Getting Festive: a restaurateur’s guide to the silly season

28 October, 2015 by
Aoife Boothroyd

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the demands of the Christmas season but the key to success is all in the prep, writes Aoife Boothroyd.

It’s that time of year again. Melbourne Cup, Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve celebrations are almost upon us, and it pays to be prepared if you want to reap the benefits of this lucrative time of year.

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To best prepare for the upcoming silly season, Hospitality has compiled a list of tips and tricks from chefs, restaurant operators and relevant government bodies to help foodservice operators not only make the most of the busy period, but also ensure that Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) and food safety protocols are met.

Menu planning

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When it comes to menu planning, the word ‘plan’ is key. Chef Matt Kemp of Sydney’s Charring Cross Hotel says that chefs often get caught out by not thinking ahead.

“Not creating a menu plan is a big one,” says Kemp. “The key to menu planning is creating dishes that can be more than half-finished and refrigerated the day before. To carry out a well-executed event, you have to only be finishing on the day and doing no real preparation. That’s the simple key. Cold entre, warm main and a share style dessert….winner.”

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In addition to a thoughtfully created menu plan, Joseph Vargetto of Kew’s Mister Bianco says that simplicity reaps major benefits, especially when catering for larger functions.

“It’s very important to keep your menus consistent and seasonal during the festive season,” says Vargetto. “With huge numbers of functions, it’s best to keep things simple while ensuring your dishes are high quality.”

Adam Smith of Prahran’s L’Htel Gitan says that seasonal availability is where some chefs tend to hit trouble. “There is an ongoing balance for chefs during the festive season to select dishes that are seasonally appropriate in terms of the availability of key ingredients and style, while ensuring that there is a nod to the festivity of the season,” says Smith. “We like to use popular seasonal produce like avocados, berries, mangoes and asparagus.”

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Share plates by Matt Kemp

Crowd pleasing canaps

When it comes to festive season functions, canaps take pride of place in the kitchen and on the floor. But which canaps perform best and are easiest to prepare?

“Canaps are best kept to chilled or room temperature dishes,” advises Kemp. “Don’t do anything hot, it just makes for hard work, unless you have a brigade of commis at your disposal to finish them. Canaps such as ripe figs cut in half and finished at the last moment with a splodge of goats curd, a drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts will never fail to impress visually and on the taste buds.”

“Canapes are great – people love bite-sized finger food,” adds Vargetto. “Seafood cooked in innovative ways, like drunken scampi, tend to be very popular, but also tangy fried items are always a winner, like spiced popcorn prawns.”

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Arancini from Mister Bianco

Sharing is caring

For sit-down functions, nothing screams the festive season louder than a shared meal brimming with fresh, local ingredients.

“Do something classic with asparagus for entre,” says Kemp. “Steamed asparagus with a poached egg, shaved truffled pecorino and the best olive oil you can buy with good Aussie sea salt. For the main, pickle some cherries and serve with a whole roast duck, and then dessert, go for an Eton mess with as many berries as you can grab a hold of – strawberries, blueberries and raspberries – then top with smashed honeycomb and rocky road chunks. A massive bowl of this will be sure to please.”

Smith says that shared plates are a star of the menu at L’Htel Gitan year round, but special attention is given to these types of dishes throughout the tail end of the year, to ensure that service is as smooth as possible.

“We have a strong focus throughout the year, not just in the festive season, towards share dishes for medium to larger functions,” says Smith. “We therefore select dishes that naturally lend themselves better to this style of dining.”

HO1015_Festive_season_planning_SydneyFresh-54.jpgSeasonal share plates from chef Matt Kemp

Securing skilled staff

In addition to a cracking menu that’s easy to execute on mass, Vargetto says that operators also need to pay special attention to staffing.

“Some chefs spend a lot of time concentrating on menu planning but forget planning for staff,” says Vargetto. “It’s difficult to get chefs during the year but it’s even harder during the festive season. I try to train young junior staff during the year that can then maintain a section when [we’re] under the pump. It’s a good learning curve for them.”

Reducing wastage

Food wastage is a huge issue during the busier months of the year. In addition to developing a relationship with a local food rescue organisations, clear communication with guests and a thoughtfully created menu are a must.

“Ensuring really good communication with the host of the event is a key factor,” says Smith. “This includes ascertaining numbers early and continuing to monitor them, and working with the host to generate a menu that is both low waste and highly appealing.”

Vargetto suggests outsourcing specific items in controlled numbers to help tackle wastage.

“A good tip is to form strong alliances with companies that provide food products with integrity, then they can produce these items off-site and deliver to you without decreasing quality,” he says.

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Empanadas from Mister Bianco

Responsible service of alcohol

There’s no denying that some patrons exceed their fun quota by having a few more drinks than they should, which can lead to costly consequences for themselves and venue operators.

“During these times, we maintain an especially close eye on large groups and make sure that communication between staff happens regularly to point out certain people and their ordering behaviours and patterns,” says Smith of L’Htel Gitan.

“Considering the number of events and people that come through the venue, we like to remind staff that we have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment for both our guests and ourselves.”

The Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) says that although locals may be more familiar with the details of Australia’s liquor laws, patrons visiting from overseas may not, so extra care must be given during end of year celebrations.

“The excitement of the festive season can sometimes see responsible serving and responsible drinking take a back seat,” a spokesperson for OLGR told Hospitality.

“Without proper care, major celebrations such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Australia Day can be marred by problems such as excessive drinking, anti-social behaviour, violence and underage drinking. That’s why it is important for licensees to ensure their venues can meet the challenges of trading responsibly during this hectic period by following responsible serving rules.”

Responsible serving practices within liquor promotions are also something that licensees need to adhere to. The Secretary of the Department of Justice has issued Liquor Promotion Guidelines that establish guiding principles for promotions on licensed premises.

“These guidelines include information on the laws applying to promotions, along with a liquor activity/promotion risk assessment guide. Licensees and staff should familiarise themselves with the guidelines to help ensure responsible promotion of alcohol,” says the OLGR spokesperson.

Food safety

Food safety protocols are another key area that demands extra attention during the festive season, especially for smaller operators that are not accustomed to preparing food on mass. As the season falls within the summer months in Australia, care must be taken to ensure that food does not spend long periods of time in the ‘temperature danger zone’ – temperatures where there is an increased risk of bacterial growth.

“A number of food poisoning outbreaks have been due to catering operations serving food that was not cooked or stored properly prior to consumption,” a NSW Food Authority spokesperson told Hospitality.

“Other potential problems include inadequate handling of food that’s transported and served at a site other than where it was prepared, and facilities that are ill-equipped or unsuitable for the volume of food being prepared.”

Although extra care should be taken with all ingredients during storage and preparation, the NSW Food Authority recommends paying particular attention to raw egg products to minimise the risks of food poisoning from salmonella, as well as other pathogens.

“Food poisoning outbreaks in the past have been linked to homemade raw egg mayonnaise, raw egg sauces such as hollandaise and raw egg desserts such as mousses,” says the Food Authority’s spokesperson.

“Undercooked meat and poultry are also a particular risk. This is why extra care must be taken to ensure that food is thawed properly before cooking and that all foods are cooked to the correct internal temperatures.”

By keeping these tips and tricks in mind, the festive season is sure to be as profitable as it is merry.

Don’t get busted: top 10 tips from OLGR

  1. Ensure under 18s and intoxicated people are not served liquor
  2. All ID presented by young people should be checked closely
  3. Irresponsible liquor promotions are nowhere to be seen
  4. Good quality food and free drinking water should be available (and promoted)
  5. Alternatives to full strength alcohol, such as low alcohol beer, soft drinks and coffee should be available (and promoted)
  6. All required signage needs to be displayed
  7. Adequate security should be on hand at peak trading times
  8. The venue needs to operate within any prescribed patron capacity (overcrowding is often a trigger for alcohol-related violence and abuse and makes it more difficult to practice the responsible service of alcohol)
  9. Safe transport options should be made available (and promoted), and
  10. Ensure people (and other guests) booking functions at your venue are aware of the responsible drinking laws.