Catering in China: A Great Tale from the Great Wall

Our Designer’s Notebook series continues with an event profile by Debra Lykkemark from Culinary Capers Catering, Beijing

In a spectacular setting on the Great Wall of China, vibrant street food stalls served up tastes of China for a group of almost 1,000 guests from 65 countries, all executives of a worldwide corporation.

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The colorful market scene featured chefs in custom built stalls offering the diverse flavors of the region featuring interactive preparations such as a live action noodle station and Peking duck being carved and hand rolled for the guests. Local flavors were also a highlight of the drink menu including custom designed cocktails flavored with Baijiu, the traditional southern China rice wine.

Catering in China on the Great Wall required a full year of planning involving very detailed preparation for coordinating multiple suppliers from different cities according to the timeline and budget of the client.

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Government permits and regulations must be strictly followed to ensure there are no surprises during the event. The venue has strict regulations about not impeding the tourist flow during the set up for an event. Special barriers were erected to guide people around and through our event area to allow our staff to set up the street market. On the event day, there was a major thunderstorm two hours prior to the start time, however the guests arrived to clear skies that allowed them to fully appreciate the dramatic scene on the Great Wall.

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The section of the Great Wall that was used for this event was open to the public from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on the day of the event. Our challenge was how to set up the event and be ready to execute with 955 people arriving at 5:15 pm. Working with the Great Wall management, and the other companies involved, we were able to section off areas to allow tourists access while providing enough space for our staff to set up all our tables, benches, tents and street food stalls. Temporary fences were used to guide the tourists through our set up area for both days of our set up and the event day. The production timeline for all the suppliers for set up needed to be followed exactly to ensure all of catering and production could be unloaded with enough time for set up.

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Following a two-day setup, guests arrived to the event from a spectacular day hike on the Wall. They were greeted with a refreshing jasmine and mint green iced tea served in bespoke glass jars. Four themed bar stations set up around the seating area offered a choice of two signature cocktails, either a chili strawberry martini or a “Baijito” which was a mojito infused with the traditional Chinese rice wine Baijiu.

The event menu was designed to offer the experience of traditional Chinese street food and still accommodate the palette of international guests. As well as all food items meeting Halal requirements, chefs also needed to meet specific dietary requirements for 168 different allergies and special requests.

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The lively street market contained six different themed food stalls and three of each type of stall for a total of 18 stalls. A live action salad food stall served grilled chicken, ahi tuna or a vegetarian option all served with baby greens, spinach, daikon, pineapple, orange, glass noodles and cashew nuts. Salads were prepared in an oversized wok and served in white Chinese take-out containers with chopsticks. Master noodle chefs prepared a choice of three different noodle dishes: a braised beef bowl; seafood bowl with squid, shrimp, scallops and mushroom; and a vegetarian bok choy bowl.

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No Chinese culinary experience would be complete without dumplings and the stalls offered a selection of steamed dumplings served in bamboo boats including: beef and fennel; shrimp, celery and water chestnuts; and mushroom with assorted vegetables. One very traditional street food type is the local Chuar which are small pieces of meat roasted on skewers. Each stall had a chef serving up a selection of lamb, beef, chicken, as well as vegetable, and prawn and scallop skewers flavored with traditional spices. A Peking duck station featured chefs freshly carving the duck and hand rolling them into thin pancakes with an assortment of condiments.

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Another beloved Beijing street food is Jian Bing, a savory pancake with egg, hoisin sauce, green onion, cilantro and crispy wonton served in the traditional manner in wax paper wrapped in a newspaper.

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Around the seating area our team used stacked wooden crates for dessert buffets and set up on the crates was an array of: carrot cake bites with candied ginger cream cheese and toasted walnut; turtle trifle layers of chocolate mousse; salted caramel; and cranberry bread pudding bites with a hint of white chocolate.

In all, a crew of 110 was needed to pull this off. We met the exact requirements of our client for all equipment, flatware and glassware as well as unique and custom designed food stalls we used suppliers from three different provinces in China. Six months of planning directly with the suppliers to ensure the delivery times, set up and tear down times could be met on an exacting time schedule. Site inspections were done and all sample products were double checked months in advance of the event. Even with careful planning, a major stumbling block arose with the food stall company. They had delivered all the stalls on a truck two days before the event at the venue. Our plan was to have them unloaded at 9:30 am on the day before the event. When the time came to unload the cargo, we were informed that the stall supplier wanted the remaining 50% payment in cash right then and there before unloading the truck. Being on the Great Wall and getting 12,000 RMB in cash posed a bit of a problem. Adam, our supervising event planner, had our tent supplier drive him to an ATM in the nearest village. When he returned, the stall supplier then asked for the damage deposit to be paid in full in cash as well which was another 22,000 RMB! All these payments had been set up in our contract with bank transfers, however, our hands were tied at the venue. Another fun fact is that you can only take out 20,000 RMB per day from your ATM bank account. Adam had to get the office to transfer money to our sales assistant who was on-site at the event so the two of them could both go back to an ATM and take out the remaining money.

Even with all this drama, or dare I say, because of it, catering on the Great Wall of China was an experience like none other!

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Debra Lykkemark is CEO and founder of Culinary Capers Catering in Vancouver and Beijing. Debra served on the International Caterers Association Executive Board for nine years, including a two year term as President. She is been a highly regarded and frequent featured speaker at the top international special event conferences. She has been featured by Profit magazine for several years as one of Canada's top 100 women business owners. Other career highlights include successfully launching Culinary Capers Catering on to the international stage by taking part in three Olympic Games: Torino, Italy in 2006, Beijing, China in 2008, and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. In 2008, excited about the opportunity for growth in the Beijing market, Debra partnered with Executive Chef Billy Kawaja to open a second catering company, Culinary Capers Beijing Catering and Special Events.

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