It's 11am, and your head is buzzing slightly after your second glass of champagne. Breakfast seems like ages ago. A waiter appears in front of you, holding an ornate platter of perfectly-spaced canapés. You smile, mentally pat yourself on the back for blagging a marquee invitation all those weeks ago, and quickly put away two of the delicate bites, barely tasting them.

Truth is, the effort you put into being at Flemington today – buying a suit or dress, booking a taxi – pales in comparison with the effort invested in these hastily scoffed canapés. “Basically, from the moment we finish the Carnival in November, we start planning for the next one,” says Kate Langford, general manager at The Big Group. Along with Peter Rowland, it's one of two main catering companies tasked with keeping the masses fed and watered over four days at the Spring Racing Carnival.

In The Birdcage, a temporary village with no permanent kitchens or other infrastructure, it's no easy task. Even the company's 19 years of practice don’t protect it from unforeseen minor disasters. “Fryers have burnt out, freezers have failed, coolrooms haven't switched on,” Langford says. “That's all normal stuff."

Maybe so, but there's still little room for error. Companies spend hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of dollars on their opulent marquees each year. To let them down is to risk tarnishing their reputation in the most public way possible, in front of prized clients, celebrities, even royalty.

There's also the small matter of training new staff. Each July, four months before Carnival, The Big Group begins recruiting the 450 people it will need, including 140 chefs. But even those vital people appear well into the journey of the humble canapés from planning to preparation to consumption.

That story starts way back in April, when chefs sit down with major clients and start devising menus. "Everyone has different requirements, be it Texan barbecue or Japanese food,” Langford says. Most clients run through at least five drafts before deciding on their final menu. This year the company is supplying 11 major marquees in The Birdcage, meaning it will create upwards of 50 such drafts.

Once menus are signed off, the company's styling and design teams step in. Taste is only part of the equation. “It's the way it's placed, and what it's placed on,” Langford says. “It all has to tell the same story." A Japanese theme, for example, would need hundreds of new plates, bowls and chopsticks. Food stylists determine the presentation of each dish, down to precise angling, and dots of sauce or other decorative touches. And still, Carnival is several months away.

Towards the end of October, the preparations kick into overdrive. At The Big Group's kitchens in Richmond, staff work in shifts from 3am to 10pm, readying food for Derby Day, the first day of racing. "All the hard work is done in Richmond,” Langford says. “Anything that involves Thermomixes, dehydrators, or any of that type of stuff.”

On Derby Day, seven months after being dreamed up, the first food leaves Richmond at 5.30am, on the back of four trucks. It's received at the course by an 18-strong logistics team, which distributes it to portable coolrooms and cramped kitchens across The Birdcage. Two more loads will arrive before midday.

By this time, you're midway through your fourth champagne, and the noise in the marquee has reached a convivial roar. Dodgy electrics have shut down the kitchen next door, and your tent now has twice as many cooks squeezed into its tiny back-of-house area. Not that you'd notice, because the food keeps rolling out smoothly.

At some point, the head chef, executive chef and food stylist drop by, with sample shots of every dish. They compare them with what's plated up and ready to go. Everything looks as it should, so they move on to the next kitchen. Their rounds will last until late afternoon, when ice cream and other desserts stop flowing, and the crowds finally begin to leave.

You're with them, staggering happily to the train station, stuffed full of food. The Big Group staff aren't so lucky – most will hang around until 11pm, cleaning up and preparing for the next day of racing. By the time they get home, you'll be fast asleep, those first canapés just a distant memory.