How do you cater for 4,000 extremely important people and make sure the main course stays hot, the food does not offend anyone's religious beliefs, and that the VIPs served last do not get huffy at having to wait and cause a diplomatic row? These are some of the problems that the organisers of the official handover banquet at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre have to face - but do not ask them how they are going to cope, because they certainly are not telling anyone. 'I'm sorry, I can't answer that. No, I can't answer that either. It's for security reasons; this is very sensitive. We've been hired by the Government and we don't want to release any information. We are not in a position to reveal anything.' When communications manager for the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Florence Lai, told me she could not reveal any sensitive information related to the food or catering for tomorrow's official handover banquet, I did not think she meant she could not answer any questions at all. The press release she sent mentioned only that there would be around 300 tables, it would be a three-course Western meal, French champagne and red and white wines would be served, and Berendorf and Baucher manufactured the silver and china ware. It was not a very exciting press release. In order to get an idea of the trials and tribulations the Convention Centre organisers might encounter in catering for so many VIPs, I spoke with The Excelsior hotel's Dermot DeLoughry and Kurt Binggeli. An executive chef for more than 20 years, Mr Binggeli has had a lot of experience in large-scale catering and was previously in charge of the kitchens at the old Convention Centre. 'The biggest banquet I've ever catered for was in Thailand. There were around 5,500 guests. Probably 40 to 50 per cent were VIPs, including the king and queen of Thailand,' Mr Binggeli said. 'For really large banquets, everything depends on planning and having the proper equipment. The kitchen facilities at the Convention Centre are immense and up-to-date.' Food and beverage director Mr DeLoughry anticipates that the Convention Centre organisers will need a minimum of 550 people working at the banquet, serving and preparing the food. 'In the front of the house will be waiters, who are supervised by section heads who will in turn be supervised by banquet head waiters. The banquet manager will co-ordinate everybody,' Mr DeLoughry said. 'The organisers should run through everything at least twice, telling waiters where to stand, how they want everybody to be served. They will plan everything down to the last detail.' How do they decide which VIPs are served first and which VIPs have to wait for their food? 'I wouldn't even get involved with that decision,' said Mr DeLoughry. 'The best way to deal with it is to have other people, like the handover organisers, decide. It's best not to get involved with the politics. 'If they are well organised, which I am sure they will be, it won't take long to serve everybody, probably less than 25 minutes from the time the first guests are served to when the last guests receive their food. They won't have to wait that long.' The main hall of the Convention Centre, where the guests will be sitting, is massive. But most of the action will take place out of sight, in the corridors and kitchen, said Mr Binggeli. 'It might be chaotic back there, but the guests will not see that. In front of the guests everything should seem smooth and seamless.' Guests will be served an appetiser of smoked Scottish salmon, a main course of stuffed chicken breast and for dessert, fruit pudding. 'You can't serve beef or pork because too many people cannot or will not eat those meats. Most people will eat chicken,' said Mr DeLoughry. Chefs also had to prepare a vegetarian option. 'It's not just as simple as cooking 4,000 of the same meal; you have to cook alternate dishes in case somebody has special dietary requirements. You hope that the organisers told you ahead of time, but they might miss someone. You have to make extra special meals just in case,' Mr DeLoughry pointed out. Mr Binggeli added: 'I can understand why the organisers decided to have a Western meal. With Chinese food they would have to make too many courses and there's more of a possibility of something going wrong. 'The dinner won't be haute cuisine; that's impossible for so many, but it still has to be good. It will be a very simple meal, nothing fancy. They're only serving three courses. The first course is a cold appetiser; that and the dessert can be plated up ahead of time. All they really have to worry about is the main course.' It is not possible to cook 4,000 chicken breasts at the last minute, Mr Binggeli said. 'They will probably use the cook-chill method; I know they have the facilities for this at the Convention Centre. With cook-chill, you cook the food ahead of time, but not all the way. After it's cooked, it's put in a flash freezer, which chills it from 45 degrees down to one degree in less than 45 minutes. When it's chilled this fast the bacteria does not have time to grow. When it's time for the banquet, you plate up the food and put it in trolleys. The trolleys are rolled into large convection ovens, and it takes only about 10 to 12 minutes to re-heat the food until it's fully cooked. All it needs is the sauce and garnish.' Mr DeLoughry said that cooking on a very large scale is nothing out of the ordinary. 'Over at The Excelsior on handover night we will probably be doing at least 4,000 covers in all the different outlets. It will be different from the Convention Centre banquet because people won't need to be served all at once; it's more spread out. Guests will come into the restaurants and order, and the food will go out at different times. In a banquet, it's like a battle. A lot of preparation, then everything is calm. Then you'll have a big rush to do everything at once. 'Sometimes it's difficult to anticipate everything. I was once at a meal for Prince Philip. We did a lot of preparation and we checked and re-checked everything. When the waiter went to pour Prince Philip his first glass of wine he turned and asked for a glass of pale ale. That was the only thing we didn't have, and we had to run to the pub next door to get it. 'I can see why the Convention Centre people don't want to release too much information. The eyes of the world will be on them. It will be a terrible thing if you did all this planning and then you spill gravy down Thatcher's back.'