16 July 2019

Behind The World’s Longest Lunch

The annual Bank of Melbourne World’s Longest Lunch has long been a highlight of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival program, and this year’s event, which honoured International Women’s Day with an all-female chef line-up, was so popular it sold out in a record 32 minutes.

Held in the charming Victoria Gardens, just steps from Prahran’s bustling high Street shopping precinct, and brought to life by a team of over 150 Peter Rowland staff, the event welcomed 1600 guests who enjoyed a three-course lunch designed by three of Melbourne’s most accomplished chefs. Produce queen Nicky Riemer (Bellota) took care of entrées, TV chef Karen Martini (Mr. Wolf) was on main course, and talented young pastry chef Lauren Eldridge (Stokehouse) conceived the dessert course.

While the idea of cooking an elaborate sit-down lunch for 1600 people in a make-shift outdoor kitchen is enough to spark fear in even the most experienced of kitchen professionals, for Peter Rowland’s executive chef Matthew Haigh, it’s just another day at the office. 

According to Matthew, who has worked on the iconic event for seven years now, its success lies in the combination of the always-exceptional location, the guest chefs’ inspired creative vision and the precise logistical prowess and professional service brought by the Peter Rowland team.

“The environments that we find ourselves in for Peter Rowland events are often a world away from what chefs experience working in restaurant kitchens,” Matthew explains. “When you’re catering for large numbers like this it’s not just a matter of multiplying ingredients, there are so many additional factors that you need to account for,” he says, “In this game it’s all about risk management, planning, logistics and timing – there’s just so much going on that we have to be across.”

We spoke to Matthew about how each event is planned out: “Several months out from the event (which takes place every March), we have a briefing with the guest chefs and commence the menu planning phase,” he explains. “Then, in early December, the chefs send us the recipes for their prospective dishes, and a few weeks later we all meet at Peter Rowland HQ for a menu tasting, where the Peter Rowland team presents each dish as it will appear at the event,” says Matthew. This way, Matthew says, the chefs have a chance to offer feedback and refine any details. “They might tell us that something needs more of this or less of that, so we’ll make notes and keep refining it until everybody is happy.” If required, there might be a second tasting session, before Matthew sets to work planning the event down to the very last detail.

Aside from perfecting dishes and ordering supplies, Matthew also oversees the design and build of each of the dedicated marquee kitchens for Peter Rowland’s outdoor events. According to Matthew, the marquee kitchen design might be entirely different each year, depending on the menu. and for 1,500 people they need three of them. “The marquees are 10 by eight metres in size. We have our ovens set up there, benchtops to work from, an d cool room connected to the back of the fridge. Depending on the menu, we might need three ovens, two barbecues and a ring burner, for example. For events of this size we’ll typically need three marquees to make up our kitchen.”

Next, it’s a matter of Matthew planning a down-to-the-minute run sheet, detailing every step of the operation. Details might include, for example, the exact time that plates go into, and come out of, the hotbox; when something needs to go into the oven; when entrées need to be plated up, and so on. “The whole list goes up on the wall so that the chefs have it in front of them. Everyone is very clear about exactly what to do, and when.”

On top of all that, Matthew says that no matter how well things are planned, there are always unexpected spot fires to put out on the day. “It could be making sure the power cords are long enough to reach the generator, or checking that the generator has enough fuel to last long enough to run the ovens, or calling in a plumber when a water pump breaks down,” he says. Despite his impressive expertise and years of experience there’s one thing Matthew admits he doesn’t have any control over, and that’s the weather. “We’ve been very lucky to have had nice weather for this event over the past few years, but even so, we’ve still got ways to work around any curve-balls – it’s just what we do.”

On top of all that, ‘there are spot fires to put out’ on the day. It could be ‘getting there in early in the morning to block off the road as the ground was too boggy for the trucks, which is what happened this year; making sure the cord’s long enough to reach the generator, or that the guys have put enough diesel in it for it to last long enough to run the ovens; or calling in plumbers when a water pump breaks down.’ There’s really only one thing Matthew doesn’t have any control over at all, and that’s the weather. ‘We’ve been very lucky for the past few years that it’s always been fine.’

Menu – Melbourne food & wine festival world’s longest lunch

Entrée – Nicky Riemer

Cured hiramasa kingfish, zuni pickle, goats curd, dukka

Roasted carrots and beetroots, Moroccan quinoa salad, zuni pickle

Main – Karen Martini

Chicken, barley negro salad, fermented garlic, treccia momazzarella, tarragon oil, almonds

Dessert – Lauren Eldridge

Rosewater and pistachio mousse with raspberry and orange

Photography by Trent van der Jagt

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