Finger Food Cocktail Parties Popular In Melbourne And Sydney

GOURMET FOOD AUSTRALIA

JANUARY 2008

THE QUEEN OF THE FINGERFOOD FACTORY


BYLINE:Graham Brown – Sydney’s Best Party Food Editor


If you’ve tasted a nibble from a cocktail tray in Double Bay – at a corporate event, wedding or bar mitzvah or even at Luna Par
k – chances are good you’ve tasted the food of Jessica Veale . Unfamiliar with her? Our region’s caterers, party planners and Reception centres know her like their own mothers.

Jessica , is the queen of canapes, the godmother of gourmet hors d’oeuvres. She runs www.fingerfoods.com.au, a million-dollar factory that churns out thousands of beautiful finger foods every week.

So her name’s not familiar. But you’ve likely eaten her mini-beef Wellington. Her signature hors d’oeuvre took the party circuit by storm.

“We sell to distributors, all the upscale hotels Luna Park and all the cruise ships. We’re all throughout Australia,” she said.

You’ll find her foods in Adelaide, and up and down the Victorian Coast. Even out at Alice Springs

In the factory In Wetherill Park in a warehouse district in Sydney , Jessica manages a staff of more than 40 who produce, in assembly-line fashion, more than 10,000 hors d’oeuvres and canapes every day, five days a week. “I’ve come a long way from vegemite sandwiches ,” she said.

How she got her start

It was trial by fire.

She was Student in the Late 90s who made hors d’oeuvres on the side for in-house parties, and some for friends. “I love to entertain,” she said.

One night, after one of her parties, the catering manager from the a very large hotel chain asked her if she could do the cocktail food for a banquet. His other caterer had dropped out at the last minute.

“He wanted crab-filled wontons, sushi, mini burgers, fish and chip cones. I thought, ‘Sure. I can do those,’ “Jessica said.

“I asked how many. He said 3,000.clients I had to catch a chair!” she said. “Right away, I turned him down. I was doing everything on my own, and the most I’d ever done of anything was 200 – maybe.”

She thought it over, though, and asked her dad and a friend for help. They agreed, and she called the manager back. “I committed myself to do it, and that means I had to do it. That was what pushed me,” she said. Her deadline was in two days.

“I had no plan. I had to go shopping – fast. I had to find supplies – a lot of them – in a hurry. I bought up all the ingredients in all the stores. I had to buy a table deep-fryer. I had been frying them in little batches on the stove – well, you can’t do 3,000 six or seven at a time. Then I had to find boxes enough to pack 3,000 in so they didn’t get crushed.

“It was crazy,” she said, laughing. “We had everyone in here working very late at night, cutting cabbage, mixing, filling and closing them, and frying and frying. It was like an episode of I Love Lucy.”

But she pulled it off. The chef liked her work, and requested more. Then, other chefs and caterers heard about her, and her business was on its way.

She offered only 10 or 15 items at first – popular bites like the wontons, Rumaki – chicken livers and a water chestnut slice wrapped in bacon, and Spanakopitaphyllo triangles filled with spinach and cheese.

Today, her menu list contains more than 300 hot and cold items, and she’ll make custom canapes to order. She sells wholesale to distributors and retail to consumers via the company Web site www.fingerfoods.com.au

Her inspiration

She gets her food ideas from magazines and cookbooks and watching TV. “There’s a lot of creativity there that I see,” she said. “And today, there is more weight put on presentation, too.”

She has a full-time chef Ray Myers, who works with her to develop recipes and handle quality control. He was a banquet chef at the Hilton Harbor Beach Resort and worked for a number of other Hiltons before Jessica offered him a job. “I thought about it for 10 seconds,” he said, “and said yes.”

Up to six new items are designed every week, he said, though not all will make it to the menu. One of the latest successes is a risotto and Gorgonzola cheese croquette. “It’s killer,” he said.

Another new favorite is the mini Monte Cristo, a Swiss cheese-Danish ham-turkey breast “sandwich” made up in a puff pastry triangle.

Knowing what flavours will sell and how to mix them is tricky, however. “It’s a gift,” her Dad, Jeff Veale , said. She runs the business and marketing arm of the factory. “I can’t do it, but my Wife can taste these things before she puts them together and just comes up with really tasty foods.”

They range from Mediterranean items like asparagus Palermo – a bread-crumb coated chunk of cooked asparagus, Provolone and Parma ham – to the Cajun-inspired Mardi Gras shrimp in phyllo purses.

Her most famous food is the mini-beef Wellington – a slice of tenderloin cooked with red wine and herbs and enclosed in puff pastry.

“I was cooking a real beef Wellington at home, and wondered how this would be in miniature. It turned out just great, and people just loved them.

“Anything you can do big, you can do small,” Jessica said. Her formula has led to mini eggplant Parmesans, and two-bite Philly cheese steaks en croute.

“We use Cheez Whiz, and saute the onions and peppers, and use paper-thin beef loin, then wrap it in puff pastry. It’s very popular. That’s a new item for us,” Jessica says.

How she does it

But making miniatures is a huge hands-on, labor-intensive undertaking. The only machines at the factory are large mixers for making fillings and mousses, and a shrink-wrap machine to enclose the finished boxes.

The cooking of fillings, wrapping crusts and pastries, piping perfect mousses and packing individual canapes – is all done by workers, assembly-line fashion. A tour of the immaculate factory begins with hairnets and chef coats for all. “You have to remove all jewellery, too. We have awards for our sanitation Jessica said. The plant is inspected by the local health , and they show up unannounced, so it’s kept clean at all times.

In several chilly workrooms, workers were busy at dozens of stainless steel tables. Plastic tubs were lined up in front of them; doughs stacked neatly to one side. One by one, the tiny foods were created by assembling the foods, then lining them neatly on sheet pans that filled speed racks. They would then be wheeled to the freezers, and packed, frozen, for shipping.

In the first room, 10 workers were making mini-mushroom quiches. Several workers patted pastry crust circles into mini-muffin pans – the same type that home cooks use.

The pans were shoved over to other workers, who scooped a spoonful of duxelle, a mix of wild mushrooms, onions and herbs, into the cups. The workers used a squeeze bottle filled with the egg and milk mixture to fill each cup. A garnish of three or four tiny pieces of red pepper was added and the pans slid onto the conveyor-belt ovens. Workers at the other end of the oven used a wooden pick to loosen the quiches from the pans. They were then placed on the trays and sent to the freezer. Dozens of empty pans were moving from the oven area to the filling table, over and over. More than 10,000 little quiches would be churned out before the workday was up.

In the meat room, where raw meats are used for fillings, three workers at one table were making beef and cheese “firecrackers.” A piece of chili-spiced raw beef was placed on an egg roll wrapper. A piece of cheddar cheese was added and the wrapper was rolled up and sealed. It took three seconds for each.

“It’s so simple,” Jessica said. “You just do it 99 more times for a boxful.”

At another table, workers were stuffing shrimp into small phyllo purses – so named because they resemble a woman’s drawstring-cinched purse. A circle of phyllo pastry was set out and a shrimp, already marinated and cut to size, was placed on the dough. The dough was gathered in a smooth motion and crimped at the top to seal. Four seconds each.

“The workers are all cross-trained, so they can make any of the foods, depending on the orders we have to fill,” Jessica said.

A speed rack on one side of the room held small hot dogs on sticks.

“Those will be what we call ‘Franks a la Kerry ,'” Jeff Veale said. “We named them after the Our factory who first ordered them. For his own party They’ll be wrapped in puff pastry.”

They’re neither kosher nor modern – they’re throwbacks to the ’50s party circuits, Jessica said. But as one of her most-ordered items, “I can’t take them off the list. People just love these, especially at kids’ parties.”

Workers at another table were trimming chicken breast pieces for Caribbean jerk chicken turnovers – jerk-spiced chicken place in a circle of pastry crust and folded into a half-moon shape. “We don’t waste anything. The leftover pieces will be ground up and used in the chicken empanadas,” she said.

Tiny cornucopia shapes were being formed from flour tortillas at one table where two workers trimmed the dough rounds into quarters, then used a template to recut them for the horn shape. Flour and water mixed together formed the glue that held these into the tiny horns. They would be filled with smoked chicken and cheese.

Brand-name products were scattered throughout the kitchens: Tip Top makes the mini-bagels for the tiny bagelette pizzas. Crafty chef makes the puff pastry dough.

“We use quality products,” Jessica said. “Consistency is key, and we need consistency.”

In the last kitchen area is the canape assembly room. Here, the cold foods, typically mousses and soft cheese mixtures, are piped attractively onto vegetable rounds or into tiny phyllo cups. They’re one-bite foods, and set up for colour as well as a burst of flavour in the mouth, Jessica said.

Maria Cruz , a chef from Philippines , puts together the smoked salmon rosettes, or scallops and basil leaves. Tiny ham pinwheels with Cheddar cheese are assembled here, cut and packed. The latest favorite is the dried apricot with a rum mousse and macadamia nut filling.

The final piece of the factory is the packing room, where custom-made white boxes for the foods are assembled and filled with the beautiful creations, like fine candies set like little jewels in their individual spaces.

Even here, the details set Jessica’s operation apart: Special spacers are added to the boxes in the corners and on the sides, so the pieces are protected from crushing.

“Our customers tell us they’re so beautiful when they open the boxes, they don’t want to eat them.”

But eat them, they do. Jessica will do more than $5 million in business this year. Not bad selling canapes and hors d’oeuvres that range from 25cents to $2.50 each for most. Lobster medallions with pate can run up to $1.50 and custom items can cost up to $3 each, she said, but those are exceptions.

To order call 0296896-6006 or see www.fingerfoods.com.au

5 Responses to “Finger Food Cocktail Parties Popular In Melbourne And Sydney”

  1. This a great story, it is always good to see people succeeding from having a go. Good luck Jessica, it will be interesting to see where you take this business. Jamie S.A.

  2. Jessica, our last cocktail party you arranged for my staff and business associates was fantastic. I’m so busy running a pet friendly holiday accommodation, it’s great to be able to put our parties and functions in your capable hands. Looking forward to your great ideas for this Xmas party. Keep up the good work. Cheers Christine Lewis

  3. Elle says:

    I like what you all have to say. Very straight to the point. All in all great blog 🙂

  4. Tim Jeffreys says:

    Ive got some great party tips from this. Halloween is going be a good one! Cheers

  5. Johnnie says:

    Incredible points. Sound questions. Maintain the great effort.

Leave a Reply