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Function food meets science in new Convention Centre menu

The Forager

One of South Australia’s largest function venues has collaborated with some of the state’s leading nutrition experts to create a menu that meets the growing public appetite for healthier and fresher food.

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“It’s just not something as chefs we ultimately go out to try and do,” Adelaide Convention Centre executive chef Gavin Robertson says, acknowledging that the venue’s direct collaboration with nutritionists is somewhat unconventional.

“We love the amount of different produce that’s out in the marketplace and when you look at the food that’s available it’s really nice, but there’s a lot of it that’s not very good for you.”

The Convention Centre already had a healthy menu – Vitality – but a lack of public awareness and enthusiasm meant it wanted to change its approach for its 2018-19 menu.

“We really wanted to take it further because we knew there was going to be more awareness, more conversation about healthy [and] mindful eating,” general manager Simon Burgess says.

“We have a lot of conferences in-house dealing with obesity and clinical nutrition, a lot of medical conferences as well, and so for us it was a natural fit.”

A chance meeting between Burgess and SA Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) nutrition and metabolism theme leader Chris Proud helped turn the vision into reality.

“I was speaking to Chris Proud at a dinner in November last year and we were talking about the food,” Burgess says.

“He said, ‘What you’re actually serving here tonight is very good in terms of nutrition’, and I said, ‘It’s funny you should say that because we’ve got a Vitality menu and we’re looking at what the next step is’, and that’s when he put me onto the researcher at SAHMRI.”

From there, chef Robertson and nutritionists Professor Gary Wittert (from SAHMRI and the University of Adelaide) and Pennie Taylor (CSIRO) developed Honest Goodness, a new menu that focuses on dishes made from low-sugar and low-fat South Australian ingredients.

Braised beef cheek with sweet potato, mousseline grilled root vegetables and black pepper sauce, which features on the Honest Goodness menu.

Robertson says negotiating with the researchers proved easier than he anticipated.

“At the very beginning I thought it was going to be a very daunting task, looking at a menu of this magnitude and trying to achieve what we finally achieved.

“Once he [Gary Wittert] explained what the nutrition advice actually meant and how easy it was to take some of the things that we were using in our previous menus – a lot of the processed products – and replacing them with fresh, natural produce, it was actually quite easy.”

The new menu will roll out on July 1 and features meals made using house-made rubs (to reduce salt), house-smoked meats (to reduce nitrates) and house-made marinades and sauces (to reduce sugar).

Dishes include poached free-range Kangaroo Island eggs with poached salmon, watercress, rocket and pomegranate salad; seared ocean trout with peppercorn crust, lemon and herbs, and sweet potato, green bean, almond and barley salad; and pineapple carpaccio with lime syrup, coconut gelati and mint oil.

“The dishes in here are better for you but it’s not an out-there healthy menu, it’s just something that lets the food take centre stage,” Burgess says.

“We’re a commercial operation with an existing client base so we’re still here to serve that client, but we do feel that this is going in a good direction – using a whole-of-menu approach wherever possible.”

Robertson says compromise in the dishes was kept to a minimum.

“Some of the ingredients I wanted to use had to change slightly but at the end of the day the result is still the same, whether you’re making a charcuterie table with a lot of products that are high in nitrates and high in salts compared to the charcuterie table that we’re doing, which uses house-smoked meats.

“A lot of those products don’t have a long shelf life but they still taste the same and in some cases taste better because they’re made in-house rather than outside.”

Adopting a whole-of-menu approach was crucial for Wittert, who says reducing diners’ choices means more people will eat healthier.

Chef Gavin Robertson at work in the Convention Centre kitchen.

“It’s about fresh whole foods – fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, chicken, herbs and spices – that’s the proposition. It’s almost too simple,” he says.

“It’s also cost-neutral because if you’re not buying any of the packaged foods then you’re not having all the problems with delivery, disposal and unpacking and so forth.

“The other advantage is you then buy local produce from local food producers which are coming straight into your kitchen and not into processing, so there’s a substantial advantage for the local primary producers as well as for the nature of the food that’s being used.”

Robertson admits the new menu will take his team of around 75 chefs longer to prepare, but he says the opportunities to learn from working with raw ingredients outweighs the time factor.

“It goes to show that no matter how big your venue or your operation is, or how many people you’re catering for, you can still provide them with a wholesome product that is ultimately good for you and is of restaurant quality.”

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