In conversation with Peter Rowland
Our founder on nearly 60 years of cocktails, canapés and conversation among Australia’s social set.
The first thing Peter Rowland points to when we visit his stylish Melbourne apartment is an abstract painting by local artist Augustus Geddes, torn into multiple sections and suspended from the ceiling in the living area. “I adore this piece of art but it was too huge for the wall in this room, so I chopped it up and put it on the ceiling,” he says, flashing a rakish grin that belies his 80 years.
After an afternoon in the company of the hospitality pioneer, it is clear Peter’s lack of pretension and natural propensity for problem-solving are as central to his character as they are the business he built around planning some of the grandest parties in Australia’s history, dating back to the early 1960s.
“Expose yourself to the danger of having a good time”
His innate ability to “make things happen” for clients, no matter the enormity of the logistical challenge or the slightness of the budget, helped Peter Rowland earn a reputation as the ‘king of catering’. Now, as Peter Rowland Group enters a new phase as a full-service hospitality consultancy serving Melbourne and Sydney, the man behind the brand would be forgiven for adjourning to the golf course – but Peter has energy and entrepreneurial spirit to spare.
Reflecting on the early days, Peter recalls the time when he chartered a plane to fly the chefs from the favourite Melbourne restaurant of a particularly fussy client to a country estate in New South Wales. He also chuckles remembering when the crowd at the opening of the West Gate Bridge turned out to be double the anticipated number, prompting him to ring around local hotels for extra kitchen capacity. And then there was the time when he offered to host two weddings in two weeks for the same couple after their first celebration was marred by forces outside human control.
Of course, Peter has no shortage of stories about society weddings and celebrity-filled parties – he has masterminded more than 10,000 private events – but he’s more interested in talking about the future. When it comes to the guiding principles of Peter Rowland Group, of which he is chairman, ingenuity and enthusiasm remain at the core.
Another topic that gets Peter buzzing with excitement is his new role at RMIT University, mentoring the next generation of hospitality leaders. “I can’t sit still, never could, I have too much yet to learn and much to teach,” he says.
He still regularly gets into the office at 6am to set wheels in motion before making time for coffee with other members of the team and believes that working among friends is one of the secrets to his long career.
While catering a hot-ticket event with a guestlist of thousands is the kind of challenge that sees Peter in his element, he says he finds as much enjoyment and scope for creativity in planning an intimate family occasion. He explains: “I’ve always been of the view that if you’re doing pie and chips, that pie needs to be piping hot and those chips need to be the crispiest your guests have ever tasted – you execute every single detail the best you can.” He adds: “Every event represents a new challenge; Peter Rowland never did the same job twice.”
It is unsurprising, given his convivial and unflappable disposition, that Peter’s motto is “expose yourself to the danger of having a good time”. This perhaps explains his preference for always serving drinks in big glasses as opposed to tiny Champagne flutes that continuously need refilling.
Moving from welcome drinks right through to the sadly inevitable moment when a party has to wrap up, Peter insists there is much to be said for overcommunicating with your guests. He says: “Be like a politician, who tells you three years in advance when they’re going to change something, and explain to your guests well in advance that the bar will be closing; that way they have time to get used to the idea of leaving.”
Hailing from the coffee-obsessed city that is Melbourne, Peter has long preached that one of most hospitable send-offs you can give your guests is a quality brew in a takeaway cup. We say cheers to that.