Dishing up plates of culinary creativity

Lynell Peck, ICC Sydney’s director of culinary service, demonstrates how event venues can have a powerful impact on local economies and communities through their culinary selection

Can you tell us how you came into this role as the founding director of culinary services at ICC Sydney?
My whole career has always been in F&B. I don’t know anything else but hospitality. My previous roles were in hotels, and then in the racing industry. When the opportunity appeared to head culinary services with the opening of ICC Sydney, it was a big opportunity many people wanted.

So I put my hat in the ring and was lucky enough that our CEO, Geoff Donaghy, felt that I would be the right fit.

Your philosophy for culinary services must have evolved as the centre grew, and then we had the pandemic. What can you tell us about that?
I was on board for 18 months before we opened eight years ago. I worked on what was going to set ICC Sydney apart from every other convention centre in the world. So a lot of research went into what other venues were offering and what was the norm.

I’ve had an interest in food that fuels your body, something many people are very conscious of now. So we weaved eating mindfully into the original food philosophy, which we call feeding your performance and we launched with this for event delegates.

Today, it’s also about fine food, and what people are interested in are the native ingredients from around Australia. We’ve got our signature cookies and we make thousands of those. My favourite is a chocolate macadamia nut, which is an Australian native nut, though a few other countries are trying to claim that.

The other thing that we’ve worked hard on with our clients is menu tastings. We take those exceptionally seriously and we have a show table to display what their tables are going to look like with their chosen menus.

Then we always bring out what we call surprise dishes, that people sometimes would never choose. At the moment we’re showcasing kangaroo, which we see as the future. It’s a very lean meat but high in protein.

What else makes you different from other venues?
The calibre of our chefs. My executive chef, Rakesh Pillai, is exceptionally well-connected. Our executive sous chef, Serkan Tamcelik, was at a world-famous hatted restaurant called Quay. And our second executive sous chef, Greg Wright, was the chef de maison for Louis Vuitton here in Sydney.

The chef de cuisine who manages all our events, Safa Kaya, was the event chef for VIP events with Turkish Airways. So he worked around the world, at events such as Formula One.

We have up to 14 movements on a plate, while most venues you’ll find only have four to five movements. And that’s a big reason why a lot of events and gala dinners are booked here at ICC Sydney. They’re spending a lot of money and are looking to raise a lot of money, and the expectation is that food is to the standard that you would get in a restaurant. We’re very proud of that.

That would be a really interesting mix.
To be very honest, it does take time for our chefs to adjust. For Wright, he kept comparing it to working on a football field. It takes them time to take that intricate recipe and then multiply it. But, thank heavens for technology.

We still tease Tamcelik because when he first turned up, he had tweezers in his jacket pocket. We told him: “Your dinner tonight is for 1,200 people, love, you’re never going to be able to pick all those little fennel flowers and pop them on the plate.” But it’s fun and we all grow and learn.

You’re also big about the way you do your wines. What’s special about it?
From the very start, our philosophy has been to support New South Wales producers, particularly the small producers. Our parent company ASM Global changed its procurement policies so that we were able to do this, because we spend tens of millions of dollars on food.

The policy change meant that we could turn around within seven days to pay the small supplier. We don’t do that for our bigger ones who are on the two-week cycle, but it’s important for these very small suppliers.

From there, I was lucky enough to have William Wilson, a wine judge for New South Wales wines, and the Australian and New Zealand boutique wines. With him at the helm, there is no such thing as buying a blended wine, an inferior product. So every wine that’s on our list has earned its place. We have the same philosophy for our beer and our soft drinks.

We also ask our small wine producers to give presentations in front of the big international brands that come because who knows what that might lead to. As you know, it’s so darn hard to get that juice into the bottles and market them so it’s a big deal to get the right exposure.

But the one thing that makes us super special, which I’m super proud of, is that ICC Sydney Convention Centre won the New South Wales Wine List of the Year award in 2022. You won’t find another convention centre in the world that did that.

Unfortunately, that upset a lot of the good restaurants so they created a category which we won in 2023 for event centres. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but that initial gong was the kind of recognition Wilson had been working all these years to get.

Congratulations on that. I believe you are also known for your edible designer corporate gifting.
Yes. My job is to have ideas that the chefs take and turn them into beautiful things. We also work with our communications team who takes the ideas and stylises them for us. I have so much luxury here in terms of talent that you wouldn’t expect to find in a convention centre.

Like this Christmas gift that looks like a fancy hat box with trays inside, and in those trays are pictures of what delicious things I want on each of the trays. And then our corporate team will get them made because we’re one of the few venues that have a full pastry kitchen.

But my favourite thing we’ve ever done for corporate is a beautiful, huge chocolate koala in a gift box. It comes with a hammer so you can smash the koala and inside are little white, milk and dark chocolate little koalas. And then in the bottom is a second drawer that has fruit pastels for people that don’t or can’t eat dairy or chocolate.

Koalas in Australia are under threat and it’s really sad. So our communications team partnered with the Wildlife Society, which meant that at Christmas we would gift our clients the chocolate koalas and they had the opportunity to donate towards the preservation of koalas in the Blue Mountains.

Where do you get inspiration for all these ideas?
I spend a lot of time reading, or rather skimming, for ideas. I’ll follow certain companies that have lovely things that I really like, for example, an English company called Rhubarb.

I send pictures all the time to the chefs, and they’ll look at it and put their stamp on things. We don’t copy, we just lift and then change it from there.

I don’t think this is a new idea, except when it comes to adopting technology. But when it comes to food, you’re often looking back at things that were served in the 1970s or 1980s. Everything comes back around again and you modernise it for what’s happening at the time.

How is your culinary philosophy and execution tied to ICC Sydney’s revenue outcomes?
Out of the whole revenue that the ICC Sydney turns each year, 35 per cent is food revenue and the other 15 per cent is beverage revenue. That’s a total of 50 per cent.

We’re very much into upcycling or recycling. We are spoiled with our uniform room that has a seamstress, who takes our damaged tablecloths and turns them into napkins. Once they become stained, they then turn into polishing cloth. So we try to keep costs down that way rather than just replacing things.

Do you follow food trends that then influence your menu?
We’ve got to be careful we don’t run off into a rabbit hole about something that’s just a short-term trend. But one of the things I have been watching for a few years now is algae, which has become popular in supplements. But I believe that is going to become one of the big nutrients that we will add to our mainstream food.

I can’t make a phone work but technology is also very important and we’ve been investing in equipment to see how we can continue to have the quality that we have, but also work smarter.

We’ve just bought ourselves a waterjet food cutter, and that’s a beautiful piece of German machinery that will cut cakes and so forth and make nice shapes, but it’ll also give us the ability to do beautiful things in chocolate so that we can create some surprises for guests and put logos on their morning tea, which they wouldn’t expect. It’s these little surprise-and-delight things that win hearts and minds.

You’ve shared many things that I did not know about the food culture at ICC Sydney. Is there anything else that might surprise us?
I love flowers, but they aren’t fabulous for the environment. So we created what we call edible centrepieces. We’ll ask our clients if they’ve considered giving back to the community. And if they like the idea, a florist will work with various vegetables and herbs or fruits from our small growers to create a centrepiece for their banquet tables.

At the end of the event, my staff undo each of the arrangements, send them down to the kitchen where the chefs put everything through e-water and then add to it to make a vegetable cassoulet, which is sent to our preferred charity, whether it’s Youth Off the Street or Matthew Talbot, who will use it to feed, those that are either homeless or in need of meals. Rather than having flowers or plastic on the table, the clients are giving back to the community.

We are also the first in Australia to introduce a carbon-friendly menu, working with our CSR manager who reviewed all our dishes so we’re now able to help our clients make informed choices as well on that front.

It sounds like there’s never a dull day for you, directing and managing ICC Sydney’s culinary services like a conductor would an orchestra.
Where else can you go for these great big shows where I get to create things and work with some pretty amazing people, not just in the culinary team, but across the ecosystem we are in? I think the culture here is quite exceptional.

You’re always planning ahead and there’s always something to look forward to, which is great and that’s what I love. So I’m very lucky.

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