Handling food preferences

“If we are doing a buffet style lunch of six different items, four will be gluten free, vegetarian and vegan. Our job is to make sure they all taste just as good and will appeal to everyone. Including meat eaters like me,” says Karl Edmonds, Executive Sous Chef at Victoria’s Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre Australia.

Karl Edmonds can cook for thousands of people a day. People from every corner of the country and from around the world. People with different food preferences, allergies, religious requirements, tastes and predilections. He is Executive Sous Chef at Victoria’s Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), a huge expanse of exhibition spaces, theatres and convention rooms on the banks of the Yarra River. Known as the state’s meeting place, it is committed to showcasing not only Victorian food and wine but also to upholding its reputation for great hospitality.

“The reason I put on the white uniform was to cook great food,” says Karl, who earned a reputation for cooking memorable meals for big numbers at venues such as the MCG and the Arts Centre Melbourne. “I completely reject the concept that cooking for people with allergies and preferences is a pain,” he says. “It can be a challenge to keep so many people happy, but  we have systems in place to make it happen.” 

MCEC can oversee 1,000 events each year from international forums to Comic Con-style fun events. To look after so many delegates, menu items are added to a menu management system which creates a matrix of allergens and preferences that both front-of-house and back-of-house team members can reference during service on the day of the event. The back-of house chefs are armed with iPads that list not only every menu item but every ingredient in that dish. Backed up with the Monash University FODMAP app, they have all bases covered. When a guest has questions about food allergies or preferences – from nuts to gluten – the team have all the info they need to ensure they are recommending suitable dishes.

Karl’s mum and dad are from southern India. He grew up on fiery curries and long Sunday lunches with all the family, where everyone was welcome. Hospitality runs in his blood. His objective is to make sure every person is not only fed well but made to feel at home. “All our meat and chicken are halal and we minimise alcohol in our cooking,” he says. “We also have a specialist kosher caterer who does an amazing job. We partner with the right suppliers with the necessary kosher certification that we do not have.”

The big three food requirements for MCEC, however, are gluten, vegetarian and vegan. “These three are mainstream,” says Karl. “If we are doing a buffet-style lunch of six different items, four will be gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan. Our job is to make sure they all taste just as good and will appeal to everyone, including meat eaters like me.” To do this, Karl works with a development team on menus six months ahead. This involves members from all MCEC departments – from the kitchen to sales and marketing. He is also looking at folding in FODMAP restrictions. “We have a lot of skill in the kitchen but it’s hard to develop that depth of flavour without garlic and onion,” says Karl.

He takes us through some of the popular gluten-free and vegan dishes on the menu at MCEC. One is a vegan and gluten-free sweetcorn polenta fritter. Cooked in 300 litre kettles, the polenta is enriched with sweetcorn juice and high-end vegan margarine, seasoned and then cooled, cubed, fried and topped with a salsa of charred corn kernels and red pepper relish. “It’s a dish I have to stop myself from eating, it is so delicious,” adds Karl. He and his team have nailed that fat, salty, sweet and sour balance in a dish of turmeric-roasted cauliflower with a romesco made with smoked almonds, olive oil and roasted red peppers. The colourful dish is topped with little crimson jewels of pomegranate seeds. He is presently trying to perfect a chilli con carne for people with sensitivities to the nightshade family. “Of course, there is no chilli,” he says, “but to find a replacement for the tomatoes was proving more difficult until we started experimenting with beetroot purée. It adds colour, aroma, sweetness and richness to the dish. It is looking very promising.” Karl and his team are already working on the menu for 2024, which will be launched in late 2023. “For me, it’s all about good food,” he says. “Good food for everyone to keep all happy.”

As seen in Spring 2023

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