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Fri 19 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Get out of the kitchen!

As mobile catering grows in popularity, Lee Jamieson takes a look at which products on the market are helping chefs to overcome the unique difficulties posed by this type of event and what more could be done.

As mobile catering grows in popularity, Lee Jamieson takes a look at which products on the market are helping chefs to overcome the unique difficulties posed by this type of event and what more could be done.

"Mobile catering demands an odd combination of theatre, logistics and an ability to handle extreme pressure," explains Hyatt Regency Dubai executive chef Jose Rocha.

"There's no room for mistakes. Staff, equipment, food and drink must reach the site in perfect condition - and when the event is over we have to leave the site in pristine condition."

Mobile catering events require meticulous planning in all areas. They are particularly difficult because chefs are away from their permanent resources and have to build a temporary venue from scratch.

Therefore the right combination of forward planning, on-site expertise, human resource and equipment is integral to the success of any external catering event.

"Setting up a full restaurant from scratch can be time consuming in tricky locations," says Jumeirah Emirates Towers executive chef Christian Gradnitzer. "You have to build up the entire kitchen and meet all hygiene and HACCP standards on site. This is only achievable with good planning and a great team behind you."

Hygiene

Achieving hygiene standards can be particularly problematic for chefs operating in difficult locations. For example, the popularity of events in the desert means that chefs are forced to prepare food in high temperatures without on-site electricity and water supplies - and under the constant threat of sandstorms. It is essential that these conditions are factored into the event's hygiene procedures.

"Hygiene needs to be more stringent for outside catering," explains Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts culinary director Middle East, Peter Drescher. "Many of these events take place in challenging locations where there is limited water. In the desert, there is lots of sand blowing about so items need to be kept covered at all times.

"It is crucial to follow a stricter hygiene regime when catering in challenging locations."

A helping hand

In recent years, the growth in popularity of external catering events has created a demand for new product-based solutions. In particular, there has been a need for effective temperature control at external events because many older chiller designs simply couldn't perform in the summer heat.

Today, with advancements in technology, there is a wide range of products available on the market to transport, store and serve food at a regulated temperature.

"Nowadays we are very fortunate to have equipment at our disposal that was not as readily available in the past," says Drescher. "Take, for example, the specially designed thermo boxes that keep the food hot or cold; these are invaluable for outside catering."

As Hyatt's Rocha adds, products like thermo boxes and vacuum packing can help to retain freshness and flavour of stored items, as well as making the best use of available space in the pantry, fridge or freezer.

Roy George from Mount Park General Trading is particularly excited by a new range of temperature-controlled (both hot and cold) buffet counters that are fitted with granite or glass tops. "These units are mobile, so they can be shifted without difficulty and keep the food at the exact temperature required by HACCP," he explains.

Staying flexible

Adaptability has become a key concern in the development of new products. As the Middle East's hospitality industry becomes more competitive, chefs must work around the individual needs of clients.

"Mobile cooking units that can be mixed and matched as required are extremely useful," says Mövenpick's Drescher. "For example, if stir frying is on the menu, then a station can be fitted with an induction wok; if grilling is needed, then a grill can be fitted to the same basic station.

These pieces of equipment allow the chef to be flexible with the food they prepare and cater to the specific requirements of the event."

The increasing demand for modular cooking stations has prompted Dito Electrolux to expand and improve their Libero Line, a range of self-ventilated units with interchangeable cooking tops. Similarly, Temp-rite manufactures a modular system but, as export manager Patti van de Werff reminds us, staff "need to use the equipment with pleasure - equipment is just a tool to help them serve their customers' needs".

Many caterers have found that the best way to achieve their specific requirements is to have their mobile catering equipment custom designed. Different chefs have different reasons for this approach: Jumeirah's Gradnitzer uses tailor-made products to be "unique and different", while Uwe Micheel, Radisson SAS Hotel Dubai Deira Creek's director of kitchens, prefers custom-designed products because they are more functional in situation.

"A lot of this equipment is electric and requires an industrial three-phase supply," explains Micheel. "This just isn't available in many of our off-site locations. Therefore we still work with a lot of self-designed and custom-made equipment."

Future trends

Despite technological advancements, chefs are still demanding more mobility from their products. As caterers strive to create unique events, live cooking has become an integral part of the dining experience and the demand for self-sufficient and aesthetically pleasing cooking stations is strong.

"It's very important to have live station equipment because more and more customers are willing to pay a little extra to have their food freshly prepared," explains Micheel. "Therefore, I think that gas or battery operated equipment will become popular in the future."

Hyatt's Rocha notes that the demand for freshly-cooked stir fries and teppanyaki tables has grown, as guests focus on healthier foods, which has also strengthened the demand for live cooking stations.

Mövenpick's Drescher would like to see the development of more purpose-built catering equipment that could be assembled and operational within a short period of time. "Useful items would include walk-in refrigerators, stewarding vans, kitchen vans and bar vans complete with ice-makers, draft beer facilities and proper coffee machines," he says.

Product-based solutions for mobile catering events have come a long way in recent years. Technological developments have given chefs more control over some of the unique problems posed by this type of event; more efficient temperature-control products have been particularly welcomed in the Middle East.

However this is a developing industry and the popularity of external catering has created a demand for more self-sufficient products - a need yet to be satisfied by manufacturers.

Geoff Haviland, executive chef, InterContinental Hotels Group Dubai Festival City"We cater to large groups along the waterfront at Festival City, ranging from standard hot dog, burger, shawarma and ice cream stations, to more elaborate stand-up cocktail events.

We have a huge 760m² structure known as ‘the Igloo', which is situated next to our hotel on the waterfront. This can be set up with live interactive cooking stations.

We also have a large outdoor area at the front of the hotel known as the Desert Garden, where we offer all sorts of catering options.

I believe the reason for the growing popularity of mobile catering is that the host can customise the event more to his liking - and therefore have more ownership by hosting it at a venue of his choice, rather than at a hotel or events ballroom."

Jaya Lobo, meeting and events manager, Radisson SAS Hotel, Dubai Media City

"We offer outside catering for coffee breaks, light lunches, dinners and cocktail receptions. There is a great demand for this, firstly because companies now have their own meeting space and can have in-house meetings, so it's more convenient for us to go to them than vice versa.

Secondly, people with villas and gardens like to have events at home as it is open air, convenient and reasonably priced."

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