Raphael Kahn likes to tell people he can take them on an exotic adventure without leaving Sydney. And when it comes to food, he’s absolutely right.
The managing director of Sydney’s Zest Waterfront Venues was one of the pioneers of roving menus, a style of food service that is gaining popularity amongst foodies and couples looking for a sophisticated approach to reception food.
As the name suggests, it moves away from such traditions as a sit-down meal to instead create menus where guests are treated to waves of degustation-style courses across canapés, soups, entree, main and dessert.
“The idea with a roving meal is that you choreograph a beautiful and creative experience for guests,” says Raphael, who oversees two waterfront venues – The Spit, which can cater to 300 people seated and 500-plus people in roving style, and Point Piper, which can take 320 roving and 180 seated.
The approach is one that remains expansive and ever changing, as food and presentation evolve throughout the night, matching the expected with the unusual and the known with the new.
In this kind of atmosphere, a favourite ingredient such as smoked salmon gives way to a cornet of salmon tartare with crème fraiche and salmon pearls, while rice paper rolls offer a filling of fresh prawn, lychee and mint.
It’s a great way for guests to try a little bit of everything, taking the chance to extend their own palettes across a menu that still offers the substance of a traditional meal.
“Roving menus really are a new way of looking at food,” says Raphael, whose credentials are underlined by awards such as Caterer of the Year Australia wide.
What it does is put the food centre stage, becoming an attraction all of its own, rather than something that happens between the speeches and dances.
The same approach underscores the growing popularity of food and cooking stations, which bring forth the chance for guests to choose their own culinary adventure.
“I love the sense of excitement and enjoyment these kind of embellishments bring to a meal,” says Rafe, who extends the innovative concept to offerings such as an Asian dumpling bar – where guests can choose their own ingredients and garnishes – a sushi/seafood display, a 1m wide paella pan or a Messina gelato bar that draws attention like moths to a flame.
“For example, if you do something like a premium dessert, chocolate, cheese and fruit station, you can cater for sweet and savoury fanciers.” This could range from a really flavoursome cheddar to something indulgent like a nougat and Turkish delight, which has been known to be wind up in someone’s handbag.
The key ingredient to pulling it off is to ensure not only that there is enough food, but that it also ups the excitement factor for omnivores and vegetarians alike.
To best illustrate, Rafe returns to the topic of Zest’s roving menus, where guests choose 14 dishes to create a menu that could look something like this…
Betel leaf with minced chicken, mint, coriander and lime
Seared tuna with black sesame, pickled cucumber and shiitake salad
Cornet of beetroot salad with goats curd and baby herbs
Twice-baked cheese soufflé, sauce soubise
Pan-seared half-shell scallops with cannellini beans, salsa rossa and marjoram
Salt cod and potato Beignet
Crispy silken tofu with dashi broth and bonito flakes
Mild Thai green curry chicken pie
Veal scallopini with celeriac puree, crispy sage and onion jam
Single lamb cutlet with kumera mash
French lavender and blood orange crème caramel
Cherry and almond clafoutis with crème fraiche
As these dishes illustrate, roving menus use the flexibility and number of dishes to give guests a wonderful foundation from which to be adventurous. After all, if one mini meal proves not to their liking, another one isn’t too far away. They also allow for the influence of other cultures and regions, from the beautiful flavours of Asian delicacies to more traditional touches from Europe.
“It’s all about the balance,” says Raphael, who serves his roving menus in everything from shot glasses to boxes. It’s about that blend of dishes guests are excited to revisit – perhaps with a twist – and dishes they’re excited to explore.
It’s a combination that will leave people talking about the food not just for days or weeks, but for years to come.
Yet a roving menu isn’t the only way to inject a sense of excitement into wedding food. Other ideas include the inclusion of something truly indulgent, such as a espresso bar complete with barista, or the use of unexpected taste combinations and ingredients, which is something he holds dear.
“There’s nothing more exciting than when your wedding guests realise what’s in store with the food and start to get excited as that sense of anticipation builds,” he says.
For example, you can build a self-selection menu around basics with a twist, featuring something like a slow-roasted lamb rump, served with a chickpea and eggplant relish, or barramundi fillets accompanied by sweet peppers, cannelloni beans and black mussels.
Throw in a few classic favourites, say crispy wontons with a sweet chilli sauce, and then balance it out with something a little unexpected, such as shaved bresaola (air dried beef), globe artichokes and preserved lemons. Suddenly, you’ve created a menu that is totally unique but will still appeal to everyone.
A sit-down menu is also ripe for adventure, whether it’s the inclusion of an unexpected ingredient, say bone marrow served alongside a rose of veal tenderloin with potato roesti, Tuscan cabbage and red wine butter, or a combination you might never have imagined, say a blueberry and macadamia frangipani tartlet with mango mint salsa.
It’s all comes down to that excitement factor, says Raphael. And also to the idea of the food as comfort food. Not in that it’s traditional or stodgy, but in that it feeds the senses in a really beautiful way.
To this end, couples can also consider the inclusion of menu bonuses – little gifts that perfectly compliment the main culinary event.
For example, in the same way many of the best restaurants offer a complimentary amuse bouche, the insertion of a bite-sized sampler can be the perfect bridge from cocktails and canapes to the main event.
This should be something light that can be devoured in one bite, such as a peking duck pancake with hoisin sauce. At the other end of the spectrum, dessert canapés allow sweet tooths to embrace a small taste of decadence, such as a semi-freddo of white chocolate, pistachio and praline with gold leaf, while dessert samplers offer multiple morsels such as a mango and blueberry salad.
“It’s all about creating those peaks of flavour and experience,” says Raphael, who points out that elements such as setting and layout are equally crucial to a real wow factor.
“You want to create a journey for people, so their sense of exploration takes them everywhere from a lounge area with daybeds to an outdoor space on a balcony.
“The whole idea is that just when they think the food and atmosphere can’t get any better, you prove to them that it can.”