Alan Shipman leans forward in his chair, eager to emphasise a point. “I’m really passionate about the seasons,” he says in a Cockney patter. “I get upset when I go to one of our restaurants at Christmas and see a strawberry decorating a dish. Why pay a lot of money for out-of-season produce which looks nice but tastes vile. We should buy things when they are at their cheapest and best quality.”
By way of illustration he adds: “We have just had the plum season – ideal for things such as a tart tatin of plums.”
The executive development chef of Gardner Merchant London is sitting in a small, glass-walled office in New Street Square. As befits the person with overall responsibility for the look of menus at 160 Gardner Merchant units in the nation’s capital, he is suited and tied. But, as he confesses readily, he feels more comfortable in chef’s whites, and dons them whenever he can – at unit openings, on training days (Friday is set aside for teaching the company’s up and coming chefs), in competitions.
“Competitions are a good way of keeping a breast of things. What sets the judges alight is something original and it forces you to focus, to do something that no one else has done before – they’re wonderful places to pick up new trends.”
Shipman has been on the competition circuit as participant and judge since 1972 – a significant year when he not only won the first of his 48 competition medals – at Hotelympia for a St George and the Dragon fat carving – but also met and married his wife – described by Shipman as a “foodie” although not in the trade.
At the time he was working for Barclays Bank Catering Services – he was with the bank’s catering division for a total of 16 years at various sites in London before joining Gardner Merchant in 1990. His appointment meant Shipman completed a career circle – having returned to the sector where he first started. In 1964, straight out of Walthamstow College, he served an apprenticeship with John Gardner – Trusthouse Forte as the company was then.
“Why have I come back to contract catering? I always thought this side of the business had a long way to go and it was a challenge to bring the modern food I saw happening in competitions to the work-place. “In the 1970s everybody was buying frozen food: but now we try to be our own producers. We don’t use a lot of prepped food any more – some Dohler products, some coulis, occasionally frozen vegetables if cost restraints are placed on us by clients.”
What rankles, though, is that there is still a perception that contract catering is a second-best option for chefs – an area where mass production and repetitiveness is the order of the day. “A lot of it is to do with snobbery – chefs’ snobbery. These days we have more skills in some cases than you need in restaurants where the main body menu will be on for four to six months and a commis will learn three or four dishes to perfection on one station and won’t be taken off because he’s doing a good job.
“In the same time span, in a Gardner Merchant unit you’ve got the chance to be doing everything from cooking, to book keeping, to learning craft skills on training courses – all in the same unit. There’s tons of opportunity.”
Shifting to the edge of his seat, eyes alight with indignation, he says uncompromisingly. “Contract catering is not an easy option. Yes the hours are more standardised in some cases. And yes, on the lower levels the pay might be slightly better. But if you can’t make it in restaurants and hotels to a certain level, then you can’t make it here either.”
Shipman has travelled a long way (metaphorically if not physically) from his cockney roots. The archetypal East End boy made good, he was born 47 years ago in Stratford, London – the middle son of a french polisher father who loved his “pies and mash” and a mother who couldn’t cook. “It was in self-preservation I got into cooking,” he jokes. “I loved finding out about flavours.”
Today, an emphasis on flavour is number one on his list of priorities when he is creating new dishes. Flavour, combined with quality of produce. And he doesn’t like to over complicate things; as for garnishing, he is on a one-man mission to ban the word from the English language.
“It has come to mean something you stick on a plate just for the sake of it. If you have sea bass with spring onions and mash potatoes, it’s good enough to stand on its own. I would rather a chef spent 20 minutes making a dish wonderful than creating some vegetable into a flower.”
While admitting to being influenced by foreign ingredients – particularly Mediterranean, “everything starts with olive oil” – Shipman, describes his cuisine as modern English. “Our cuisine has been insulted and abused over the years, but you can’t beat an oxtail or a good stew done well with a modern approach – double-reduced stocks with good-quality meat, not overcooked.”
Like everyone else, he has tried and discarded new ingredients over the years. “I won’t touch sun dried tomatoes with a bargepole now,” he laughs. “But I still like to use balsamic vinegar – if you put it in a lamb jus it really brings out the flavour; and I love goats’ cheese – it’s flexible but with a strong taste.”
A combination of lime and coriander is another fad that has stayed the course: but it is English asparagus that he’d kill for: “I’m really into serving it with a rich orange sauce, it marries well with the flavour and texture of asparagus.”
Unsurprisingly, Gary Rhodes crops up in conversation. Shipman is full of enthusiasm for the way that he has put uncomplicated food on the map and was one of those instrumental in bringing him into the Gardner Merchant fold by inviting Rhodes to judge the company’s Chef of the Year 1996 competition.
Anton Mosimann is another hero: “he was a breath of fresh air – instead of having classical sauces the consistency of frisbees, he introduced double reductions and made people care about freshness and simplicity.”
Shipman’s passion for food surfaces at every turn of conversation: but he is also passionate about developing the skills of his staff – and training and career profiling chefs forms a large part of his Gardner Merchant remit.
Before he retires, he would like to see the introduction of all-plated service at Gardner Merchant units – from the executive dining rooms to the staff restaurants. “We should be aiming for an operation like Mezzos – serving 1,000 covers of plated service.”
The irony of the restaurant world moving towards mass catering is not lost on him. But he is not bitter. “I would like to see the day when all the barriers are broken down,” he says, smiling.
Next Week: The Take Five series continues with a visit to one of Eurest’s innovative chefs