When Jesus fed 5,000 hungry followers his list of ingredients was short - locally sourced bread and fish was all that was on offer. History doesn't tell us how the food selection went down, but it's safe to say that in the last 2,000 years expectations in mass catering have increased a lot. BallArena, which takes place next February, pledges to raise this bar a notch higher.
In bringing together four leading chefs - Sodexho "new boy" Anton Edelmann, restaurateur Paul Heathcote, Peter Gordon, chef-proprietor of the Providores in London and Chris Galvin, executive chef at new London place-to-be-seen, the Wolseley - the menu for the evening promises to be spectacular.
The BallArena dinner and ball will be staged on Tuesday 24 February 2004 at the mammoth ExCel exhibition centre in London's Docklands. Organisers Tammy Mariaux and Penny Steiner, consultants from hospitality network organisation Arena, aim to bring together companies from just about every sector of the hospitality industry to work as a single team at one of the largest events this industry has seen.
But with the sheer volume of hungry mouths comes logistical problems that are singular to large-scale dining. "Cooking well for 1,500 people is an art in itself," says Peter Hazzard, executive director of food services at Sodexho, who leads the back-of-house team, comprising caterers from Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexho. It's a skill that not all chefs are comfortable with and it was with this in mind that Hazzard hand-picked his fab four for the night.
"First, I picked people who were very good at what they did, but most importantly I chose chefs who could understand banqueting and numbers," Hazzard says. "Some chefs can't handle the transition and the whole process then becomes mechanical."
The event takes place during the week of the largest industry-specific show, Hotelympia, an appropriate backdrop to a party that will showcase how far contract catering has come. Just 10 years ago, the idea of a large-scale caterer wiping the board at Hotelympia would have seemed remote. But in 2002 Sodexho won the Open Team Grand Prix.
So it's fitting that Edelmann, maŒtre chef des cuisines at the Savoy hotel for 21 years and one of the most respected figures in the business, is now principal chef for Sodexho fine-dining subsidiary, Directors Table. Edelmann's task for the night is the desserts.
"It's going to be special," he says. "And it's top secret, especially from you, otherwise everybody will know." Even though he won't say what it is, Edelmann assures me the dessert will be the best course of all. Rather than just one dessert, there will be alternate dishes served to each table that will offer a contrast between simplicity and sophistication: both will be fruit-based, one with pear and the other with strawberries. In keeping with the ethos of the night, guests will be encouraged to share their desserts with each other.
All the night's proceeds will go to industry charities Hospitality Action and Springboard UK, and it's hoped that the diners will be as generous with their cash as with their sumptuous desserts.
Compared with the five barley loaves and two fishes that were divided on Galilee's shore, the proposition of cooking and sorting about 5,000 mussels is immense; yet this constitutes only a small part of Heathcote's fish course. In one of four purpose-built kitchens he will prepare a wing of skate with a tartare of seafood. Heathcote explains that he likes to use ingredients that are "not considered popular".
"I think it's about time people tasted skate," he says, "so when they leave they may think 'gosh, I wish I'd had that before'."
The gherkins, capers and parsley in the tartare can all be prepared in advance, but it's important for the quality of the tartare that the mussels are cooked on the day. This could lead to a very hectic build-up as four head chefs all try to complete their preparations under the same roof. But Heathcote is sure there will be no rivalry among the chefs, who are all professionals and have worked together in the past. But there might be some friendly competition.
And what of Edelmann's course? "Anton would say that his course will be the best," Heathcote laughs, "but he'd be wrong. He was also pretty confident he'd beat me in the Great North Run. I said I'd bet him 50 quid, and he raised it to 75. I received the cheque a few weeks later and sent it straight to the Children's Foundation charity."
This sense of charity is the driving force behind the night, as all proceeds will go towards supporting the future of the industry and specifically involve education to target and benefit young people. Students from Westminster Kingsway College will be working with a UBF Food Solutions team to provide the petits fours after the dinner.
"It certainly won't be a case of too many cooks," Galvin says. "It's going to be a very special event, and it's always great to give something back to the industry." Galvin will prepare the main course, which will be based around traditional French culinary virtues of taste and simplicity. Lamb baked in hay with rosemary and thyme is a dish he has cooked many times in the past as Conran's group executive chef and former executive head chef of London's Orrery.
This course is based on the flavoursome seasonality of the produce and simplicity of production. And as a starter, Gordon's roast sweet potato, coconut, and smoked paprika soup with goats' cheese won ton couldn't offer a greater contrast. "The hardest challenge will be for Peter," Heathcote confides. "His food is very personal and under the conditions his course will be the most difficult to turn out, purely because of the hugely diverse range of ingredients he needs."
Yet Gordon is a chef who understands fusion cooking, as the acclaim received by the Providores suggests, and Heathcote is certain he can handle the numbers.
"It will all be fine," Edelmann concludes. "We'll prep some of our food the day before, and then when it gets to lunchtime we'll all jump around like a bunch of idiots and the world will look on." n
Next month Caterer looks at how BallArena will be staffed front of house, and reveals who has the job of overseeing the logistics.
When: Tuesday 24 February 2004
Where: ExCel Exhibition Centre, Docklands, London
Capacity: up to 1,500
Time: 6.30pm to 2am
Prices: £1,750 per table of 10 or £200 per person
Booking office: Arena, 17 Seymour Road, Hampton Hill, Middlesex TW12 1DD, Tel: 020 8395 6065, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org