I had the privilege of working for the prestigious Peter Rowland Catering company when I lived in Melbourne. He started out selling sandwiches down on the beaches of Melbourne, and the business expanded to event catering--weddings, corporate dinners, galas, the Melbourne Cup Races, you name it. Their exclusive venues include the beautiful Rippon Lea Estate, Melbourne Museum, Port Melbourne Yacht Club, The Ian Potter Centre, Gardens House, The Chapter House, and many more fancy locations.
It was all rather hoitie toitie--imagine Melbourne's polo playing, Ferrari-owning crowd and you're right in amongst them. They notoriously didn't hire staff without a private school education or some sort of social connection, and just about every staff member was a son of this well known person, or so and so that knew so and so. I managed to get through on the private school education part, and probably because I could also twist my long fingers into bizarre shapes and hold three dinner plates at once. (There's a story there about a hot quail flying off the plate, but I'll leave that for another time).
I didn't particularly like mingling amongst the guests front of house, sporting heavy trays of wine and champagne glasses, but loved being assigned to the kitchen. It was always abuzz with certain excitement and pressure. Everything had to be just so. No that salad wasn't high enough! The jus was swirled too far to the centre of the plate! That scoop of caviar was too small! There was often yelling and swearing, red faces and irritability.
The chefs were basically like over-seers and were responsible for everyone, rushing from production line to production line, making sure everything was being plated impressively enough. They had the worst job, in my opinion. They had the time pressure upon them and had to sort of work around the time schedule of the event, even if it was not going to plan. If the speeches were going longer than expected at a wedding, and the desserts were due to come out after they finished, we had to try and keep them warm somehow until the signal came that we were ready to go. Then there was a huge influx of waiters rushing in and out with multiple plates, and then the hullabaloo was over within 5 minutes.
Sometimes we had to plate up as many as five course meals for over 1000 guests. That was the first day I came to work. It was an event held at Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building, and it was a sit down dinner. The kitchen was most impressive because it was all constructed on the day. You've never seen anything like it! There was a huge curtain separating the kitchen from the event, and it was the longest, largest kitchen set up you will ever see in your life. There were hundreds of long trestle tables set up for plating up food and as work benches, there were mobile ovens moved in and lined up in a row along the back wall. It was insane. I cant even tell you how many staff and chefs were working back of house. There were trolleys stacked with plated meals being wheeled to and fro and somehow we all had to work in silence so as not to disturb the event behind that curtain!
Anyway, I have many fond memories of working for Rowlands. And I have many more stories to come. I think I was very lucky to work with such creative and talented chefs and they taught me a lot about food. Their food is amazing, and actually turned me from borderline vegetarian to full-on carnivore. Those chefs sure do know what they're doing with a steak! But...despite being carnivore, I have a wonderful vegetarian recipe for you all today. It really ticked my fancy because it was so packed with flavour and contained no meat what so ever. You cant go past a great risotto.
I didn't have any arborio rice, so I just used regular, and it was beautiful! I guess this made it less like a typical risotto however, and it meant less stirring (good for the busy mums who could do with a few more hands. I've noted the recipe changes below if you wish to use regular rice). Improvise as you like, I don't think you can go wrong with this flavour combo!
MUSHROOM FETA RISOTTO WITH WILTED SPINACH (adapted from Ezra Pound Cake)
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 tsp. crushed garlic
1 tbsp. cooking oil
2 tbsp. white wine (we used a sweet Moscato, but dry white is great too--Chardonnay or Sauv. Blanc)
1/2 tbsp dried thyme
salt and pepper to season
5 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock if your are vegetarian)
3 tbsp. cooking oil
1 medium red onion, finely diced
2 cups rice (arborio or carnaroli is recommended, see note below)
3/4 cup white wine
5 cups spinach, stemmed and chopped
1 cup feta, crumbled
To make the topping, heat oil in a medium frypan. Saute the mushrooms and garlic in the oil for 5 minutes. Add the wine and thyme and cook for a further minute. Season with salt and pepper if desired. Turn the stove off but leave the frypan on the element to keep warm until the rice is ready.
To make the risotto, heat the stock very gently so that it is at a low simmer. In another large pot, add the oil and saute the onions until light golden brown, on a medium-high heat. Add the arborio rice* to the onions and stir with a wooden spoon until all the contents are coated in oil. Add the wine and stir continuously until the liquid is completely absorbed. Take one cup of the stock at a time and add it to the rice. Cook, stirring frequently until each cup of stock is absorbed by the rice before adding the next cup of stock. Continue this process until all the stock is absorbed. It should take about 25 minutes and the rice should be al dente. Then add the chopped spinach and cook, covered, until the spinach is bright green. Stir the feta through the rice. Serve Topped with the mushroom mixture.
*If you are not using arborio rice and just the regular rice as I did, place the wine and simmering stock together in a large pot. Saute the onion in another pan and add to the stock mixture with the rice. Cook on high until boiling and turn down to medium. Give it a stir and leave it until holes appear in the rice. Turn it off and cover, leaving it on the hot element. It should absorb all the liquid just standing still. You can add some more liquid, such as wine or water if the rice is still looking too firm, and reheat until the rice is tender. Then stir though feta, wilted spinach and top with mushroom mixture.