Banquet catering remains one of the most demanding service parts due to the logistical challenges involved with preparing food for hundreds of people in one sitting. But the latest catering equipment is making these occasions far less stressful for caterers. FEJ looks at two examples of operators that have strengthened their banqueting offering through investment in state-of-the-art kit.
The Midland Hotel in Manchester, part of luxury hotel chain QHotels, can serve up to 900 covers at a time. To anybody on the outside, that sounds very much like mass production dining. But you won’t get the venue calling it that — it prides itself on delivering the highest banqueting standards possible to the point that it wants guests to think they are eating out at a restaurant.
“What sets us apart from a standard banquet operation is that we aim to offer restaurant-style meals,” explains executive head chef Brian Spark, who has recently overseen a £250,000 refurbishment of the property’s main banqueting kitchen.
As well as replacing gas with induction, and installing a new island suite and Rational combi steamers, the new kitchen has seen the introduction of two new high tech appliances, in the shape of Frima VarioCooking Centers. Both Frima units are the largest models in the range — the VCC311 — making them ideal for the type of numbers that Sparks and his team deal with on a weekly basis.
One of the units has the option of pressure cooking, which provides the kitchen with the additional flexibility. It also saves energy, which was a critical aspect of the refurbishment and one of the reasons the hotel moved to induction.
“They are fantastic pieces of kit,” says Sparks, who reveals that the decision to consider the brand was initially based on their ‘word-of-chef’ reputation. “We’d heard about their features and what they could do. Then I went to a demonstration and was amazed by the scope of their abilities.
The speed is incredible — we can do 30 lamb shoulders, cooked and plated into 400 portions, in three hours, in just one of the Frimas. Then there’s the versatility — from searing to sous vide, we could even deep fry a banquet of fish and chips if we wanted to.”
The Midland even cooks bavette steaks using a Frima as a water bath, overnight, while it can produce stocks and sauces in a third of the time, and with great flavour. The VCC311 models installed at the Midland have a single pan with a capacity of 150 litres and a cooking surface of 0.65 of a square metre. They measure 1542mm wide by 914mm deep and 1100mm high.
“The speed is incredible — we can do 30 lamb shoulders, cooked and plated into 400 portions, in three hours”
A critical element of a multifunctional appliance like the Frima is how quickly it can be cleaned between cooking processes. And despite being chunky pieces of equipment, Sparks says they are easy to maintain: “They just need a wipe around, and there’s an internal drain at the front. You can clean it in minutes and be on with the next batch of food. The outside is easy to keep clean, too — not like the old bratt pans!”
Over the course of its 100-year history, the Midland has played host to kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and rock stars. It will surely feel that its banqueting kitchen now has the star quality, too.
Cold storage solutions for big banquet catering
The massive extension to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall has doubled the size of the site’s conference and exhibition facilities. And Belfast Council estimates that the new venue will contribute £39m per year to the city’s burgeoning business and tourism market.
Catering is a huge operation and the new facilities are designed to be as flexible as possible so that the caterers can serve multiple functions of 200 to 500 people, or larger events for up to 1,500, with the option of buffets, silver service and plated banquets.
When it came to catering equipment, the site needed suppliers who could deliver quality and experience. One of the areas that it had to pay particular attention to given its banqueting ambitions was refrigeration. It opted for coldrooms, blast chillers, undercounter and upright refrigeration from Williams Refrigeration due to its perceived build and installation quality. In total the brand supplied more than 30 separate pieces of equipment.
“We had to take account of the insulated floors built below the coldrooms by the main contractor”
Sustainability is a key criteria within the Waterfront project, as is future-proofing equipment specification wherever possible, and many of the counters and cabinets supplied by Williams are hydrocarbon versions. Alongside its environmental benefits, using hydrocarbon refrigerant reduces energy consumption due to its excellent thermodynamic properties, and counts towards Waterfront Hall’s BREEAM credits.
The adaptability of the manufacturer’s range was also put to full use. For example, the counter cabinets include Williams biscuit top units. These are supplied without a worktop to fit under existing counters. Williams also supplied several reverse unit counters, which have the refrigeration system mounted to the right rather than the left, as is standard. The project called for very tight specifications on the 10 bespoke coldroom suites, which include roll-in blast chillers, chilled plating rooms, a beverage room and general chilled and frozen storage. They are spread over three floors and had to be installed into purpose-built insulated recesses.
Gary McMullan of Galgorm Group, who project managed the scheme, comments: “Williams had to coordinate closely with the builder, not only to ensure the size and design of the coldrooms precisely matched the recesses on site, which covered huge areas, but also to take account of the insulated floors built below the rooms by the main contractor. This was the toughest part of the installation but, despite all the issues, everything worked out perfectly.”