall approval by Opera Australia.
While most food preparation is done in the Fresh Catering production kitchen, each outlet must be able to safely and consistently produce high volumes of each menu in a very short period of time. This year we have installed a deck pizza oven in the Qantas Bar to guarantee optimal preparation of the Catalan pizzas and on the Northern Terrace we have installed two huge paella cookers to ensure authentic preparation of the dish. The Platinum Club kitchen is also specifically configured to enable the chefs to prepare a three-course meal for 80 people, as well as service the boqueria station for 100 people.
Each of the kitchens are connected by a series of pathways under the main seating areas. Food arrives daily from the production kitchen at 2:30pm and we have a logistics team onsite to unload the produce from the refrigerated truck into large refrigerated shipping containers. When the kitchen teams arrive at 3:00pm, they then transfer the produce to their respective kitchens for final processing and serving.
What are some of the challenges of serving multiple areas in different formats, from the one kitchen?
One of the biggest challenges faced is maintaining the integrity of the food throughout the receiving, storage, processing and delivery of all perishable products. After six years catering this event, the kitchen, logistics and stewarding have established tried and tested systems to ensure food quality is maintained at every stage.
This year, we have embraced the technology of wireless temperature monitoring and have set up a series of completely self-sufficient fridge thermometers to record the temperatures of each of the refrigerated shipping containers and display refrigerators every 15 minutes. We receive a notification via text and email if any of the fridge temperatures exceeds the safety parameters we set so we can rectify the issue.
Many operations use a similar system in their permanent kitchens, but this is the first time in Australia that the system is being used for a pop-up. The monitors all have their own independent hub with a power source, so the information cannot be interrupted. We will also use this system when we cater for the Sydney Polo Club later this year.
Another significant challenge is the accurate and efficient movement of a large volume of food from a production facility in Redfern to an offsite location with a temporary infrastructure. Labelling of all trays, food packages, condiments, garnishes and equipment must be completely accurate, outlet-specific and prominently displayed. Incorrect or inadequate labelling can result in entire stacks of food being sent to the wrong location, which means the intended kitchen will phone base looking for additional stock. We avoid this problem by having multiple checklists at every stage of production, dispatch and delivery.
Another challenge is the recruitment and training of a small army of prep chefs, students and job chefs to support the preparation and delivery of such a large volume of food six nights each week for five weeks. Many of the staff recruited for this event have never been exposed to such large numbers. It is a testament to the patience and professionalism of our existing team leaders that many of these additional staff commit to Fresh Catering permanently.
How long did it take to set up the kitchen? Can you run through any challenges you faced?
The kitchen set up began several months before the event as we discussed the viability of water, power and safety issues. Once all the kitchen designs were approved, we sourced the large equipment and then moved on to completing the stock lists for all the small equipment and crockery.
The actual set up of the kitchens and equipment installation takes place about four days before the soft opening. This year, due to the torrential and extended rain, the final set up of the back of house areas, including the actual kitchen marquees, was delayed. However, we managed to connect and install all equipment on time.
The biggest challenge we face each year is the rain, which delays everything and can be a major safety risk due to the extensive electrical connections. The construction team at Opera Australia work closely with us to ensure all electrical wiring is safely above ground and not exposed to any water.
Are you very familiar with the Spanish cuisine? How did you go about developing the menu for Carmen?
When I was an executive chef in London, I travelled quite regularly to Barcelona with suppliers. I was lucky enough to visit many different areas outside the cities and get a feel for the regional cuisine.
When developing the menu for Carmen, which is such a large public event, it was important for me to ensure the food was interesting and incorporated the authentic flavours and methods of preparation, using products sourced from Spain wherever possible.
We also had to ensure the menu was practical to prepare in large quantities without compromising the quality and Spanish-feel of the food. My team and I also worked to ensure it featured a range of starch items, salads, sweets, and hot and cold dishes, while accommodating the dietary requirements of guests. We have a formula we use each year to ensure all areas are adequately covered.
Does the performance have any other impact on how you cook at Handa Opera on the Harbour – Carmen?
Most definitely. We have a fairly short window between the gates opening and the start of the performance, so the kitchen and service teams must be completely ready for service each evening. The service is very concentrated and quick so the cooking style is very much a retail-oriented format, with the food being prepared and packaged just in time for sale.
We also can’t make any excessive noise during the performance, so all back of house operations effectively cease once the opera commences. This includes not being able to operate the elevator during the performance, so the Fresh Catering team must ensure all perishables and high-risk food products are kept in the reefers until needed.
Image: The Opera Blog
How many people would you serve there, on an average night?
Depending on the weather, we normally serve up to 2,500 people on an average night during the season. This grows to nearly 3,000 during peak periods, which makes for a lot of fun and excitement.
How does working in this sort of environment differ to a more conventional restaurant kitchen? Which do you prefer?
Catering for large events such as the opera requires a completely different mindset and approach to a conventional restaurant kitchen. The dynamics, logistics and service style are not the same and the fact that all food is prepared offsite means there is not a lot of room for error. A constant stream of deliveries is not permitted so the internal orders, par stock levels and labelling must be accurate and proportionate to the business levels each night.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that as executive chef, I cannot be everywhere all the time, overseeing every aspect of production, dispatch and service. It’s important to trust your team implicitly and have complete faith in their professionalism and desire to do the very best.
At Fresh, we are very lucky to have a dedicated team of chefs, drivers, stewards, service and support staff who really enjoy their work and ultimately want to deliver a great experience for everyone.
Asking which style of environment, I prefer is a bit like asking which of my two daughters I love the most! Ultimately, I love both styles of catering and relish the myriad challenges associated with both formats.