MCEC Tony Panetta(MCEC Executive Chef, Tony Panetta)

I’ve visited many conference and function centres both in Australia and abroad over the years and to be quite honest, the food is generally the lowlight of any event. This perception was thrown out the window on my very first visit to the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC). I’ll admit, initially I thought it might be just a lucky one-off, however subsequent visits have confirmed that this is simply the standard MCEC aspires to.

They have a stated commitment to using the best seasonal and locally sourced, Victorian produce and more importantly, they consistently live up to these values. In choosing to do so, MCEC exposes domestic and international visitors to the incredible range and variety of amazing produce Victoria has to offer and help affirm Victoria’s reputation as one of the gourmet deli’s of Australia. So committed are they to this mission and to pushing the boundaries of a commercial kitchen that they have their own food blog – From Farm to Fork; so, I was clearly intrigued to learn more about the man and the passion driving this unique kitchen.

Tony Panetta joined the MCEC kitchen as Sous Chef in 2010 and stepped up to Executive Chef in 2011. Cooking is clearly in his blood; he started helping out in his parent’s Italian café when he was just eight years old, where alongside his mum they cooked dishes inspired by their Calabrese heritage. Tony has worked in many well-known Melbourne institutions in Carlton, Collingwood and Southbank. Tony generously gave me a tour of this amazing space. It is completely custom designed and equipped with giant commercial dehydrators, ovens, thermomixes and Tony’s most recent and favourite acquisition: a centrifugal strainer. Oh, and the biggest salad bowl I’ve ever seen – you could almost have a bath in it! I was blown away by the sheer size and scale of it and am left full of admiration for the incredible work they do and the standard to which they do it. I also managed to squeeze in a few questions along the way, which will give you a personal perspective on what it’s like to work there.



MCEC Chefs plating up (Chef’s plating up)

iven that it is the largest commercial kitchen in the southern hemisphere, there are some amazing statistics about what your kitchen can produce. Can you share some of these with us?

– The Southern Hemisphere’s largest kitchen: 97m long – 15 chefs and 70 assistants from 24 nationalities.
– In one month we can cook for up to 300 events.
– We produce more than 200 litres of our medal-winning yoghurt each week.
– Use more than 2.2 tonnes of beef tenderloin each year
– Use more than 5.6 tonnes of chicken breast each year
– This July we fed more than 14,000 delegates at the International AIDS Conference 2014

 MCEC beautiful heirloom carrots

MCEC Oysters and Tomatoes


MCEC has a stated commitment to showcasing Victorian produce. Was that something you started when you joined the team? What are some amazing but perhaps lesser known items being grown or produced here in Victoria?

Our approach is simple: to think local and support Victorian producers and suppliers. This philosophy was in place when I took over as Executive Chef in 2011, but it has dramatically grown since. We’ve gone from having eight local suppliers to over 40 and we’re working to grow that number more every day. Perhaps lesser known items would be our heirloom carrots and green tomatoes from Yarra Valley Gourmet Greenhouse. Also our olive jam and oil – we work with Tarago Olives in West Gippsland to blend our own flavours.


MCEC chefs visit Sher Wagyu in Ballan(MCEC chef’s visit Sher Wagyu in Ballan)

What’s the most difficult dish you have had to make during your time at MCEC and the secret to replicating it consistently over and over?

We’re a well-oiled machine and we’ve had lots of practice. Regardless of event size or scale, whether it’s canapés for 20 or a dinner for 2000, we apply the small restaurant thinking to the large number game.  It comes down to a lot of trial and error to perfect the dish before we will consider adding it to the menu. In regards to difficulty we often have to replicate dishes designed by celebrity chefs for events – a challenge but one we are proud to say we succeed at.


MCEC giant salad bowl(MCEC’s giant salad bowl)


When you started out as an apprentice did you ever think you’d end up working in a kitchen like this?

I had absolutely no clue I would end up here but I wouldn’t change a thing. Today I could be cooking for five people, working on a 10 course degustation dinner and tomorrow I could be cooking a five course 5000 person gala dinner! Every day is always different, which is why I have the best job in the world.


MCEC hosting tray

What are some pieces of advice or lessons home cooks or aspiring chefs can take from a commercial kitchen like MCEC’s? 

Education and research! Practise makes perfect, so cook as much as you can, whenever you can and don’t be afraid to try new produce and products.


MCEC plating up both sides



MCEC making croissants


Can you let us in on what MCEC’s next kitchen-related development might be?

Nothing locked in as yet but next year I’m planning to head overseas to do some research on how other convention and exhibition centre kitchens are operating. On the list – Hong Kong, Portugal, Barcelona, London and Chicago! Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some new ideas that can further improve what we offer our customers.


MCEC charcuterie plate (MCEC charcuterie plate)


What are your favourite dishes to eat in Melbourne/make at home when you are not working? 

I love bringing some of my mum’s family recipes into the MCEC kitchen. We do these amazing pickled green tomatoes based off one of her recipes, which we use in a lot of our canapés and dishes – all our customers just rave about them! In terms of favourite dishes in Melbourne, I can’t rule it down to a particular dish but at the moment I really enjoy eating at The Town Mouse in Carlton. Their food is fresh, seasonal and creative; similar to what we do here at MCEC.

MCEC salmon bites

Do you have a simple recipe you could share that is easy to make at home?

We have our own blog called From Farm to Fork, which follows our kitchen adventures and a tool we use to try and break the mould and people’s perceptions around traditional event and conference food. We often upload recipes anyone can create at home – like this pear pannacotta.

(All image credits to Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre)


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