Food & Drink: Big Night - Feeding the 5,000

It has half-a-million covers a year, yet the Savoy is the Rolls- Royce of banqueting in Britain. Annie Bell goes behind the scenes. Photographs by Justin Leighton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The very word "banquet" conjures up images of huge numbers of people and drab food, more ceremony than substance. And the last banquet I attended was just such an experience. There again, it wasn't at the Savoy.

Those who mix in banqueting circles say this is where the finest time is to be had. And the Savoy itself takes pride in being a fine dining rather than a banqueting experience, which is no mean feat when you are talking in terms of hundreds of covers served at one sitting - up to 2,000 a day. They do on average 10,000 a week, that is, give or take, half a million covers a year.

This, of course, is peanuts compared to Grosvenor House which is the only room in town that can cater for 1,500 at one go. Chef Anton Edelmann who has run the kitchens at the Savoy for the past 17 years believes "you can cook exceptionally good food for up to 400 people, but after that it gets pressured. They don't make as many Rolls-Royces as they do Volkswagens." True enough, not least because there aren't enough people to buy them.

Edelmann commands a brigade of 80 chefs - the size of a small school, and he is not unlike a schoolmaster with his authoritative white toque. The nerve centre is his office with its glass wall looking onto the kitchen. At one point, a sous chef comes in to complain that one of the chefs has turned up two hours late. "Tell him to go and work at McDonald's," says Edelmann.

So you want your function at the Savoy? First off, unlike restaurant dining where you have limited say, here, you are the boss. They will send you sample menus with different prices and a wine list. Next, they invite you to come in and discuss what exactly you would like. If you want a Chinese banquet, that's fine. If you want fish, chips and mushy peas, that's fine, too, albeit at a cost. And if you want a naked girl to spring out of a cake, this can also be arranged.

Cabaret? All part of the service. Gary Glitter has played there, as has Elton John and Kiki Dee. Three glass pianos suspended one on top of the other inside a glass case can be arranged should you so desire it, or a march past by the Marines. Tonight, though, an Elvis lookalike is warming up in the Lancaster Ballroom at the same time that the room is being laid up, about two hours in advance of the 250 people who will be coming to dinner.

The first task is to strike the room. Tables are rolled in by tablemen and the carpet taken up ready to receive this season's needle-fine stilettos, and the staging is set. Next a crew arrives and "cloths" the tables with Irish linen, shaken out and laid with the crease covering the leg to conceal it. Then the wine butlers dressed in grey overcoats over red jackets lay up the tables, assisted by waiters in white jackets.

The napkin is laid flat and the cutlery arranged around it. Later, it is folded into a dunce's cap, a lily or a crown. Next, the ancillaries go on: the butter dishes, flowers, candelabra, cruets and the glasses. All bathed in floodlights that glare down "so we can see any impurity in the layout", says Andrew Coy, the banqueting manager. Finally, it is the job of the butlers to polish all this paraphernalia.

Backstage, the wines are being chilled or opened, plates are being warmed, waiters' white cloths, their gloves and jackets are laid ready, and sugar, milk and redcurrant jelly take up their stations. The microphones will be checked, as will all the lightbulbs to make sure they are working. The very last job is to polish the dance floor and get it to shine.

In the reception room, drinks are laid out on trays, a white piano is tuned and lit while Marco, the reception head waiter, prepares to meet you at the door and ensure that you go to the right place.

Meanwhile, while you are enjoying your cocktail in the cool of the reception area, Mr Sergio and Mr Fausto are briefing their teams of waiters, six in each, principally foreign nationals from Italy, Yugoslavia and Germany who look like errant students squeezed into their Sunday best when they'd much rather be playing football. One waiter has another gripped in a headlock, and there's a fair bit of horseplay.

At one point, when the banqueting manager has disappeared out of sight, an Italian waiter comes up to me and, standing within six inches of my face, asks: "What you doin' 'ere?" Before I have a chance to reply, another Italian waiter elbows him out of the way and also enquires: "What you doin' 'ere?" The first one takes exception to this interruption, but, after explaining that I am "doin'" an article, they seem satisfied and wander off.

Backstage, it is a warren that cannot have changed much in the last 100 years. A seasoned rabbit might be able to negotiate its curving stairways, different levels and numerous antechambers at one glance, personally, I need a compass to find my way between the various rooms with names like "Lancaster hotplate", "servery", "still room" and "plating room", and there's nothing very logical about the layout.

Tonight's menu is a mousse of pike made as quenelles served in a lobster brandy and cream sauce, followed by a wild mushroom consomme infused with Madeira, then a "tornedos" of beef with red wine sauce, "Pommes olivette" (roast potatoes to you and I), baton carrots, French beans and baby corn. And, finally, an Edelmann special, a Grand Marnier souffle with a Grand Marnier-flavoured orange sauce, followed by "pralines en surprise", the surprise being atmospheric wisps of smoke created by dry ice.

To my way of thinking, souffles for 250 people carried along corridors and down stairs without sinking is a high-wire act. To Edelmann, souffles and synchronised cloche-work are part of what differentiates the Savoy from Grosvenor House. And I have seen with my own eyes that his souffles do not sink in the same way as most people's.

In any case, we are not at the souffle stage yet. The diners have been ushered into the turquoise Lancaster ballroom, where every fork, knife, spoon and glass has passed a colonel's parade. On the other side of the wall, action kicks off in the Lancaster hotplate - a long corridor of a room with a hotplate running its full length - about 60 feet that belts out as much heat as a ship's engine room. "I always tell the management that food'll never go cold here," Edelmann drily says. On the far-end wall there is an ancient pink neon sign that reads "SILENCE". It's switched off.

Lines of plates three-abreast stretch down the length of the hotplate. Each has its quenelles in place and, over that, sauce is ladled, pastry tucked in and they're ready for the first team to pick up. Cloches on, move off, next team in; the kitchen head waiter is directing from the doorway where Mr Sergio's team are standing waiting, dreaming about the time that Milan thrashed Barcelona in the European Cup Final. "Go, go, go," he orders, ushering them in with a raised voice, "come on, guys, you were told in the briefing, for fuck sake, remember your liners, guys." Pick up, carry off, next team in. "Come on, come on." The temperature's rising.

In the Lancaster ballroom, the chandeliers are dimmed, the band is smooching, sequins glitter beneath chandeliers and earrings jangle. The banqueting manager hovers attentively. It is cool, even breezy and very calm. As they take their first taste of lobster sauce, no one has any idea of the crisis looming in the cockpit.

Back in the Lancaster hotplate, the sweat is pouring down harrowed brows. Doilies adorn saucers that hold cups filled with consomme from a huge vat, 12 to a silver tray they are ready to go as soon as the first course has been cleared. The air is filled with steam scented with wild mushrooms and beef stock.

The trays are heavy and the tiled floor is dead slippery. Chef Edelmann saunters in. "Where are all the waiters?" he asks he saunters out again. The waiters arrive and the kitchen head waiter is there to chivvy them again. "Mind your baaaacks," he yells, as each picks up a tray of 12 cups of scalding consomme. Too late, a tray floods with clear brown liquid that oozes into its linen undercloth. Edelmann seems unfazed.

Back in the ballroom, the tornedos are served the room's relaxing and the volume's rising. In the kitchen, things are looking calmer with only the souffles to go. This time, the action's in the pastry room.

It's Mr Sergio's team again, and they're back as a six for the first relay. I'm not quite sure where we are, somewhere in the Crystal Maze where 250 souffles risen an inch above the rim of the dish with perfect evenly gold mortarboard surfaces are about to emerge from the oven. They're dusted down with icing sugar and piped with rosettes of cream, then it's down the stairs, through the Lancaster hotplate, into the ballroom and onto the table. And not one of them sunk.

I return briefly to the ballroom to see if the countenance on the diners' faces suggests they are aware of the feat that has just been pulled off in their honour, a matter of yards away behind closed doors. But they just keep on talking. All part of the service and what they expect from the Savoy. Perfectly seamless dining.