To the kitchen born

01/09/2011 - 00:00
The new chairman of the Foodservice Consultants Society International in UK and Ireland explains to David Foad that catering is in his genes and why he’s really looking forward to the London Olympics in 2012

Q: What sort of job did you hope to do when you were at school?
I always thought I’d go into catering.   My grandparents had been chefs, as
were my parents. In fact, they ran a tea shop in the West Midlands when I was growing up.

Q. So what did you do when you left?
At 16, I went to Cassio College in Watford and did my City & Guilds 706, 707, 717 – the traditional, two-year, craft-based catering course.

Q: What was your first job?
At 18, I joined Sutcliffe Catering as a chef and carried out staff catering at their Honeywell site in Hemel Hempstead. After that I joined P&O Princess Cruises for 14 months working in the Caribbean. It was great, but it was very hard work. I would recommend it to any young person coming into catering. It’s character-changing, you see the world and it’s financially rewarding. I was only 21 but effectively in a junior management role overseeing food and drink delivery across a number of outlets on board. I did up 16 hours a day for six days a week, so when I had time off I quickly learned to use it very efficiently. After a couple of contracts I felt like life in the real world was passing me by so I joined the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall as assistant F&B manager doing very traditional catering – I did split shifts, served an a la carte menu and quickly became familiar with fine wines. I decided I wanted to progress in management and needed some more qualifications, so I went back to full-time education on a two-year HND in hotel and catering management.

Q: How did you get into catering consultancy?
I worked with Debenhams for a year opening new foodservice sites and this gave me the chance to work with consultants and see them handing on their expertise and experience to clients and I realised this appealed more than management. I bumped into David Russell, who had recently set up The Russell Partnership, and he offered me a job. The way they work is that we all contribute, bringing our different skills together, and we all know what happens at the sharp end of a catering operation.

Q: What is the role of the consultant?
They provide support, specialist knowledge and guidance to a client. From a wider point of view, it means being a voice for an industry, being part of the consultation process for events and activities. It involves talking to Government, lobbying and helping
shape what the industry looks like
going forward.

Q: Why do you believe it is important?
It’s important to those who employ us because we provide independence, honesty and an impartial view of what’s being achieved; we also help them find their way through what can be a minefield of paperwork and industry jargon.

Q: What’s the role of the FCSI?
We offer a number of further education programmes – we have two running, one at junior and one at senior level – and we offer a general education platform that includes a continuous professional development (CPD) programme for training and academic development. FCSI also supplies a framework for business opportunities. But more than that, it’s a chance to meet new people – both in catering and other industries – and get access to people and places you might not otherwise have. I believe it also offers value for money and this is one of the things I’m going to be striving for while I’m chairman, but not necessarily by increasing subs. For instance, starting this month at a London branch event we’re holding a masterclass at the beginning of the meeting. The idea is that we get experts from catering and other industries to talk to members and get knowledge across, explaining what we need to know and how it affects us. Topics lined up include the new Bribery Act, new pension laws, developments at HMRC and a discussion on modes of cooking.

Q: Is this role set to grow?
I’d like to say yes. Membership worldwide is increasing, people see a value in it and new members will be making new demands of it, so we’ll be evolving.

Q: The Russell Partnership is closely involved with the London Olympics. What’s been your role?
David Russell has been the partnership’s lead on this project, but we have a flat management structure and any of us can get involved if we’ve got expertise in a particular area. I helped create the Food Strategy Document that provides the catering, equipment and procurement mission and vision for the games.

Q: What have been the major challenges?
A: We’ve all been really conscious that it’s an opportunity to create a legacy and make a difference. The Food Advisory Group whose input went into the Food Strategy Document included a range of groups including the Marine Stewardship Council, the London Food Group, the National Farmers’ Union and contract caterers and it was a real challenge trying to get a tick from all these stakeholders. Not only that, but the physicality of delivering some of their desires. Eggs, for instance, proved an issue because the group wanted only free range eggs used, but the volumes needed were greater than total UK production. We all wanted local and sustainable but we realised we didn’t want to leave a problem and you can’t just increase production dramatically for such a short period of time.

Q: Will there be a catering legacy?
It’s not so easy to measure, but it offers exposure to major operators for smaller producers and suppliers who have been catapulted into opportunities. One of the biggest things is the Food Strategy Document, which the London Food Board has now asked all businesses working within the capital to adopt. There’s a hope that the bigger contract caterers will take it national. In fact Ian Sarson, the Compass UK & Ireland managing director, will be speaking at the FCSI annual forum at the QEII Centre in London in October during the morning session on food policy because Compass has already signed up to a lot of it. The idea of Fish City, making London a place where by 2012 only sustainably sourced fish are used, is a spin-off that’s happening already. Believe it or not, London is the first Olympic host city to develop the numbers with a coherent business strategy and this will be taken to a wider International Olympic Committee audience, including Brazil in 2016. As it happens, the Russell Partnership is signed up by organisers of the winter Olympics at Sochi in Russia in 2014 to take them through strategy development and catering delivery.

Q: What will be the key catering trends in the next few years?
Sustainable and local produce will continue to be important; there’s a lot of local food that people still don’t tap into. Feeding will be driven more by grazing small amounts and often rather than sitting down to formal meals. And I’d like to think people will be more accepting when they go into a unit and there’s no chicken available, for example. We expect everything on the menu to be there all the time, but this creates enormous food waste issues. Perhaps if people find money tight there’ll be a greater acceptance. You can find it already in some gastropubs where they’ll indicate on the menu that there are eight portions of a dish available and ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’. It won’t happen overnight and it will take brave operators because it is very easy for customers to say ‘I’m never going there again because they didn’t have that dish on the menu I wanted.’

Q: How can caterers rise to the challenges of these trends?
At universities, for instance, we’ll be seeing more flexible dining programmes and pan-campus offers that students can get at any outlet by using their card. The challenges with this approach are the staffing issues and cost. Targeted menus can help, allowing caterers to trim down on staff needed at any time of day. There will always be a lunchtime rush; but if you have five standard offers available at that time and only two outside of it you can cut the staff needed to serve at quieter times. Self-serve and vending can also help, not in place of a traditional catered offer but to supplement it. Vending is becoming more sophisticated and there’s greater quality and range of foods so it can complement your main offer.

Q: Is sustainability still an important issue in catering?
I’m sure there are operators looking at cheap and volume, but the need to look at pricing means people are looking at local produce and costs. It’s still a priority, but we need to do more to communicate the message to customers. I was eating somewhere recently where I knew they used a lot of local produce, but didn’t say it anywhere to let customers know. Cost is another issue. When the London Food Board first asked contractors to use the Food Strategy Document requirements their reaction was that it would cost more. That’s not necessarily the case and sometimes it can be cheaper, but it needs work.

Q: What’s your assessment of the business environment?
People are being more careful about their spending and clients are demanding higher standards for less in contracts. Everyone is having to sharpen their pencils to make sure they get what they want for their budget, but any savings have to come with a sense of reality. We need to be careful that by seeking reductions in price we don’t drive down world-beating standards, especially as we look forward to the London Olympics next year. We need to be a bit bullish, let’s make it work – it’s our opportunity to shine. Things like the opening ceremony we do as well if not better than anyone else, we need to make sure the food offer matches that and isn’t compromised for the sake of a few quid.

Q: What project are you most proud of?
At the University of Hertfordshire the B&I-standard campus dining facilities we’ve created have benefited students hugely. Professionally, it’s great to create something from nothing. At the University of Sussex we took waste ground and turned it into a café offer that’s exceeded all expectations. I’m also proud of my involvement in drawing up the London Olympics Food Strategy Document because of the legacy value it will have.

Q: Do you still have personal or corporate ambitions?
Increasingly I get a buzz from developing in-house teams and helping people develop personally through working on a project. As chairman of the FCSI UK and Ireland I have a two-year plan to add value to membership that will include masterclasses, discount membership of other groups, insurance deals and contacts and access with societies.

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