When you’re gourmet chefs who love horse racing and want to give up shift work to raise a family, sometimes you have to think outside the square - or outside the kitchen.
That’s what Ray and Fiona Finnigan did when they took their expertise outdoors and created Finn’s Fine Foods mobile service catering, quite literally, to racecourses across much of the state.
Based in the South-East, Ray and Fiona came up with the brainchild 12 years ago and quickly secured a contract to supply the Penola races. They’ve since catered about 800 race meetings from Mount Gambier to Naracoorte and Millicent through to Murray Bridge and Strathalbyn and even several towns in Victoria’s Western Districts.
“We had a restaurant and we were into racing from the beginning so it was an easy choice,” Fiona says. “Penola was looking for a caterer so we got in touch with (club secretary) Jim May and, when we were given the go ahead, set up the van. Our first aim was to set up the van to provide good food for the casual racegoers but we also do a lot of the dining rooms at different meetings.”
That means swapping between steak sandwiches, chicken burgers, fish and chips and home-made pies, pasties and soup - in fact they make everything they serve - to the seafood platters and scotch fillet of the dining rooms.
It was quite a diversion from running Pelican’s Seafood Restaurant at Port Macdonell but the couple were determined to prove that, whether it’s casual dining or a three-course sit down meal, quality food preparation is the key. And both had plenty of training in quality cuisine.
“We met at the Commodore in Mount Gambier when Ray was about 19 and I was a 16-year-old trainee chef,” she recalls. “Then we went travelling around Australia. Ray worked at the Park Royal and I worked in Rydges in Coffs Harbour and then we worked in the Four Seasons at Alice Springs.”
Ray says when they returned to SA, the time was right for them to work together in their own restaurant. It didn’t take long before they came up with an even bolder idea: “It was a real adventure travelling and then running our own restaurant but launching Finn’s Fine Foods and servicing the racetracks presented our most exciting challenge,” he says. “It was the perfect way for us to work together and raise a family.”
While Fiona and Ray spend all their day serving the public, they occasionally make sure they find enough time to watch the race when one of their horses is running. Both have shares in several horses, although Fiona says she is well overdue for a change of luck.
“We’ve always been involved in racehorses at one time or another,” she says. “Ray’s had a good run lately with Knightoftherealm, which is trained by Sue Jaensch. I’ve got a few babies with Darren Kolpin that I hope will change my luck. I haven’t had a great run with my horses in recent times but you always hold out hope.”
Whether or not their horses are running, the couple look forward to the Cup meetings at Penola and Mount Gambier as well as other feature meetings. The bigger the meeting, though, the more pressure there is to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. That’s virtually a given for the married chefs but there are other variables to consider. Just as punters have to allow for wet conditions when having a bet or planning a day at the races, Ray and Fiona have to take into account weather which can cost them serious money if there’s a last minute cancellation of a race meeting.
“You do have some idea that a meeting may be called off but you still have to prepare the food,” she says. “If it gets called off, we lose out because some food you just have to throw out.
“We love the Cup meetings and the Penola Cup, probably because it was the first race club we worked for, hold a special place for us,” she says. “At the country meetings, if anything ever goes wrong, there’s always somebody there prepared to help you. If we ran out of something, and that’s rarely happened, we’ve had people happy to help out and do a run for us.”
When it’s not feeding hungry punters and racegoers, Finn’s Fine Food also caters to a range of social functions, from weddings to birthdays, parties of all sorts and business events.
“We’ve catered a lot of weddings over the years, you’d be surprised how many country weddings are held on the family farm,” Fiona says. “There’s always a wedding coming up in the country.”
Of course, there’s always a race meeting too.