Cooking with class
Two decades in, Peter Ford reflects on the journey with his catering business, what he’s created and the current state of the food industry. Read part one here.
PICTURE this, you’ve been working hard for over twenty years in your chosen profession. You’ve had some wins, and some challenges.
You’ve worked with some of the best, but also seen how you don’t want to become, specifically 37 years old, burnt out and angry at the world.
What would you do?
In the case of Peter Ford, in mid-2000 it was take six months off and train for a triathlon, the irony being, “I was able to do more training when working an a la carte job,” as he puts it.
When he started Peter Ford Catering 20 years ago, he saw many of the offerings in the market as mostly “spit roast meats and buckets of coleslaw.”
So, over the last two decades he sought to bring in the quality of an a la carte menu to wherever his clients wanted it, whether that be a park, their home or pretty much any other location you can think of.
That’s not to say Mr Ford has shunned more traditional offerings.
“We have the opportunity to do a whole animal and cold salads,” Mr Ford said. “But we also do an eight-course degustation, and we’ll do that in a marquee.”
Peter Ford Catering grew out of opportunity, he was feeling guilty about not working, his wife Louise had gone back to nursing and there was also the triathlon training.
Then opportunity came out of pretty much nowhere.
“Someone asked would you mind doing a dinner for us?” he said.
“So I did. I knocked up the dinner at the Ballarat Club. There was a caterer there who was about to have a baby and was moving on. It was serendipity, I slipped in doing the cheap arse lines and Rotary dinners.
“Then it grew, and just grew and grew.”
Still unsure about whether he knew enough to be successful in the catering game, Mr Ford sought advice from Melbourne based catering expert Markus Neilson who invited him down to work a season with his business.
“That’s where I changed my a la carte head into off-site catering,” Mr Ford said. “Up to this day we still talk and help each other out.”
Early on there was a lot of trial and error trying to deliver high-quality food from remote locations.
Things like when the three off-site ovens the team were using went Goldilocks. One was too hot, one too cold, and one just right. That meant food availability dictated when people ate.
Fast forward 20 years and Mr Ford and his team have got it down to a fine art.
“We know how to engineer the impossible, and one of the most dynamic things about Peter Ford Catering is people can’t believe we do it out of a four-by-three metre kitchen,” Mr Ford said.
“Now we say to people just tell us when you’re ready to eat and we’ll go ‘bang!’”
The thing about Peter Ford Catering is it’s a high-quality product delivering a high-quality service, and that can cost.
He takes aim at those who think they can make a sandwich for “50 cents” and whose expectation on food is cheap, but also demand high-quality.
“Well, make the sandwich for 50 cents,” Mr Ford said. “But don’t go out and expect a business to make it for 50 cents when they are paying rent, dishwashers, power bills, and they’ve brought the crockery and the tomatoes. Like get real people.
“I pay $41 to $42 a kilo for flathead, I pay over $3 for a lamb cutlet and we do a rack of lamb and it cost me $9.50 and I haven’t even started cooking it.”
Mr Ford and his team have been able to combat that dichotomy of high-quality verses low cost by delivering on the former.
Essentially, you get what you pay for and his reputation precedes him, with clients often willing to recommend the business.
“We deliver and we have integrity,” he said. “I cook in people’s homes, they are there with us.
“But to maintain the quality you have to say if you want to pay $30 for a three-course meal, expect to pay a dollar for your meat.”
It hasn’t always been perfect fairy tale for Peter Ford Catering over the stretch. There have been significant challenges.
His quaint but functional little commercial kitchen in Wendouree, which is actually an old butcher shop hidden away in a strip mall that Mr Ford got on amazing terms, well, he almost lost it.
In a desire to do more he expanded the business to a permanent café, rolled the sweetheart loan for the Wendouree kitchen into a principal and interest mortgage, and when the café went south he nearly lost the lot.
“I opened the café and had the catering business and let everything go to shit,” he said. “That’s the paradox. You can have a brilliant chef who’s a crap businessman, or you have a great businessman who relies on the archetypal fiend chef.”
If it hadn’t been for his suppliers and customers who rushed to help save the business, the 20-year mark might never have happened.
“I love that people love our brand that much,” he said. “People gathered round because they didn’t want to see Peter Ford Catering disappear and they all put their money in.”
It’s lucky in many ways, the business didn’t go under. Mr Ford employs over 30 wait staff, as well as kitchen hands, chefs and support staff.
“We’ve got a very eclectic crew,” he said. “We work with what we have, so in an age where there’s not that many qualified chefs available now, we’re training everybody up to carry the role.
“We embrace the human condition. We have families work here and they come and go from the kitchen as they need to, so long as the truck is packed with food to the standards that we command.”
Looking back over the length of his full journey through the food industry, Mr Ford is keenly celebrating the return of the chef as a master craftsman.
It’s a long way from where it all began.
“Chefs are at such a premium at the moment,” he said. “It’s a great time to be a chef for various reasons. They are highly sought out and in some ways conditions are improving.
“Back in the 80s there was the shaming of the trades. We were going to have a clever country, we all should be tertiary educated, let’s push kids through. So, we had a lot of disenfranchised youth who really had to use their hands.
“There’s people who do trade, and there’s people who use their minds, people who use personality. We lost all that opportunity. Now we’re praising everyone for bringing back the trade schools. We shouldn’t have lost them in the first place.”