Staff at the London Hilton on Park Lane are well versed in meeting the demands of a wide range of clients at some of the most high-profile events in the British banqueting calendar each year. There's no doubt, though, that the five-star hotel pulled out all the stops on Tuesday evening last week (13 November) in meeting the brief of Caterer to provide a stunning function to impress some of the biggest names in the hotel industry for the inaugural Hotel Cateys awards dinner.
"We were very conscious of putting on something very special," says David Gibbons, director of conference and banqueting at the hotel, who together with executive chef Anthony Marshall, headed the team of 120 front-of-house staff and 25 chefs who served the four-course dinner to 700 guests.
For Caterer, launching the Hotel Cateys was an opportunity to expand the successful Cateys brand which celebrates its 25th anniversary at the Grosvenor House hotel next July. "While it's the sister event of the Cateys, we very much want the Hotel Cateys to have its own identity, which is why we thought it important to host it at a different venue," says Caterer deputy editor Amanda Afiya. "We chose the London Hilton as it has all the glitz and glamour of a Park Lane location as well as a reputation for serving some of the best banqueting food in the country."
When it came to the look of the event - from the reception area through to the Wellington Ballroom, where the dinner was held - the intention was to create a "wow" factor, not easy when catering for a room full of people with sound hotel knowledge, many of whom frequently attend major functions, both in a social and working capacity.
"It's always very important to create a synergy from the moment the guest walks through the front door and then passes through to the ballroom," says Gibbons. "The floral designs, the signage and table plans need to be cohesive, and with the Hotel Cateys we did it with a black, blue and white theme."
Central to the look were the dramatic floral arrangements provided by one of the capital's leading event florists, Designer Flowers, whose past clients have included the Elton John Aids Foundation, Jennifer Lopez and the Pride of Britain Awards.
It took 12 florists all day to prepare some 70 table arrangements in the ballroom, as well as flowers for the pre-drinks reception, the lobby, rest rooms and cloakroom. The most stunning arrangements of the night were the mix of high- and low-level table centrepieces, incorporating white calla lilies and white LEDs. "The LEDs are disposable lights which provide an intense, bright light for up to 18 hours without any wiring," says Shirley Poyntz of Designer Flowers. "They're very new in banqueting and we wanted to showcase them to the industry at the Hotel Cateys."
When it came to the food, Marshall - named Best Banqueting Chef by the Craft Guild of Chefs in 2001-02 - worked to the brief provided by Caterer. "I was asked to prepare a menu which was not overcomplicated, visual and tasty," he says. "When putting together my initial suggestions it was necessary to constantly think about how the meal was going to be prepared, as plating a banquet for 700 people is no mean task - the starter alone took five hours to do."
Served on a new range of china called Ospiro - donated by Steelite and not available to the industry until next year - a carpaccio of beef from butcher Russell Hume was the centrepiece of the starter, served with Parmesan, rocket and 12-year-old aged balsamic. As a vegetarian alternative, a carpaccio of beetroot, goats' cheese and a hazelnut and shallot vinaigrette was served.
Including the vegetarian alternatives, Marshall and his brigade served about 80 guests with alternative dietary requests. "You can normally expect to serve between five and 10% of guests at any function with a substitute dish - all on an à la carte basis, which can be very challenging," he says. "These numbers have grown enormously in recent years. When I first started in banqueting, we only served a handful of alternative dishes."
To follow, a white onion and port soup was served as a palate-cleanser to all guests before the arrival of the main course, monkfish on a mild orange mash with asparagus and broad beans topped with candied orange or, for the vegetarians, a pithivier of red onion, spinach and mushroom en croûte with thyme cream and confit of salsify.
For dessert, a hot chocolate fondant with cherries was served, with a selection of British and Irish cheeses - Wigmore, Waterloo, Gubbeen and Oxfordshire Blue - offered as an alternative. "Soufflés and fondants are something of a signature in our banqueting business here at the Hilton, so we've had plenty of practice getting it right," says Marshall.
Throughout the meal, three types of home-made bread - olive, walnut and campagne - were served to guests. Chocolates made by pastry chef Emmanuel Bonneau and his team were later served with coffee.
The Hotel Cateys was the first major function to kick-start what Marshall describes as "a mega week" for the hotel. After the Hotel Cateys on Tuesday last week, more than 800 of the UK's most prominent journalists gathered at the hotel the following night for the annual dinner of the British Society of Magazine Editors. The following three nights saw the Data Strategy Awards dinner for 600 covers, and dinners for the Wooden Spoon rugby charity for disadvantaged children (900 covers), and the Royal Marsden Hospital (700).
For Marshall, co-ordinating each event is like running a finely tuned orchestra with every note in harmony with one another. "Without the trust of one another, we'd never be able to orchestrate such events," he says.
Over the 11 years he has been executive chef at the London Hilton, Marshall has overseen many major banquets. He has enjoyed many highlights, but when pressed to name the most memorable he selects two. The first was the Royal Warrant Holders' lunch, held to commemorate the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, during which he was presented to the Queen. "It was particularly special because the Queen had originally said she would never visit the hotel because of the controversy that surrounded the building of the hotel, which overlooks Buckingham Palace," he says.
The second occasion was the World Sports Star Gala dinner in 2000, which celebrated Muhammad Ali's birthday. "I'm a great boxing fan and I was asked to present a cake to Muhammad Ali on stage, which proved to be a very moving experience," Marshall recalls.
Marshall knows he and his team have done a good job when clients book to return the following year. "That's all I can ask for at the end of the day," he says.
The Hotel Cateys 13 November 2007, London Hilton on Park Lane
• Carpaccio of beef served with Parmesan, rocket and 12-year-old aged balsamic or Carpaccio of beetroot with goats' cheese and a hazelnut and shallot vinaigrette
• White onion and port soup
• Monkfish on a mild orange mash with asparagus and broad beans or Pithivier of red onion, spinach and mushroom en croûte with thyme cream and confit of salsify
• Hot chocolate fondant with cherries
• Coffee and chocolate petits fours
Supplied by Matthew Clark
• Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Chardonnay, California
• Faustino Seleccion Familia Rioja Crianza
• Still and sparkling water supplied by Abbeywell
Feeding the 5,000? Here's some banqueting tips
Anthony Marshall, executive chef, London Hilton on Park Lane
- Hold detailed discussions on the style of food with clients and host tastings for them. The London Hilton holds 25 to 30 tastings a month. Steer customers towards seasonal produce - it will taste good, offer value for money, and help meet the food cost.
- When holding tastings with clients it's good practice to photograph food so staff can later reflect on what they did.
- Once food has been agreed with the client, preorder it well in advance. Not only will this ensure you get the quantities you want, it will also ensure prices are maintained. "Our meat supplier provides us with about 12,000 centre-cut steaks a week during the peak banqueting season from September to December, and we can't expect him to handle an order for a further 2,000 steaks at the last minute as he has to be sure he can source them," says Marshall.
- Constantly check and double-check orders - you can't afford to get the numbers wrong or run out of something at the last minute.
- Maintain daily communication with all members of the banqueting team - both front and back of house - leading up to the event. "We hold a sous chefs team meeting every morning at 8.30 to communicate what's happening that day," says Marshall.
- Be aware of any security implications. High-profile guests - including royalty and politicians - will mean extra security checks, which should be factored into the preparation time. At the London Hilton on Park Lane, all ingredients for about three functions per year, attended by prominent guests, have to be scanned before entering the hotel's kitchens.
- Good timing, planning and organisation are key throughout the planning of the event and its service on the big day. "In November alone we'll be doing about 27,000 covers, so you have to be organised," says Marshall.
David Gibbons, director of conference and banqueting, London Hilton on Park Lane
- Approach each event differently, according to the market, and allay any fears of intimidation that clients may have about working with a five-star hotel. Ensure you have a specific rapport with whoever is in charge of the event on behalf of the client.
- Plan everything thoroughly - you don't want to deal with something new at the event.
- Walk the floor with clients to ensure that all facilities and services required will be provided for in every part of the function room, ante rooms and bars.
- Work with clients on the look of the room. Do they want a big extravaganza or a more muted affair? Bring in relevant third parties, including florists, if necessary.
- Discuss the menu with the chef and look at what's required from a service point of view. On the night, ensure the food is served at one time, at the required standard and hot, if necessary.