Thanks to television and the rise of celebrity chefs, and with international travel being commonplace, we are now a nation of food connoisseurs, with diverse and eclectic tastes and a growing demand for fresh, healthy and ethically sourced ingredients. People can easily order in delicious food on their phones to be delivered to their desks; or if they work in a city centre, simply go out their office front door to explore a variety of eateries or cafés to satisfy their lunchtime hunger pangs, or feed their craving for some freshly-brewed coffee, served exactly as they like it. This is the challenge contract caterers have been facing, and thankfully the industry has risen to the challenge of sustaining a nation in the know when it comes to quality food and drink.
I’ve been a foodie for as long as I can remember – since I was at school and food tech was my favourite subject. I had a real passion for it, so it was hardly surprising that me and my taste buds went on to study catering and hospitality at college. I’m now delighted to see so many other young people are following this route as cooking is no longer regarded as some kind of second rate career choice. These are the chefs and catering managers of tomorrow, inspired by their cookery heroes such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Tom Kerridge.
Fine dining is no longer always about French nouvelle cuisine and wine in upmarket (and often ostentatious) restaurants with pompous service. Today’s top chefs have travelled abroad and brought their experiences home to enhance or create their individual signature dishes and style of cooking. They are often young, trendy and operate from stylish premises that attract a wider audience of clientele. Diners can humour their indecision and curiosity over new dishes by indulging in a tasting menu with accompanying wines from all, and unexpected, corners of the globe.
This concept of the way we eat to enjoy and savour our food, and want to know about the ingredients, is what is driving the real change in contract catering. Savvy companies who want to keep their clients and staff happy – and increase covers and sales – have generally woken up to this.
Most important meal of the day
Breakfast, for example, is a good illustration. Because of the change to our working and social lifestyles, people rarely have this at home and frequently buy it on the hoof on their way to work, or if there is the facility at their workplace, will buy something there. And there is a wide variety of what they want – fruit, good-for-you cereals, something slimming, something hot and more substantial, or just a slice of toast or a croissant. When one of our catering managers offered daily breakfast specials at the offices of one of our larger clients, there was an enormous uptake. When this is accompanied by guest coffee beans and a team of trained baristas it creates a whole new marketing campaign and loyalty scheme, and we’ve since seen tea and coffee sales increase by some 75%. The client was delighted as the feedback from staff was really positive and they were engaged and productive from the moment they sat at their desks, with no mysterious mid-morning disappearances for a quick 10-minute run outside and around the corner to get their caffeine fix. They’d indulged in an early morning catch-up with friends over the breakfast table (and on social media) and were all ready to hit their desks running.
Employee engagement equals experience
Engaging with the workforce at the workplace is also important; you have to listen to their comments and requests and closely monitoring what works and sells well. Encouraging uptake of onsite catering means being creative. Special promotions – celebrations of ethnic or cultural festivals such as Diwali or Chinese New Year, or British Food Fortnight, street food specials, seasonal teas and freshly made and interesting soups are good illustrations of what can work well. Of course, this all necessitates the co-operation and ability of a good team of chefs in the kitchens. Nothing will work if the food on offer isn’t cooked and served up looking and tasting excellent, and it’s always good when the chefs go out and talk to their customers, just as we encourage ours to at Vacherin. They get useful feedback that will help them in their future menu creation, and the staff get to see and talk to the people behind the food they are eating.
I’ve always found this to be a particularly rewarding activity, and people are asking me more and more about the food they are eating. Having been on visits to farms and butchers to understand more about sustainable and ethical sourcing of food, and how good animal husbandry should be, I’m happy to discuss this and it’s quite noticeable how the topic is becoming of increasing importance to people. If the workplace staff are happy with their food, especially where and how it’s sourced and grown, the more likely they will be to not only eat and drink more of it, but they will champion it outside of their office too, and this is all good publicity for both the company and its caterers. As a passionate chef, it’s not just about the cooking – my ingredients are equally as important when I get creative in the kitchen.
Contemporary offerings for contemporary times
All of the above applies not just to the regular day to day food and drink offerings to workplace staff, but also to the fine dining option that is a growing feature of many corporate offices across London, especially in the City. Where once upon a time executives would take their important clients and visitors out to lunch, often to Michelin starred restaurants if they needed to impress, they now have this facility on offer in their own buildings, and some caterers, such as Vacherin, can and do provide a service that is on a par with the very best London can offer. Fine dining catering chefs have to be of the highest quality and experience, with accompanying staff and service that matches, to compete with London’s finest restaurants.
This growing trend for in-house dining excellence provides the capability for senior people in companies to have meetings and conversations in privacy and to their own timetable, in whatever numbers are required, without the inconvenience of leaving the building or breaking up ongoing discussions. These fine dining services are the icing on the cake of the contract catering offering and it is a challenge some companies have more than met. Also, it is a wonderful opportunity for young trainee chefs to learn their craft and move around to different kitchens, working under different senior chefs and watching as they create and then prepare their stunning menus.
This is the area I now work in and it allows me to indulge my passion for cooking and creating new and interesting dishes for clients who I know are used to eating the very best. The fact I reached the final of MasterChef: The Professionals last year is a matter of great pride, not only to my own employer but also the client in whose kitchen I now work. They like it when I come out of my cooking lair and talk to the guests, get their feedback, usually very complimentary I’m relieved to say, on the meal and talk about my experiences on TV. They’re usually very informed about what they eat and are interested in how I create my dishes, my inspiration for them and the unusual ingredients I use and the whole taste experience. Talking to people who have such a passion for food as I do, in more relaxed surroundings than a restaurant, makes it a unique experience for them.
This all brings me back to where I started, and the young people who are now considering their careers and also have been bitten by the culinary bug. These are the caterers and chefs of tomorrow, and as the contract catering industry continues to move on and evolve to ever higher standards, as it must to meet the demands of an increasingly discerning audience, these up and coming stars need the industry to support and train them. The need to meet the challenges top quality catering must be capable of offering, to continue to be successful, is paramount.