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The Caterer

Who's your buddy for the day?

04 April 2003 by
Who's your buddy for the day?

Lisa Jenkins teams up with Angela Morris, assistant restaurant manager of Fifteen, London

Angela Morris is assistant restaurant manager of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, the restaurant made famous when Oliver brought in and trained raw recruits for the kitchen, a process filmed for the riveting television series Jamie's Kitchen, shown on Channel 4 last year.

Oliver's charity, Cheeky Chops, employs 75 people and is no small operation. All the profits from the restaurant go into the charity, which trains underprivileged youngsters to cook and gets them through college. A second group of about 15 young people has just been recruited.

Morris is a 25-year-old Australian with a degree in business-based leisure management, so what made her choose the hospitality industry? "My parents ran a motel in Australia and I guess I was used to it," she says. "I enjoy the customer interaction, and it's a great learning experience in terms of an education in food and wine. Also, having role models like [general manager] Anders Baath and [restaurant manager] Jamie Granger-Smith, who are both inspirational and encouraging, helps to give you direction."

Morris has been with the Fifteen team since its launch in October last year, and had always admired Oliver's style. "He's so passionate about what he does and has a very approachable management style," she says. "I wanted to be part of the project - a first for London."

As assistant restaurant manager, Morris is responsible for ensuring that the daily task list is completed, which means checking on supplies and cleaning, and monitoring the inbox for enquiries. She also handles administrative tasks such as setting up bank accounts and interviewing job applicants.

Her day starts at 9am and builds up to 11.30am, when the whole team sits down for a staff lunch, cooked by the kitchen trainees. "It's vital that the waiters understand the menu," Morris says. "Every morning, there's a staff briefing when one of the chefs goes through each dish, describing all the ingredients and fresh produce - for example, the seared diver-caught Scottish scallops with asparagus, wrapped in pancetta, sage and lemon and parsley mash."

Towards lunchtime, what starts as a manic environment becomes a smooth, professional operation. The trainees really know their stuff. And despite the fact that his wife is about to go into labour with their second child, Oliver is in the kitchen with the team and all is calm - there's no shouting, arguing or swearing.

The system at Fifteen is simple. Starters are prepared and dispatched, all the waiting staff know exactly who ordered which dish, and all pitch in to deliver the food immediately it hits the pass. Mains are called away once starters are completed and there is constant communication between Morris and the chef. Her principal function is to be the link between the kitchen and the waiting staff, fielding questions about the menu and liaising with customers.

By 3.30pm, lunchtime service is over and the waiting team begin to prepare for dinner. As they do, Morris heads upstairs for the next part of her day - administration. She normally finishes around 5pm when she works days, though her routine is to be on split shifts, working three days and three nights.

It's clear that Morris, like everyone else, is very proud of what has been achieved at Fifteen. Improvement will continue, as they are determined to develop better working practices and to implement better structures and routines. Although it has been a steep learning curve, they have been able to monitor what has worked and to make necessary changes. The team has come a long way in five months, and is striving for consistency.

It was a great day for Jenkins, who came away fired with enthusiasm for the restaurant and for what Oliver has achieved with it. Perhaps he has been misjudged by the press - he doesn't even try to hide his distrust of journalists - but to see him in the restaurant, Jenkins says, is to see him at his best. He is happy to meet his customers, have his photograph taken and sign books.

Oliver is usually in the restaurant from Monday to Friday - Saturday is his day off - and, though Morris describes him as having a definite way of doing things, he is very hands-on and enthusiastic. The trainees remain loyal to him - one going so far as to say that Oliver has "changed his life".

Amanda Afiya spends a day with Rob Kirby, executive chef at Avenance

When Rob Kirby joined the contract catering world 10 years ago, he did so as a stop-gap. He had just returned to England from his position as a chef de partie at the Tel Aviv Hilton and was tiding himself over until a "proper" (read: restaurant) job came up. But he was so impressed by the High Table City law firm contract that he stayed put.

As executive chef of Avenance - part of French-based Groupe Elior - with 650 contracts throughout the UK, 8am-4pm doesn't really feature. He doesn't run a kitchen, but supports chefs the length and breadth of the country with training, menu development, supply issues, sales presentations for tenders, food-based liaison between the company's five regions, and performing the role of general culinary sounding board.

"I miss getting my hands dirty sometimes," says the 36-year-old, who last held a head chef post two years ago at Avenance's contract at HSBC in London's Lower Thames Street. "But I love the diversity of this job."

Kirby often dons his whites, though. Indeed, on the day Caterer shadowed him, he started off in them. He is a member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and, as part of its Adopt A School programme, he gives cookery demonstrations to children to encourage their interest in food. Today's demo is at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

He takes a deep breath and throws himself into the session. "Who's going to be the best chef today?" he asks. A sea of arms thrust into the air. "Right, chefs, when I show you how to do something, I want you to say, ‘Yes, chef', so that I know that you've understood." "Yes, chef!" the children reply.

About 20 children have come down to the hospital's school to take part in Kirby's class, for which he and his colleague Danny Leung have prepared a selection of cakes and cookies for them to decorate. Some are attached to drips, some are in wheelchairs, but all are eager to get involved.

When the demo ends and the children return to their wards, Kirby's next appointment is at the Wallace Collection at Hertford House in nearby Manchester Square. He's meeting Sandy Anderson, executive chef at sister company Eliance. Anderson is responsible for the Café Bagatelle restaurant at the gallery. "While Eliance and Avenance are separate companies, Sandy and I meet up every six weeks to discuss job swaps," Kirby says. "We try to bring the two companies together where we can through food."

After lunch, Kirby makes his way to head office at Watchmaker Court in Clerkenwell. Although he has a desk here, he rarely sits at it. "Last week," he explains, "I was in Rugby, Preston, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paris."

After his fleeting visit to HQ, Kirby heads to Lloyd's of London to discuss fielding a team to cook at the Skills for Chefs Conference, at Sheffield University on 23 and 24 June. The dinner, for 300 people, will see rival chefs from Avenance, Aramark, Sodexho and Compass' Baxter & Platts division cooking alongside the university's Tracey Carr.

Half-an-hour later, Kirby's back out the door and heading for law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw for a Chefs Forum meeting. Each region within Avenance has its own forum and Kirby runs the London one.

"I wouldn't be able to do my job without the boys around this table," explains Kirby. The "boys" brief Kirby on forum news, including recent competition successes for chefs Mark Kemp of Fidelity Investments and Dennis Mwakulua of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. They discuss planned market trips, entries for other national competitions and plans for their own Chef of the Year cook-off, which will take place later this year.

It's 6pm and Kirby still has one more meeting in the diary - with Andrew Turner, executive chef at Brown's in London's Mayfair. The two meet regularly to discuss work placements because, as Kirby says: "Avenance is a very personal company, so we like to work with personal chefs."

Ben Walker becomes a buddy for the day to Sue Hopkins at the Goodwood Estate

"Put your earplugs in," says Sue Hopkins. Wise words, indeed. Fierce popping noises hit us as the mechanics increase the revs of the dragster's nitro-methanol-powered motor.

As hospitality manager for the Goodwood Road Racing Company, organiser of two of the premier events in the British motor-sports calendar, Hopkins is well versed in looking after her eardrums. Today, the launch of the season, is a chance for her to meet and greet the press and sponsors.

Everyone enjoys the glorious early spring sunshine, cups of consommé, pumpkin soup or shots of vodka, while the unmistakeable tones of veteran commentator Murray Walker talk us through the array of vintage, modern and novelty cars flashing past.

The competitions take place on the Goodwood Estate, 12,000 acres of stunning West Sussex countryside, home to the Earl of March and his family.

Over the past 10 years, the Festival of Speed, held in July, and the Goodwood Revival, in September, have grown from informal gatherings of cars and racing enthusiasts to three-day festivals attended by nearly 150,000 spectators. The demand for hospitality has obviously also grown.

It's an indication of the attention Hopkins gives her customers that her position is full-time and all year round, although the events cover just six days between them.

Proving that hospitality is a career you can go into at any stage of life, Hopkins was a full-time single mother for 15 years before she started at Goodwood, in 1998. Since then, she has built a solid relationship with clients who come back year after year. They range from a wife booking a table for two for her husband's birthday, to companies such as Maserati and Cartier entertaining clients or treating staff to an outing.

Hopkins liaises closely with event caterer Payne & Gunter, passing on booking details immediately. The caterers then contact the clients to discuss menu choices. Hospitality packages cost from £200 to £310 including admission, parking, tea, coffee and pastries on arrival, a three-course buffet lunch with wine, and afternoon tea. The more expensive packages include mid-morning Champagne and canap‚s. This year, Hopkins already has 70% of her sales target of £1.5m.

At 12.30pm, she holds an impromtu meeting with Nissan, a new sponsor, which is entertaining buyers of its new sports car. Hopkins explains where its hospitality pavilion is in relation to the track, and the client is eager to have more seats in its limited space. Hopkins suggests losing corridor space and fitting in 20 more seats.

After lunch, she arranges a dinner meeting with Ford, a key client celebrating its centenary year. The London Eye is suggested. "That sounds tough on the digestion. How about the Ivy?" Hopkins replies. Travelling at less than one mile an hour above London, even in a wheel, is definitely not part of the glamorous world of motor sport hospitality.

Jessica Gunn teams up with Carl Smith, training and development manager at London's Le Méridien Cumberland hotel
The Cumberland hotel opened on 12 December 1933. It had 1,000 rooms, each with its own bathroom (significant at the time) and was owned by famous tea-house giant J Lyons. It was also part of the Strand Hotels group and was the largest hotel in Europe when it was officially declared open by King George V and Queen Mary.

This, and a lot more, is what new recruits to the present-day Cumberland hotel - soon to be renamed the Le Méridien, Marble Arch - learn in their week-long induction and training session with training and development manager Carl Smith.

As well as helping to run the induction courses every other week, and all the other in-house training schemes, Smith's role is to formulate the structure and content of the sessions and ensure that staff are happy, working well and properly groomed. This is quite a task as the Cumberland receives around 100 job applications each week. All applicants start with a 30-minute interview and, if called back, have a 30- to 50-minute personality assessment.

Smith says: "We have a lengthy training process to make sure everyone knows exactly what's going on in the hotel, what their job involves, and that they are familiar with the hotel and its surroundings. I also want to make it as interesting as possible."

Staff turnover is about 32%, well below the UK hotels average of 55% to 65%, and Smith is convinced it's because of the training staff are given. His induction programme, "Jive and Vibe", is certainly different. "We have to do all the usual things like health and safety," he says, "but we wanted to make it more than that." To take new staff that bit further, applicants are encouraged to discover what service means in practice, by examining the competition at first hand.

His life does not end with new recruits, however. Smith also organises staff benefits and discounts, and makes sure that everyone knows about them. He and his team constantly work on new initiatives. "We've just come up with something we've called My Favourite Things," he grins. "Staff write down what they would ideally like as an incentive so, when the time comes, we get them the right thing. Gucci handbags are a bit much, but we're working on it."

It's a busy life but one which, Smith emphasises, is rewarding and highly worthwhile. "What I hope," he says, "is that more people become trainers, because that's what this industry needs. That's what will attract the right people, then keep them here."

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