So Much More Than Just Canapes
From small beginnings in 2000 to go-to catering for many of London’s largest companies and museums, as well as private parties, Rocket Food offers the unique and spectacular
Article by Rupert Watkins
Say catering and thoughts of limp canapes and tepid white is likely to drift across your mind. However, nothing could be further from the truth today with London catering firms testing the boundaries of cooking, event management and party planning. Foremost amongst these is Rocket Food. Founded in 2000 by Michael Symonds and his sister, Caroline, Rocket food has become the favoured caterer of many of the City’s largest corporate firms and South Kensington’s famous museums.
Wanting to do something different upon graduating, Michael worked in the hospitality arena as front of house. Working in the 1990s, he saw the rise of professional party planning and how people’s expectations both blatantly and subtly evolved over the decade. Caroline had trained as a chef before working for Ferrari Formula 1. Having studied in Italy, Caroline had been imbued with the Italian belief in simplicity in cooking and allowing the quality of the ingredients to do the talking. “We realised there was a gap in the evolving market and following a family council of war (our parents found themselves directors), Rocket Food was founded” Michael recalls with a smile.
Rocket’s care and focus on the food soon found them catering to a number of Bond Street shop events – Michael laughs as he recalls running between boutiques balancing trays of canapes – and this initial success allowed them to make inroads in the corporate world of the Square Mile, “our focus on the finest ingredients and simplicity of flavour just meant our food was better than the competition” Michael says. From there, Rocket found itself catering for the V&A and National History Museum.
Through all this, the firm continued to do private work for weddings and other events, the balance today is around 65/35 corporate to private work. “We used to do a lot more of the old school ‘rectory wedding party’ events” Michael says, “but tastes, times and the standard of catering outside of London has meant we no longer see quite as many of those.”
This success has led to Rocket Food growing to have a healthy turnover of £8 million and a full-time staff of 35 including 12 chefs. The catering trade is seasonal, so the central kitchen-based team often swells to 30 with another dozen preparing food at event locations and anything up to 300 front of house during the busiest periods such as London Fashion Week when Rocket Food is catering to multiple events. “We have a close relationship with a number of agencies we’ve used since the start and we turn to them almost every week” Michael explains, “some of our surge staff we’ve had working for us for years and see them as part of the Rocket family.” Several of the permanent staff have been with Caroline and Michael since day one.
Over the years, the team at Rocket have seen substantial changes in the industry. “The standard of food across the board has gone through the roof” Michael remarks, “we have always stood for absolute quality and we have a reputation for pushing the envelope of what can be achieved and presented at any given event. There’s also no doubt client expectations have risen even more dramatically.” Caroline and Michael also see a similar problem that confronts many of London’s best restaurants, a shortage of talented chefs. “The trade has had two issues; firstly as a career, catering and being a chef has never been sold as well as it should be and secondly, the cult of the celebrity chef has meant that too many young chefs believe after barely a couple of years in their first good restaurant, they can take a pop up and cut out the years of refining their culinary and kitchen management skills. Given the diversity at Rocket of our events, we could be dealing with classical Italian cuisine one evening and contemporary Thai fusion the next – we look for breadth of knowledge and ability in our chefs.”
Another challenge that Rocket has had to adapt to has been the increase in red tape, this manifests itself in a number of ways, “firstly, the requirement to list ingredients and calorie content becomes ever more stringent” says Michael, “compliance has also affected us in another way; the need for our corporate clients to get the correct sign – offs for event budgets, what they can place in front of their guests – and what they can accept themselves – in this post 2008 environment.”
Event briefs are a varied as Rocket Food’s clients. Whilst most clients ask for food, drink, staff and tables, Rocket Food can supply much more if needed working with trusted suppliers and flower arrangers, Michael remarks they currently see a trend to having food stalls at various points around a room to complement traditional waiting staff, “these add visual and conversational features to the event as well which we find people respond to.” As mentioned, Rocket can work with Southern American to Indian cuisine though their house style – unsurprisingly given Caroline’s background – is rooted in classical European cooking.
Drinks wise, Rocket Food deals with several smaller wine merchants such as The Vintner though it also has a partnership with Berry Bros & Rudd; they also deal with Fevertree and Square Root sodas and also mix freshly pressed fruit sodas which they find are always a popular option. Like others in the industry Michael feels, “the gin market has become totally saturated, whisky, rum and mezcal are seen as more interesting or edgy.” He also sees the moves towards lower ABV drinks and agrees with the increasing trend this magazine has also heard from several directions over the past year of people wishing to drink less but better quality.
With such varied clientele, demands on the staff are high. Rocket Food runs extensive in-house training and offers WSET qualifications to its managers. However, on the side Michael and Caroline have pushed a charitable angle to the firm’s work. They support the Ace of Clubs shelter in Clapham and three times a year the company heads to the shelter to cook lunch and serve at the counters. Rocket also works alongside City Harvest to ensure any leftovers go to the homeless.
Sustainability has become a watchword in recent years, especially in the catering industry, “we have had a massive cull of plastics” Michael remarks, “staff also bring in their own water bottles and take these off-site to events and we will not accept polystyrene and plastic wrapped food.” With the Blue Planet inspired #nostraws push, these are now a complete no-no. Working with City Harvest means that should an event be over catered the excess will not go to waste though as Michael comments, “there’s clearly an expectation by our clients we won’t run out of food – it’s about careful and methodical planning and matching expectations to ensure the balance remains spot on.”
In an ever faster revolving city, Michael has found the pace of communication has sped up, “we are a relationship-based industry, when we first started clients often rang up and straight away you began building that rapport, now all too frequently that starter conversation is a two line email before you start talking to people.” Given the importance, both professional and emotional, of many of the events Rocket Foods caters understanding the detail early is critical to pulling off a cracking bash. Though clearly unable to give details, Michael has cherished stand out memories from Rocket Food’s life – mainly it seems weddings for just the extra intimacy and uniqueness they are able to successfully pull out the bag. Those seeking far, far more than some nuts and a few bottles of white (this firm was the 2017 canape winner in Country Life) should seek out Rocket Food when the boss turns to you and says, “right….. I think we need a party……”
Enquiries: 0207 6222320 / www.rocketfood.com/