Armando Arruda's entry into the world of high-end hotel catering is really a family affair.
He started at the tender age of 15 ½ after moving to Montreal from his native Portugal. He was hired at the landmark Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth, where his brother was already working, as a busboy.
That was 1969, and that was just the start. Besides his job at the Queen Elizabeth, Arruda took on side jobs at premier Montreal caterers. Why? "I wanted to study the business and see if I could bring good ideas back to the hotel," he says.
And he did indeed bring back good ideas: "This is how I got the idea to eventually offer outside catering services," he says. "I had watched our guests leaving the hotel to attend receptions in off-site venues and thought, 'Why don’t we offer to provide the foodservice for those events?' We started small and within a few years, we had gotten very good at it." By 1992, the off-premise catering operation was handling big galas for the Musée d’Art Contemporain, the Montreal Symphony orchestra and other prestigious events. "We quickly became known as a high end caterer," he notes.
Today, Arruda oversees a staff of four full-time administrators and from 100 to 200 kitchen staff. This team oversees meals ranging from breakfast meetings to fancy weddings, intimate functions to corporate events for thousands of guests. All told, this adds up 140,000 meals a year.
Although every event is important to him, Arruda is particularly proud of some of his large-scale, off-premise events. An early effort was an event for 2,600 guests on top of a mountain. "We were 3,000 feet above sea level with no running water, no road, and access only through gondolas [to create] a five-course meal," he recalls. Another big, dramatic event was the Grand Prix du Canada, which required 32,000 covers in three days, all without benefit of running water and no kitchen space. Instead, his team worked in eight tent kitchens serviced by refrigerated trucks.
Despite his own stature as a mentor to hotel culinary professionals, Arruda still credits his own mentors from his early days.
"I have been greatly influenced by Michel Busch, my former director of food and beverage at Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth, who is a man with great knowledge and taste," Arruda says."He always told me that no matter how creative or innovative you want to be, the taste of the dish is what is most important. Focus on great tasting food."
He also credits the influence of top-notch off-premise caterers. "For service and catering, I was very impressed by René Pankala," he says," who was the most prestigious caterer in Montreal in the '80s and '90s."
Perhaps the great truth of Arruda's remarkable event career is that he has never been satisfied with the status quo and is always ready to go beyond for his guests. "Our guests are really well travelled and are highly knowledgeable about food," he says. "They have attended many events and need to be impressed. We have to be very creative and innovative as we are serving connoisseurs. Our clients and their guests are demanding, and it is a great motivator to continuously reinvent ourselves with original themes, research new culinary techniques, and think outside the box to surpass expectations and remain the leading caterer."
The Queen Elizabeth 900 Rene Levesque Blvd. West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3B 4A5; 514/861-3511; [email protected]
WHAT'S CHANGING THE INDUSTRY
"The two big factors are globalization and the economy. It is important to stay ahead of the trends, as guests have already seen it all. Events have to be memorable. You have to innovate and reinvent. You have to anticipate and create the trends; you cannot just be a follower."
HOW TO COMPETE
"There are many competitors now in our market, so you have to find your niche and really develop strong working relationships with your clients."
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
His strengths: "Creativity, public relations and social skills, and long-established relationships." His weaknesses: "I wish I had more knowledge about computer technology. And I need to learn to delegate more. I'm learning that slowly."
FOR THE NEWBIES
"Go slowly. Don't improvise. Be passionate about what you do, and be prepared to work long hours. Love your clients, and take care of them. Love your colleagues and associates, and respect them."