Imagine: You're a second-year hospitality student who has spent the past year learning about theories, imagining how these are applied to real-world situations, when opportunity knocks. You and your peers are given a chance to prepare and serve a meal for veteran chef and restaurateur Tony Astle.
Last month, Tony Astle, affectionately known as the 'Godfather' of New Zealand's fine dining scene, received one of AUT's highest honours, a Seddon Honorary Fellowship.
The dinner was a success. But what made it a success? Was it the people, the food, the wine, or all of it? Read on to find out...
Professor Pare Keiha and Lindsay Neill nominated Tony for a fellowship last year. A committee with people from the School of Hospitality and the Vice-Chancellor's Office organised a dinner at a time where Tony's closest friends could be in attendance.
Lindsay, a senior lecturer in hospitality, says "Tony has worked with the School of Hospitality for many years and spent time on the advisory board. He has a commitment to the art of fine dining, so it was important that his dining experience honoured this."
School of Hospitality lecturers Geoff Scott, Mario Basnayake and Martin Bugler were involved with the creation and development of the evening. Geoff, who has 38 years' experience working in the industry, oversaw the culinary students and helped to design the menu, while Mario and Martin oversaw the logistics involving the front of house students, ensuring the evening flowed optimally.
Each area was responsible for creating an aspect of the dining experience – front of house staff (those who serve the food and wine), culinary staff (those who are preparing the meals), the wine, food, glassware, cutlery, table setting – everything was created to enhance the overall experience of the evening.
"This was a key component in creating an x factor for the evening, by doing things in his honour. This approach underpinned our holistic hospitality experience."
As soon as the dinner was announced, the second-year hospitality students put their hands up in droves to be a part of this special event. It was important to ensure that the right students were involved as managing pressure, dealing with uncertainty, and flexibility are essential parts of the job. Sixteen students were ultimately selected – eleven working in front of house roles, and five culinary chefs.
Geoff Scott says the students were very proud to take part.
"We were all impressed with how much they knew about Tony Astle, particularly his preferences, and his love of creating a fine-dining experience. The level of enthusiasm was abundant.
The team organised a practice run of the dinner earlier in the day to ensure everything would run seamlessly during that evening. The dishes were produced and tested at least two days before the event, and Cameron Douglas, an AUT staff member and Master Sommelier, was tasked with ensuring the wine complemented the food.
Mario Basnayake and Martin Bugler say strong service standards are key in creating a memorable event, and front of house staff is a vital component to the overall service experience.
Two hours before the event, the first and second-year students undertook a test run to build confidence. Although it went well, the students were nervous, as they wanted to ensure they did a good job.
"This took them out of their comfort zones. Being in a front of house role, they wanted to do a good job and it made them step up," says Martin.
Geoff Scott has known Tony for many years and says it was an honour and a privilege to introduce his students to a VIP, as well as high levels of excellence and professionalism.
As Geoff knows Tony, he knows he loves tripe and that not a lot of people like it. "When the menu was discussed, no one wanted to include tripe, so I prepared tripe as a side dish for him which was served in a silver tureen. Tony later says he loved the tripe and thanked me for going the extra mile."
When asked about his thoughts of the evening, Tony Astle says he was totally blown away. "I am very humbled by everyone who gave up their time to make the evening so special. From the service staff to the team who designed the menu and everyone else, my faith in the future of this industry is solidified."
Jaxon Foster, an aspiring student chef, says "it was a privilege being able to cook with some amazing and talented chefs. Everyone seemed calm because they knew what they were doing. It was also a great privilege meeting Tony Astle."
Belinda McKenzie, a student who worked front of house, says "I enjoyed the event and was glad to be a part of it since I learned new things along the way and had the chance to meet well-known people.
"Martin and Mario's courses and tutorials were quite beneficial in helping me learn the basic ideas of front of house and how it functions. I don't think I would have had the confidence to be part of the front of house staff if it hadn't been for their advice."