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Vanilla Catering & Events

HMS Illustrious & Vanilla Make History

It's not everyday you can claim to be part of history, but this year Vanilla catered for an event which will go don in history and we were so proud to be involved in it.

This summer the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious stood down after thirty-two years as a flagship in the Royal Navy. The Portsmouth-based helicopter and commando carrier clocked up nine hundred thousand miles on operations across the world. The ship was built by Swan Hunter shipbuilders on the Tyne and launched by Princess Margaret in December 1978. Construction of the carrier was underway when the Falklands War broke out so completion of the project was speeded up. The carrier was deployed so quickly that her commissioning ceremony took place on 20th June 1982, while she was on her way to the conflict.

HMS Illustrious helped maintain the no-fly zone in Bosnia during the 1990s. In 1998 she operated in the Arabian Gulf and carried out a similar role in southern Iraq. In 2000 she led a task group aimed at restoring stability and peace to Sierra Leone in West Africa. After the 9/11 attacks in the USA, HMS Illustrious played an important part in the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan - staying in the region for several months. In 2006, during the Israel - Lebanon crisis, HMS Illustrious helped in the operation to evacuate British citizens from Beirut, and in 2013 she was diverted from other duties to assist with disaster relief in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

So, to be approached to cater for the decommissioning party was a real honour. The brief was for a VIP canapé party for 1800 covers then an evening party for the ship’s crew, family and friends - about 1200 covers, so not a small number.

Here at Vanilla we love to rise to the challenge. The first challenge was communicating with our contact aboad. As Illustrious was at sea this was not always easy and due to tight security I never knew where in the world they were.

When Illustrious sailed safely into port I was informed that the event would be held on 28th August. We didn’t have much time, less than a month, so it was all hands on deck to organise this fantastic day.

Our first hurdle was to find a marquee company that could provide us with a cook tent at such short notice. The spec was we would cook all the food on the quay side next to the ship. The canapés would be circulated on the shore side at lunch time to VIPS and the evening food and party was to be held in the ship itself.

After much phoning round Rob at Buchannan marquees ( came up trumps and provided us with a cook marquee complete with wooden floor. Next came the equipment.  Preparing and cooking fresh food for 1800 covers is not an easy feat in a tent at the side of the  dock. We hired in Combi ovens and hot cupboards.  Next hurdle was to find a reliable engineer to connect these to the necessary Health and safety standards. This part was easy as we contacted the wonderful Ben at Knight Catering Services ( We have worked with Ben for years, he is hardworking, reliable, and has never let us down in all that time. He arrived at his allotted time and connected our power, water etc so we could start to do what we are best at - produce fine food!

 As you can imagine security is always high in the Historic Dockyards so time slots were allocated for deliveries, passes issued, number plates needed, all involving lots of late nights and early mornings for our Operations Director Kit Johnson.

 The team of chefs were led by Matty Harris, who now heads up our unit in Port Solent. Matt organised the event with military precision as nothing was left to chance. To get out 4 canapés per person for 1800 covers in an hour is not easy. But 7200 canapes flew out of the cook tent to the VIP guests in an hour, they looked amazing, all were hand made using local Hampshire produce.

Lunch time over, we even had time for a quick break, then it was time to get back to the main event - the two course dinner for 1200 on the ship. All the plates, cutlery etc had to be carried onboard the ship ,  The fantastic staff at the Tudor group (who we hire all our cutlery etc from ( did this for us, and the Vanilla team did the rest. We were lucky when it came time to transporting the food up the gang plank as the tide was at the perfect position, I would like to say that this bit was down to careful planning…… but it was sheer luck!

To actually cater on the ship was something most people dream off. The ship was decked out with bunting, a dance floor was added, champagne flowed, the guests arrived and the food was a triumph. The evening ended with a spectacular fire work display which could be seen for miles.

The event could not have gone better, the Vanilla team and all our partners really excelled and pulled out all the stops for this historic day, I was a very proud MD!

 Below is a Thank you from the client

 I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and all at Vanilla Catering for the way that both events were planned and catered. The canapés for the reception looked and tasted wonderful and received many complimentary comments from those that were served. The evening was extremely well planned and presented and again looked and tasted wonderful and was a showcase of the high standard that Vanilla Catering can achieve to such a large number of people in challenging and unique location. On behalf of the entire ships company of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, their family and friends I thank you all for helping to make the evening such a memorable one.


What more can I say ……

Check out our facebook page for many photos of this historic day

 More soon

Sally P and the team




Friday 26th September 2014

HMS Illustrious & Vanilla Make History  Image