More than 1000 staff. Over 71,000 individually plated dishes. Ten thousand bottles of champagne. Half a tonne of beef brisket. Twelve kitchens.
The scale and logistics of running a catering operation on Melbourne Cup Day are monumental, particularly when you’re juggling nine different marquees and enclosures.
Without question, Cup Day is the city’s biggest hospitality event. The pressure for things to run smoothly is tremendous, even before you consider that some of your guests are spending $1420 for a premium-degustation dining experience in the Rose Room.
From dawn to dusk this Cup Day, we followed the Atlantic Group to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to successfully serve 6000 people on one of its most exciting, hectic days of the year.
“It must be perfect,” says Atlantic Group’s CEO, Hatem Saleh. “As long as the customer experience is good, nothing else matters.”
Beginning his career at 16 as a waiter in a function centre in Tullamarine, Saleh has built a hospitality empire that will soon extend to Dubai, where a premium seafood restaurant, The Atlantic, will open in the coming months.
I see him – with the tip of his finger – press down on and collect a stray seed that has fallen onto the table from a bread roll. His attention to detail is extraordinary, and the people who work for him admit he has high expectations. But he’s passionate and willing to get his hands dirty (it’s not uncommon to see him clearing plates), and this means the almost-obsessive customer-service mentality filters down to his staff.
“I’m addicted. I’m an event junkie,” says general manager of human resources Josie Daquino. It’s probably the reason she can marshal more than 1000 casual staff in the staffing compound (made up of marquees on a dirt patch just outside the racecourse fence line) with such control and grace. In this compound – a tent off-site – 600 waiters collect their uniforms and get changed. Each of the uniforms is themed according to the separate areas that Atlantic Group caters to.
Recruitment for the Spring Racing Carnival begins in July. On race day the names of roughly 600 front-of-house staff members and 200 chefs are checked off on a spreadsheet that covers an entire trestle table. In addition to these employees there are also runners, forklift drivers and head office workers on-site for the day.
Hundreds of bags are stored in the staff cloakroom. Virtually every bag will contain a mobile phone: they are strictly forbidden in service areas.
In a process that starts at 6am, 300 female staff members have their hair and make-up professionally done for the day. It takes a team of 15 stylists from Pure Chica, hired by Atlantic Group for the carnival.
The number of the Atlantic Group’s waitstaff swells substantially during major events like the Melbourne Cup Carnival and the Grand Prix.
Here, Phoebe Schenider-Neumann (left) and Natasha Goldfinch (right) serve morning tea to guests in the Rose Room.
During the Melbourne Cup Carnival the Rose Room is the jewel in the crown of Atlantic Group’s food-and-drink offering. It sits atop a disused portion of a grandstand next to the public stand and, in contrast to The Birdcage, offers exceptional views of the track and winning post. Rose Room head chef Rudolphe Gonnet is in charge of delivering 11 courses to 580 guests over more than eight hours. “It’s challenging. The food is non-stop from 9.40am to 6pm, but we are well prepared,” says Gonnet.
Senior operations manager Rudy Siop is in charge of running the Rose Room and conducts a staff briefing before guests arrive. “We never say ‘no’,” Siop tells his charges. “And I need everyone to smile.”
Executive pastry chef Lisa Van Zanten has designed a shared dessert tasting plate featuring piña colada lamington, mango and vanilla gel and freeze-dried mandarin and honeycomb shards. The dish is garnished with yellow rose petals to match the flower theme of the Melbourne Cup. On Derby Day, blue cornflowers were used in her dessert. At Oaks Day, it was pink roses.
It may be the race that stops a nation, but not for everyone. During the three-an- a-bit minutes when the 24 horses are galloping, the chefs remain hard at work, preparing for the next round of dishes to be sent out.
After dessert and cheese there’s still one more dish to go out in the Rose Room. It’s a Korean barbequed-pork burger, and part of what the Atlantic Group team calls “the soak” (literally dishes designed to “soak” up the alcohol later in the day). On the menu, however, it’s described as “supper”.
The pass master
“Pass masters” – such as Manny Soultan, pictured here coordinating activities in the kitchen for the Winning Post Enclosure – act as a crucial conduit between the front- and back-of-house.
Soultan has an earpiece connected to Atlantic Group’s internal radio system, which supervisors across 25 different spaces use to tell him when to send more food, because guests here are on either grazing or buffet menus. A waiter enters the kitchen and tells him a particular room has enough food for the time being. Soultan is taking no chances. “I don’t care,” he says. “Feed them till they’re fat and they don’t want to eat any more. I want them to say ‘no’ to food, then still say ‘no’.”
Despite being under intense time pressure, he pauses at one point to yell out to the large kitchen crew, “Hey, is everyone drinking lots of water? Yes?” When he doesn’t hear an immediate response, he yells it out again, even louder this time. He is met with a chorus of “yes!”
“Runners”, like Marven Lim – seen here ripping sheet after sheet of aluminium foil to cover trays of food destined for corporate enclosures – are an integral part of the day.
As their moniker suggests, they literally run, delivering food, glasses, removing rubbish and whatever else needs to be shifted from one place to another. Last year, according to Siop, an Atlantic Group runner was even sent to collect a replacement outfit for a guest from her city hotel after a mishap with a glass of champagne.
A small army of dishwashers works tirelessly to clean thousands of plates, pieces of crockery, cutlery and cooking equipment so that everything is ready to be set-up again the next day. In this case, it’s a Wednesday set-up for Oaks Day on Thursday. “During the Melbourne Cup Carnival it’s a bit easier because we have a day in-between,” says Siop. “During the Grand Prix it’s more pressure because we have to have the room ready for the next day.”
Making sure everyone remains safe is Ian Wheeler, group health, safety and environment manager. He goes around front- and back-of-house areas looking for any potential dangers. In his kit he has tape, cable ties and a pocketknife for on-the-fly patch-ups to anything that poses a risk to guests or staff.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t always practice what he preaches. When he was setting up on Monday he moved some temporary fencing. One fence collided with another and bounced into his face, causing a deep cut above his left eye. After a trip to Royal Melbourne Hospital and three stitches, he was back on track the next day.
Penny Kupsch and India Mansfield staff the help desk in Atlantic Group’s on-site office. If staff members in the marquees or enclosures can’t solve a problem themselves, they call the help desk. Things are relatively calm at the moment – most of the kinks were ironed out on Derby Day, the first day of the carnival. But if certain areas require more cash, extra cutlery, or anything else, these are the people who make it happen.
Working closely with Kupsch and Mansfield is group general manager of operations Rick Aylett. Among other things, he oversees the installation of 12 temporary kitchens and 35 coolrooms. “We always have some logistical challenges, whether it be weather, infrastructure, or the sheer volume of people that come through all in one hit,” Aylett says. “But you deal with all of that, and if it’s well planned, and you’ve got good staff, it all happens very nicely.”
As the last punters leave the track, the Atlantic Group staff is already debriefing on the day's proceedings and identifying any areas they can improve on for the next event on Thursday, Oaks Day. And planning for Cup Day 2017 begins.