Chef James Henry is used to feeding 30 people at his restaurants in Paris and, until recently, Hong Kong.
This Saturday, he’s taking on the Ninja Warrior of catering as executive chef of two events at the National Gallery of Victoria for the launch of House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture.
With 1400 mouths to feed, Henry and a team of 200 staff from Peter Rowland will create a sit-down dinner for 400 of the gallery’s major donors and some celebrities, before serving up to 30,000 – yes, 30,000 – morsels at a five-hour cocktail party.
The dinner menu alone will require eight kilograms of caviar, 400 kilograms of duck and 250 kilograms of beef.
Coming up roses … Sonya Wilson of Flowers Vasette is part of the team responsible for creating the floral installations for the Dior gala.
“I’m used to cooking for 30 people a night. I like that control,” Henry said. “For me, it’s going to be about communicating to the team how I want the food to look, how it needs to be seasoned.”
Billed as Melbourne’s answer to the Met Gala, the annual event held in New York to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the stakes are high.
Acting as our own Anna Wintour is Vogue Australia editor-in-chief Edwina McCann, who together with NGV director Tony Ellwood is chairing the event, which has been a year in the planning.
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“People don’t realise how significant this is. Dior chose to celebrate its 70th anniversary with three huge exhibitions and … one is in Melbourne,” McCann said.
Man with a plan … chef James Henry is used to cooking for 30 people, not 1400.
She said the trust Dior had shown the NGV deserved a massive celebration.
“Australia has not really had a huge event to celebrate an art gallery in the guise of what the Met Gala is about,” she said.
Anna Wintour at this year’s Met Gala, which has partly inspired the NGV Gala.
“It’s inspiring the way Anna [Wintour] and the Met have worked to point to the cultural and artistic significance of fashion … This will be our occasion in Australia to do the same thing.”
Also at the coalface has been the NGV’s events manager, Antonia Lawson, who embedded with the Met’s events team in the lead up to this year’s gala.
The NGV Gala is being billed as Melbourne’s answer to the Met Gala, minus Rihanna.
“The NGV Gala will be different in that it is a cocktail format and we’ll have a variety of areas for guests to experience,” she said.
The gala will feature several installation spaces, a whisky bar, champagne lounge and a fashion parade of designers from David Jones, which is a partner in the event.
Miranda Kerr’s wedding gown is one of the 140 pieces that will feature in the House of Dior exhibition.
After the parade, the doors of the Great Hall will open to reveal Grammy-winning singer Kimbra and a line-up of DJs who will play until “pumpkin time” in the early hours of Sunday.
McCann said the invited guest list, which includes Hollywood actress Elizabeth Olsen plus big Australian names such as Rachel Griffiths, wasn’t only “people who are ‘red carpet famous’ but significant in the creative communities”.
“You need to have international names that people will recognise and will be photographed and appear internationally,” she said.
“The Met ball is very focused on designers and celebrities but it is important for the NGV and me that those significant donors are there. This is as much their night as anyone’s.”
While it’s foremost a fashion event, food and floristry are playing significant roles.
Henry said his brief was to create something “that felt of the moment in Paris”, meaning freshness, lightness and local produce.
“It had to be elegant and fit the season in Victoria,” he said. “The hardest part was being in the European summer and thinking of a menu to create in the Melbourne winter.”
Dishes at the dinner will include a twist on the French classic, duck a l’orange; pickled crabmeat and pickled kohlrabi; and a Moreton Bay bug salad.
At the cocktail party, canapes have a strict 2.5-centimetre-square rule, to ensure guests can eat, drink and not mess their clothes.
No such rules apply to the flowers, where bigger is better. About 40 trucks filled with 30,000 stems, ranging from roses to tropical flowers, will go into a ceiling installation and two flower walls, plus other arrangements.
Sonya Wilson from Flowers Vasette in Fitzroy said a team of 20 florists would work around the clock from Thursday to prepare.
She said the vision takes inspiration from all of Dior’s creative directors, seven in all, but especially Christian Dior himself.
“It’s lovely for our staff to be really creative and research and study the artists and create something that’s faithful to the artist,” she said.
The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture runs from August 27-November 7.