On the face of it, the story sounds as though it came from the imagination of a Hollywood magician. But no magic was involved; only the hard work of The Westin Hotel’s so-called “Fantastic Four” – event manager Anson Yang, banquet manager.
Howard Li, food & beverage director Peter Su and executive Chinese chef Victor Fan.
The audacious adventure began last June when the client first approached Anson Yang about their big plan. This gave Anson and his team a seven-month lead time.
With more than 10,000 employees spread across China, the Guangzhou Liby Enterprise Group wanted to mark their firm’s 20th anniversary with a gala lunch for 4,000 of its longest-serving staff. Their theme: “Family for 20 Years.”
The biggest challenge, however, was that in order to ensure that the guests could be on time for another event that day, the 12-course lunch needed to be served within 60 minutes.
Five months previously, Anson had successfully catered to more than 2,000 guests and so he immediately set to work to plan another mega meal, albeit one twice that size. After meeting with the client to obtain a detailed list of their specific requirements, Anson then organised an internal meeting to delegate various tasks to the relevant departments.
Taking these requirements into consideration, chef Victor Fan spent a week to create the first draft menu. With more than 20 years’ experience in Chinese cooking, Fan not only needed to consider the task of preparing a 12-course meal for thousands, but also the kitchen capacity necessary to store and deliver the food, the precise cooking times required for every course, and then the speed needed to deliver each of the dozen dishes to the hundreds of tables while they were still piping hot.
After six meetings and two taste sessions, the menu was finalised in mid-December; it included traditional Cantonese family favourites, such as roasted whole sucking pig, baked prawns, stir-fried chicken, braised abalone, and steamed mandarin fish.
The Westin’s engineering team had to ensure power and water connectivity in the venue, plus all the equipment needed to support the kitchen staff.
The banquet team had to prepare glassware and chinaware for 4,000 people using 400 tables. Because the hotel was only equipped to cater to 1,000, additional utensils had to be borrowed from sister properties or rented from a contractor. After a cost comparison, the hotel decided it was most cost-effective to only borrow glassware and chinaware from sister properties; all extra tables, chairs and linens were rented from outside suppliers.
The Westin’s HR team needed to calculate the number managers, supervisors, captains and casual labour required. For this outside catering event, the hotel needed to have 530 extra casual staff, including 462 service attendants, plus 44 kitchen staff – all while keeping costs in mind.
Because the event took place during the high season, contracting casual labour proved difficult. So, after contacting several hotel management schools, one academy saw the project as an ideal opportunity for their students to learn, first-hand, how a mass event is managed.
To support the mega meal, the school organised 10 classes for 436 students. The Westin’s HR department worked closely with the hotel’s food & beverage team to conduct training sessions for both students and their teachers – on campus and onsite – to ensure that everyone knew their duties on the big day. Ultimately, this partnership with the school saved almost 50 per cent of what it would have cost the hotel, compared to the high wages that full time professional catering staff would have required.
Biggest single challenge?
Bringing out the soup
The biggest single challenge in serving a full Chinese-style lunch for that many people was the time-consuming task of pouring hot soup into 4,000 individual bowls.
To overcome this difficulty, the team came up with a creative solution – to serve all the individual soup bowls immediately after the guests were seated. By serving the soup first, the guests could enjoy it in leisurely fashion while listening to the speaker making his 30-minute opening address.
Once the hot soup was sipped, the rest of the meal was served within 55 minutes.