Flemington's long tradition of high-end hospitality is not without competition from catering newcomers, writes Dani Valent.
"It's just a bloody sandwich," says Peter Rowland, 81, as he bites into Australia's most famous chicken triangle at his catering company's Melbourne headquarters.
The sandwich is celebrating 50 years this year but its inventor vividly remembers the day he settled on the recipe.
"I was in the kitchen and I bit into a dry, lifeless chicken sandwich," he recalls.
The caterer was more than displeased.
"It was shithouse," he recalls. "I told them, 'However much mayonnaise is in this, double it.'" he says.
"People don't realise the bread keeps sopping up the mayonnaise. It needs to be sloppy."
Also important: steamed chicken breasts chopped with parsley and chives, sliced white TipTop buttered right to the edges and – the final flourish – cutting off the crusts. Once the formula was nailed, an icon was born.
The three-point sandwiches are made year-round by a dedicated crew but Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival sees production hit over-drive. Last year, the team served more than 200,000 chicken sandwiches at Flemington Racecourse – enough to lay side-by-side two-and-a-half-times around the track.
"Why would a sandwich be an icon?" muses the sprightly Rowland – who rises early each day to play golf and, ever the caterer, brings coffee for his tee buddies.
"A famous sandwich is mad, fun, nice - and cheeky too," he says. "I must have eaten seven million of them over the years."
Rowland has fed the Melbourne Cup carnival since 1962, and watched the high-end hospitality side of the Flemington festival turn from car-boot picnics to the corporate marquees of today's Birdcage, elaborate stages for costumed performers, extravagant canapes and imported celebrities.
In the Birdcage, it's not a price war, it's a quality war.Bruce Keebaugh
"It started as a paddock with wooden markers saying carpark 101, carpark 102," says Rowland. "People would drive in, the boot opened, there were chicken sandwiches and champagne, a couple of folding chairs."
Not that it was casual. "This was a time of elegant style," he says. "The blokes had hats, the women too, and they'd throw a mink coat over the shoulders in the afternoon."
In the 1980s, it morphed. One year, horse owner Lloyd Williams bought adjacent carparks and put up a tent.
"The next year there were more tents, then a two-storey pavilion and then [entrepreneur] Christopher Skase had a sit-down lunch for 80 people: crisp-skinned roast duckling followed by souffles, which we catered."
How do you make souffles in a carpark? "You just do them," says Rowland, noting that he once whipped up souffles for 1100 people in cement mixers.
This year, Rowland is looking after the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) member areas, a task that will involve 140,000 plated meals and more than 1 million canapes.
In the corporate-sponsored Birdcage, veteran caterer Bruce Keebaugh from The Big Group is joined by newcomers food&desire and Sydney's made by Merivale.
Keebaugh relishes the challenge of outshining the newbies. "Life's pretty boring without competition," he says. "When creativity becomes harder, ideation becomes better. And in the Birdcage, it's not a price war, it's a quality war. Our currency is ideas."
Birdcage wars are won by bringing a brand involved to life with marquee design and the offering within: it's not just a party in a carpark.
"Food is terribly important but brand is king," says Keebaugh. "We look at the corporate client's values and see how we can make the brand as strong as possible. That's the sexy piece for us."
The Big Group is doing eight of the 14 Birdcage marquees, including major sponsor Lexus. The carmaker's values include "progressive luxury" and omotenashi, a Japanese expression of wholehearted hospitality. That's reflected in pavilion collaborators including creative, eco-focused chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett from one-hat Oakridge, sustainable designer Joost Bakker and architect Koichi Takada.
"In a culinary sense, it's about craftsmanship, integrity and a high-quality guest experience. That's why Matt Stone and Jo Barrett are such a great match," says Keebaugh, pointing particularly to Barrett's "yesterday's bread", which will lead off the menu at the 90-seat signature restaurant. "They take leftover bread from the day before, remill it and turn it into a crunchy lavosh. We love the message."
Treading lightly is reflective of an overall trend Keebaugh sees in design and even fashion this spring carnival. "The eyelashes are coming off, the makeup is veneered down, women are becoming less Kardashianesque," he says. "It's all edging more to the naturals."
A shift to the natural ties into the no-waste, bloom-local philosophy of longtime The Big Group collaborator Joost Bakker. The florist and sustainability pioneer is perhaps an unlikely ally for the festival of frivolity that is spring racing.
"When I first got involved, in the late 1990s, it wasn't that appealing to me," he says. "It seemed like one of the most wasteful things you could possibly see in terms of the designs and the afterlife of materials. Huge skips went straight to landfill."
But in 2006, Bakker was commissioned by The Big Group to design the Macquarie Bank marquee, which became not just a stage for spectacular food but also for thoughtful design. "I made the marquee from waste – old tyres, a recycled floor – and it caught the attention of the powers that be at Flemington. It started them on an amazing journey."
Bakker believes Melbourne's racing carnival is now one of the most sustainable major events in the world. "Ninety-six per cent of waste is diverted from landfill," he says. "Organic waste goes into fermentation tanks, then ends up dehydrated and turned into fertiliser for use on the grass."
The VRC donates surplus food to charity SecondBite, avidly reduces energy consumption, and has glass crushers on site to increase the amount of glass recycled and to reduce truck movements to transport it.
There are also strict rules about materials used in pavilions: toxic glues and paints are forbidden and there are separate bins for materials including plasterboard, plywood and pine. "Contractors who don't comply are not invited back," says Bakker. "It would be great if the wider building industry was like this."
Zero-waste events make financial sense, too. "Gone are the days of throwaway MDF walls," says Keebaugh. "Being sustainable is the right thing to do but less waste is a better use of finance anyway. It's a long game but it's far better – you spend less over time."
The racing period, for all its frippery and horse-welfare concerns, is also a well-funded testing ground for necessary new concepts.
Four years ago Bakker was cogitating a modular, reusable steel-framed house that would allow people to put soil on the roof to grow food. "The VRC said, 'Why don't you create that for us?'" Bakker built his 'Future Cave' and it's now been reconfigured for its fourth spring carnival. "I'm incredibly proud," he says. "They've really turned the event around."
Ever since Asaf Smoli launched his catering company food&desire in 2001 the Birdcage was the holy grail. "We've wanted to be part of this forever," he says. "To be invited to be a preferred caterer this year couldn't be more exciting."
Food&desire has a strong presence at the Grand Prix but spring racing is different. "It's the race that stops a nation," says Smoli. "It's an epic week, the beginning of the whole summer season, setting the mood and going right through 'til March. It tells a big story."
The company is looking after the marquees for watch and jewellery retailer Kennedy and 1 Oliver Street, which is the VRC's own pavilion.
"The marquees are what you live for as a caterer and event manager," says Smoli. "Clients let you take them on a journey and it's all about creating the experience. You know the expectations are high so you ask yourself how you can exceed them. It's daunting but you get to make those dreams happen."
At Kennedy that means European elegance expressed through a grand staircase and a DIY vodka bar with a selection of juices, shrubs and concentrates. 1 Oliver Street has a decadent Gatsby feel with smoked chocolate cigars passed around in timber boxes, and desserts sprayed with an atomiser by a besuited butler. "Every touchpoint is considered to create the ultimate experience," says Smoli.
Sydney chef Dan Hong (Mr Wong, Ms G's and Lotus, all owned by the massive Merivale group) has cooked at the Cup before. "It was nuts," he says. "It's a whole other world in that Birdcage." This year will be the first time Hong is there alongside made by Merivale, the catering arm of the group.
"I've been with Merivale for 11 years and Melbourne Cup Day is the biggest day of the year for us in Sydney: it's a crazy party day. So it's pretty cool to actually be in Melbourne in the midst of it, to see the crowd and to interact with the people."
Hong has created the menu for the Mumm marquee – crafting French dishes with an Asian skew, reflecting the opulence of a Champagne house with a light-hearted twist. Dishes include banh mi with duck rillettes, bug tails wrapped in brik pastry with nori salt, and hash browns with wasabi creme fraiche. "They're fun dishes," he says. "And it's great to be part of these special days for people."
The Big Group's Bruce Keebaugh thinks Australia doesn't realise quite how special the Birdcage is. "In less than a hectare, you have every top CEO, most politicians, just about every A and B-list celebrity plus most of Melbourne society," he says.
Keebaugh thinks we should be proud of it – possibly more at just-primped midday than at messy 4pm.
"It's a global event," he says. "I can't tell you how many people tell me the Birdcage is the best corporate hospitality pavilion in the world. It's where brands come to life, and it's a melting pot of drama and mischief. You couldn't ask for more."