Synonymous with class, creativity and quality, Melbourne-based Peter Rowland Catering is a leader in Australia’s foodservice industry. The man himself has developed a formidable reputation amongst the country’s most powerful businessmen and women, and the company today oversees the catering for high profile events including the Melbourne Cup carnival, the Grand Prix and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
In a recent chat with Hospitality, he took us on a stroll down memory lane, sharing some of the mishaps and madness that have made his career so colourful.
That time at Checkpoint Charlie
“A friend called Rupert Murdoch rang and said ‘I want to host a function in East Berlin for Brisbane’s bid for the 1992 Olympic Games.’ Now, between East Berlin and West Berlin was a wall, and the only way to get across was through Checkpoint Charlie.
So Rupert Murdoch wanted to host a lunch. I said ‘Why don’t we do a barbie in the backyard?’
He said, ‘Perfect, fix it.’ And that was the only conversation I had with him.
So we got it going. We took all the barbecues, all the lambs, all the food, and … we had all these Fowlers Vacola jars of fruits. There were peaches, nectarines, grapes, cherries, everything. We took everything, every single thing – plates, knives, forks, linen, the whole lot – into East Berlin.
So I was with a beautiful bloke called Kevin O’Neil who was a florist in South Yarra. We got to Checkpoint Charlie, and we were wetting our pants. The border guards on the American side were OK, but when we got to the other side where the Russian guards were, they had their fully loaded AK47s with the safety switch off. This was pretty scary for some people from Australia. They knew we were coming and they searched everything in the vehicles. Then Kevin pulled out a couple of little koala bear and kangaroo toys and looked at the guard, and the guard said ‘Aussie!’
The diplomacy was just amazing. He called all the guards over and said ‘Aussie, Aussie!’ and Kevin – smart – had a bag of them and we gave them out.
We went straight through
The day of the barbecue, after the lunch, Rupert Murdoch said ‘Where are you going?’
I said ‘well seeing as I’m going to New York on the Concorde.’
He said ‘I am too. How are you getting to London?’
I said ‘oh, I’ll catch a plane in West Berlin.’
He said ‘No you won’t; you’ll come with me.’
So we go in his chauffeur driven car and we get to the border. ‘Aussie, come through!’ The guards didn’t recognise Rupert Murdoch!
That time I was banned from an iconic Melbourne restaurant
“I can remember in the old days, I’d often go out for dinner and wear a dinner suit and my wife would wear a good dress. We’d go to The Florentino, upstairs – where now even the owner, Guy (Grossi), is casual. There’s no dress code.
So going back, Nigel Dempster, a Fleet Street journalist, was out for the races, the Melbourne Cup carnival. There used to be a traditional lunch at The Florentino on the Monday before the Melbourne Cup. I was there with my wife and it was so hot. Nigel said ‘Guys, this is ridiculous, take your coats and ties off’.
The owner, Branco Tocigl said me the next day, ‘you can’t come in again; we must bar you.’
I said ‘Branco, you idiot, everyone took their coat and tie off.’
‘You’re the only one I knew,’ he said.
That time with Alan Bond
Have you heard of a fellow named Alan Bond? We did the wedding for his daughter, Suzanne, in Perth. I can remember, Eileen Bond rang and said ‘we want you to come over and do the wedding for Suzanne. When would you like to come?’
I said ‘next week’ and she said ‘we’ll send the plane.’
So I get on the bloody aeroplane and there’s nobody on it. Just me, straight to Perth. We go to Dalkeith where the wedding was going to be, and Eileen and I are looking around and there’s a beach down there. I said ‘We’ll have the wedding down there. It’s wonderful, look at the view.’
She said ‘Bloody terrific!’
So we went down to the beach. We built a deck from the sand out into the water and we said we’d have a band – Men at Work. The idea was that they’d be out on a barge in the dark and no one would even know they were there. And so we did it.
The band had arrived to do their sound check. Where’s the power for the barge for the band?
‘Oh, fuck,’ I said ‘I’ll fix it.’
I’d noticed an electrical wholesaler on the way in Perth. I jumped in the car and I got 300m of industrial waterproof cable; it was $11,000. That fixed the band, no problem.
Now, timing is very important in life. I had to work out the right time to tell Alan Bond that I’d incurred another $11,000, which in those days was significant. So I move through the crowd at the party and Alan is chatting to an extremely attractive lady. I sort of nudged him and he said ‘Oh Peter, this is wonderful.’ And I said, ‘Look I had to spend an extra $11,000 on the cabling for the band.’
He said ‘Oh, I don’t care, just put it on the bill.’
So everything was alright.
That time James Packer’s party was going dry
“On of my favourite Packer stories is the very first party we did. It was James Packer’s 21st.
Kerry had rung and said ‘Do a party for Jamie.’ And just hung up. So I rang Pat Wheatley, his secretary, and she said ‘yes, it’s three days before Christmas and it’s at Palm Beach and, do it.’ So we did it.
It was a Monday night or something like that. And the kids arrive from Sydney and it’s all Bollinger, that’s all Kerry drank. I don’t know what the kids were doing because they couldn’t have drunk that much in that short amount of time, but the head steward came to me and said ‘We’re going to run out of booze in an hour, the way they’re drinking.’
I thought ‘Oh, this is good. First job for Packer and I’ll end up with concrete boots.’ So I’m in a hire car and I think ‘God, what am I going to do?’
I’ve driven back down Palm Beach, and the pub’s not open, the surf club’s not open, and the RSL’s not open. It’s 11 o’clock at night. I could see the lights of Sydney and I just thought ‘oh God.’
I start to drive out of Palm Beach, along the road not knowing what to do. And the next little town was Barrenjoey. Down a side road, 200 yards away, there’s a group of shops. I went down and there’s a licensed grocer. The bloke’s inside doing his Christmas stocktake. I thought ‘You beauty.’ So I’ve knocked on the door and he didn’t even turn around. I said ‘Open the door or I’ll drive my car through it.’
He said ‘What do you want?’ and he’s speaking with a French accent. I’m thinking ‘God, French. They’ve got no humour. He won’t even get what I’m on about.’
So I told him who I was and what I was doing and I said ‘Do you know Kerry Packer?’ and he said ‘Yes, we deliver booze to him.’ I said ‘Do you know that he drinks Bollinger?’ He said yes. I said ‘I need at least 10-15 dozen bottles of Bollinger, now. And I can’t pay you. I can’t cover that cost on my credit card and I don’t have cash.’
And he said ‘We’d better hurry.’
We loaded the car, he came with me and he helped me unload it at Packer’s place. He still sends me a Christmas card.”