EMBARKING on at least nine train journeys each week between London, Paris and Brussels is a lifestyle that Michael Aldridge has happily slipped into since his appointment 15 months ago as director of catering for the Railways Representative Structure (RRS), the organisation that oversees food service on board Eurostar.
The organisation's name will mean little to the seven million-plus passengers who are expected to pass through the Channel Tunnel this year on one of Eurostar's 42 daily services, but RRS was formed to provide cohesion between the three companies that jointly operate the Eurostar service - Eurostar (UK), French Railways and Belgian Railways.
When it comes to catering, the main concern of passengers is that they are offered the quality and choice of food that they demand within the class they have paid for. It is Aldridge's responsibility to ensure that their demands are met.
In appointing Aldridge to the newly created position of director of catering in January last year, the RRS was taking on a man with impeccable catering credentials. The RRS undoubtedly wished to aspire to the quality of food Aldridge was used to working with during the four years he spent alongside Albert Roux in setting up the House of Albert Roux, as executive sous chef at the Connaught Hotel in London, and as one of the first three recipients of the Meilleur Ouvrier de Grand Bretagne in 1987.
For Aldridge, who speaks six languages, the opportunity of being involved in upgrading the food offer on a service such as Eurostar presented an enormous challenge. "As more and more people travel, transport is very much part of our future," he says. "I had thought about working with airlines, but I was very impressed by Eurostar's dedication to understanding that food is such an important part of a journey."
Since joining, it has been Aldridge's responsibility to realign the catering on offer to fit in with the new structure of classes available. In addition to standard and first class, both available since Eurostar's inauguration in November 1994, and as a result of passenger consultation, a premium first class was introduced in April 1997.
Aldridge considers that the challenge with this new class is to provide the same attentive service as you would receive in a quality restaurant, with as much choice of food and wine as possible. First class has a more limited selection of food, with lower key service. The cost of all food served to passengers in these classes is included in the price of the tickets.
Meals in both first and premium first are served directly to the customer, while passengers in standard class can purchase hot meals and snacks from one of two buffet cars on the 18-carriage train, or from a trolley which operates on some services.
As with in-flight catering, in-train catering on Eurostar is prepared in advance at the three points of departure and then generated on board. Gardner Merchant currently provides the service from London, Servair from Paris and Sabena Catering from Brussels. Contracts are renewed every one or two years. The size of the operation - a maximum of 12,228 passengers use the service daily - would make it impossible to have kitchens on board with skilled chefs providing freshly cooked food.
With Eurostar having taken more than 60% of the business from the airlines operating between London and Paris, and 50% from the London-Brussels services, Aldridge believes it is important that any comparison of food on Eurostar is made with corresponding flight routes. He is confident that the service is already far ahead of anything that can be offered by the airlines.
While there is extra time and room on board Eurostar to provide a more leisurely meal service (compared to in-flight catering), Aldridge is working hard to ensure that the food itself is of the best quality. To this end, he aims to have almost 100% of ingredients used in first and premium first classes to be entirely natural and unadulterated.
Where breakfast in the past would have included concentrated fruit juice and tinned mushrooms, now only pure fruit juice and fresh mushrooms are used. A cheese omelette, made with fresh Cheddar cheese, is served with Cumberland sausages sourced from Graham White & Co, Wimbledon. In the case of branded items, top-line names are chosen, such as Jordan's muesli and Loseley yogurt.
All bread is from Bagatelle. Freshly baked bread items are delivered three times a day and never pass through a chiller. "How many times have you tried to eat cold bread on board a plane?" asks Aldridge.
An enormous amount of work goes into changing the first and premium first menus every four months. There is a set starter and dessert in each class, and a choice of two main courses in first and three in premium first. Different menus are written for each country of departure, and menus are rotated on a four-weekly basis. All this means a total of 72 new dishes have to be introduced each quarter.
Aldridge is involved with every dish at some point from its conception through to the inevitable readjustment of the specifications after various tastings with the chefs from the contract caterers that will be making up each dish.
Each item of the three- or four-course meals is served separately to passengers and, in premium first, according to the pace of each individual. Starters are cold and are often a terrine, timbale or salad. Recent offerings have included hare terrine with foie gras, onion and raspberry chutney; smoked Scottish salmon and avocado timbale with red onion and tomato salsa, buckwheat blinis; and goats' cheese and herb crouton, tomato salad.
Prior to his arrival, main courses were very much in the meat-and-two-veg mould. Now Aldridge is trying to introduce more variety, with items such as risotto and polenta, and more unusual meats such as ostrich. A constraint is having to stick to dishes that regenerate well without losing their flavour or being toughened by reheating. So grilled fillet steak and roast beef with roast potatoes are out. Casserole-style dishes or sautés using fatty meats, such as magret duck, are more suitable. Flaky fish, such as cod and halibut, also regenerate well.
A typical choice for main-course dishes at lunch on a premium first class service leaving Paris for London might include beef braised in black olives, tomatoes and mushrooms with carrots, turnips and onions; ricotta ravioli with tomato and basil sauce; or fillet of venison with a redcurrant sauce, celery and braised red cabbage. "We aim to make the food as light as possible and don't use any thickening agents," says Aldridge. "The sauce for the venison dishes, for example, is a simple reduction."
Puddings may be hot, such as tart tatin with vanilla sauce or bread-and-butter pudding, orcold, such as pear and caramel bavarois orgrenadilla and coconut flummery with passionfruit coulis. "You would never get a hot pudding on a plane," Aldridge says.
The origin of the cheese course always reflects the country of departure - for example, Cheddar and Stilton with apple chutney when leaving England.
In response to consultation with the 5% of first-class customers who use the premium first service, an even more exclusive service is to be introduced later this year. All premium first carriages will be upgraded, with the number of seats reduced from 24 to 16. Some of the extra space provided by the reduction in numbers will allow for the introduction of a small finishing kitchen, where some elementary cooking skills can be put to use working on an induction plate.
"It will allow us to upgrade the food further by providing the same sort of skills offered by gueridon service in a restaurant," says Aldridge. At present, all food for the first and premier first carriages is regenerated in the galleys of the two buffet cars on each train, from where meals for standard-class passengers can also be purchased.
Out for fun
In revamping the food offer for standard customers, Aldridge initially tried to introduce some healthy items, with hot dishes such as salmon and broccoli, and fresh fruit, but they didn't sell. "I spent a lot of time talking to customers about what they wanted," he says, "and discovered that most of them were out for fun and wanted items like burgers, egg-and-bacon muffins and croques monsieur."
He continues: "The quality of the food here is equally important so we have sourced the best burgers, using 100% pure beef from Argentina, and serve them in the best-quality buns."
Aldridge has helped to turn a deficit on standard-class food into a profit by streamlining the products on offer and increasing the productivity of staff. The introduction of combos (three different items for a set price) has been particularly successful, accounting for about 40% of all turnover in standardclass. Popular combos include a cheeseburger,fries and Coke for £4.50. The latest offer is a cheese-and-wine combo with a selection of three unpasteurised cheeses, a small bottle of wine and a green salad (£6).
A major headache for Aldridge is setting prices in the buffet cars every six months in three currencies, without knowing what is going to happen to exchange rates. Working between three countries also means considering the health and safety regulations of three states. "We take the most stringent - the French - and work to those," he says.
The first part of a three-year strategy on upgrading Eurostar's in-train catering has just come to an end. "I've been reticent about making massive changes all at once," says Aldridge. "It was important that I first understood the dynamics ofthe train before I worked on the variety and quality of food that we can offer. But we are beginning to get there." n