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Force feeding

01 January 2000
Force feeding

Most caterers only have to think about the quality of their produce and whether or not a dish's ingredients are balanced, but for police caterers there is a lot more than that to consider.

"After Lockerbie [air disaster] the police were given roast beef sandwiches. But having just picked through all the body parts, the last thing they wanted to eat was roast beef," says Gordon Culley, senior catering manager at London's Charing Cross police station.

It is a sobering statement, and further conversation with Culley confirms that what might appear to be minor considerations to the rest of the food service industry have to be uppermost in the minds of the Metropolitan Police Service Catering Department (MPSCD).

For instance, the psychological state of a force's collective mind has to be considered. Culley has to ensure that his staff are especially pleasant to police officers who may, for example, have just come back from discovering the body of a dead child.

"We're all human, aren't we?" says Culley. "If a particularly gruesome event happens it does affect the mood of the restaurant. Sometimes the first person an officer speaks to after an incident is the girl behind the counter, so she has to understand what that police officer is going through."

As far as the food is concerned, MPSCD managers deal with a limited number of suppliers, so that for health reasons they can keep close tabs on where the food comes from. And not only must they think about the type of meals on offer on any particular day, but it's also important that the food can be eaten easily or taken away if officers need to leave quickly on a case or assignment.

Even the type of water served is a subject of considerable attention: should it have a ring pull, or a screw top so the drink can be stored?

The MPSCD caters for station restaurants and operational feeding when police teams are involved in major incidents off-site. There are some distinct differences between these two services, and Chef was invited to observe how both operate in practice.

Charing cross police station

Charing Cross police station, a former area hospital converted to its present use in 1992, is huge. It can house a police and civilian staff of up to 800.

On the third floor is a bright, modern self-service restaurant - one of the largest in the Metropolitan Police area. Four different menus are rotated each month and these are changed three times a year. They are mainly traditional, and feature a large selection of cereals, porridge and fry-ups, which include beans, tomatoes, sausages and fried bread. Cottage pies, gammon and pineapple, and braised liver and onions are often offered at lunch. And curry, too, makes regular appearances.

The kitchen brigade consists of one breakfast cook, one chef and another cook for lunches. This might appear understaffed for a restaurant that caters for up to 100 at breakfast and 90 at lunch, but Culley finds it is sufficient. "For the style of cooking we have, once you get the food out it is just a matter of keeping it topped up."

There are 188 Metropolitan Police restaurants in the capital, all controlled by the MPSCD, although some in north-east London are contracted out to Gardner Merchant. Restaurants range from very small - 24 seats at Hendon, north London - to the size of Charing Cross.

Culley reveals that Thursday at Croydon police station is designated curry day. "They [officers from other stations] come from miles around to eat there," he says and he adds that during last year's Notting Hill Carnival more than 2,500 chicken curries were consumed.

Apart from taste, there are good reasons why curries are favoured, says Culley. For one thing, they are a wet dish, so can be eaten with a fork only, leaving the police officer's other hand free to play cards or read a newspaper. As for the Met's favourite flavours: chicken, lamb and beef - in that order - are all preferred, off the bone.

In addition to curries, chips and fry-ups are popular, but healthier options are available to the Charing Cross force. At the front of the restaurant, for example, there is a salad bar, and a large selection of fruits, yogurts and jacket potatoes are also on offer. Culley says he endeavours to incorporate a nutritional aspect into the meals, but admits he is there to give his customers what they want.

When it comes to supplies, Culley has to make sure that they come from a reputable source - there must be no risk of losing half the force to a bout of food poisoning. Over the past few years the MPSCD has, in fact, reduced the number of its suppliers to about five, not counting dairy and bakery, and all local cash purchases have to be made from large, respectable supermarket chains. "Gone are the days when we could pop out and buy a couple of bags of potatoes from a local shop," says Culley.

Buckingham gate special events operational feeding centre

It is a cold Saturday in May and the National Front is planning a protest march against the IRA and Sinn Fein's involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process.

At Buckingham Gate Operational Feeding Centre, or Buck Gate as it is known in the Met, Dave Parker, higher catering officer, and his staff are getting ready to feed the 354 officers who will be on duty.

Buck Gate is a large, airy building that in previous times housed the inquest into the sinking of the Titanic. It now seats around 575 hungry policemen and women.

Already this particular week, the catering team - three permanent staff and up to 12 others taken from police restaurants around the capital - have had to feed officers working at a European Union-US summit and the Chelsea Flower Show.

Because the National Front march is classified as a "public order situation", Parker gets advance notice about how many officers he has to feed.

He is currently on a budget of £1.30 per meal per officer, but reveals with a smile that last year he averaged 2p under budget. His repertoire of menus includes 14 different breakfasts, 42 dinners and 10 different specifications on snacks, in comparison with the normal station restaurant, which offers an average of six main meals.

With snacks, another obvious difference from normal food service catering is that Parker cannot give the officers canned or fizzy drinks. "Water in a screw top [bottle] is preferred, so the police, if they are in a situation, can screw the top back on." He adds that they are also easier to refill if the officer needs to.

On the menu today is a main course of tandoori chicken on the bone, rice, a side salad and a wrapped bun - "so they can take it with them, if they want to," says Parker. He adds that the chicken dish is a new recipe he wanted to try out on a large number of officers as a trial run for the Notting Hill Carnival. He hopes it will go down well.

As the police - some in combat gear ("babygrows" in police parlance), others in bullet-proof vests - begin to file into the old hall, Parker reveals that intelligence reports have warned them to expect trouble.

The police line up patiently against a wall that stretches at least 50ft from the serving counter to the door. After being served their meals, they are shown to a table and, one by one, the long wooden benches are filled up. "We have to be strict on seating, otherwise we won't fit everybody in," explains Parker.

The fact that meals at Buck Gate are served rather than being self-service is one difference from most police station restaurants. This is purely for speed purposes, as the officers sometimes have to eat their meal within half-an-hour. Another difference is that Parker can order in multi-portion frozen products, again to ensure quick service. Police restaurants, in contrast, are encouraged to use fresh produce wherever possible.

On the whole, plates are wiped clean, and the officers file out again to police the National Front march, due to start at 2pm near Parliament Square. Parker and his team have to remain in the feeding centre until the march has ended. If there is any trouble, there is a possibility another feeding session will have to be organised later on. For this reason large food stocks are held at the centre.

Today Parker is lucky. Only 60 marchers turn out - a number the large army of police can easily control. Parker can now turn his mind back to his next job: starting work at 4am to feed the officers assigned to protect the Emperor of Japan.

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