A Day In The Life Of…

16 Jul 2014
4 min read
Tony Panetta, manager of the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre’s in-house kitchen (the largest in the southern hemisphere), tells us about the challenges to deliver creative and high-quality dishes on a mass scale every day.

Implementing a very strong food philosophy at MCEC, Tony supports local Victorian farmers in Australia and works directly with them to maximise their seasonal produce, creating many award-winning dishes and products along the way. With no event ever the same, his flexibility to switch from a unique canapé function to a gala ball 5-course dinner to supplying event retail products is nothing short of impressive.

I’m not your typical restaurant chef. Even though I often work late nights I’ll usually jump out of bed at 6am, sometimes have a quick bite to eat with my fiancé and arrive at work by 7am.

The first thing I do is walk the 97 metres of MCEC’s kitchen (may I add we have the largest kitchen in the southern hemisphere) and greet my team – it’s a really great way for me to stay connected with almost 100 chefs and pantry hands and it’s also one of my favourite parts of the day.

After this, my official work day begins, often with back-to-back morning meetings. The first, and most important, is a daily meeting with my 14 chefs where we chat about the day ahead, discuss any problems that may have arisen, and go through our work orders and production forms for the next three days.

Following this I jump between supplier meetings, customer menu tastings, off-site producer catch-ups, finance and project planning sessions and so on. In between meetings I find time to work on customising menus for customers, designing new concepts and creative ways of cooking and presenting food for events.

Last year we delivered just over 1,100 events so it’s by no means a stretch to say we are always busy and looking for ways to keep up with demand. A big part of the reason we are so successful comes from the amazing suppliers and producers I get to work with. We have a strong food and wine philosophy at MCEC, to think local and support Victorian produce. Its great knowing whole crops across Victorian farms are dedicated to supplying our produce. A big part of my day involves working with suppliers on our requirements and how we can best support them. Regular visits to our farmers and producers also help to break up a typical working week.

Before lunch I’ll drop in at events on-site and speak to the chefs, service managers and floor captains to make sure they have everything they need. I can’t help myself and you will often catch me checking the food as it’s plated – despite the fact that my staff are extremely competent and terrific at what they do. I feel it helps maintain the premium quality we pride ourselves on delivering.

Then it’s time to grab lunch on the run. I often swing by the staff restaurant, where we serve more than 550 MCEC employees breakfast, lunch and dinner. I like popping behind the counter and serving up a few lunches. It keeps things real and helps me stay connected with everyone, which is important in such a large company.

The afternoons are more hands-on, I spend a lot of time forward planning menu concepts. Once I’ve worked out an idea to trial, our chefs will source the ingredients and then together we will cook and plate up the dishes. About four or five of us will then collectively decide if it’s any good, what we want to tweak and whether it has the adaptability to cover any event, from a canapé party to the retail catering side of our business. The decision on a menu concept comes from a lot of trialling, often via the staff restaurant – MCEC staff are our best critics.

I never know when my day is going to end and it depends largely on the events happening that evening. If an event is larger than 1,000 people I will stay for the duration and head up the team. Otherwise I’ll visit the customer before the event, make sure they are happy and then leave them in the hands of my capable team who I have complete faith in to do the job without me. I always let the other chefs know when I’m leaving and a final check of the rosters is my last task before I depart.

However, my “work” day definitely doesn’t end there. As soon as I get home I am back in the kitchen, trialling MCEC dishes at home. I don’t get as much of a chance to cook at work as I would like, so I often prepare and eat many of my concepts at home with my fiancé. She has a much better palate than I do and the feedback is always completely honest. It means the next day I can make a few adjustments and take the concept to my team. For the rest of the night I’ll continue to write menus and come up with new ideas. The ideas sometimes flow better in my relaxed home environment.

No day is the same as the last, every day is always different, which is why I have the best job in the world. Today I could be cooking for five people, doing a 10 course degustation dinner and tomorrow I could be cooking a five course 5,000 person gala dinner, all executed to restaurant standard of course.

My aim is to break the mould and people’s perception surrounding event and conference food. My day-to-day role is about applying small thinking to the large number game. We know the boundaries we have to work with (especially when you’re serving thousands of people) but I enjoy putting a smile on people’s faces when they sit down to eat and are pleasantly surprised and impressed by what we’ve delivered.

Design, create and execute. That’s my day.