A career in contract catering can take you to another world - London Zoo, Wimbledon Tennis Championships or a steam train journey - yet it doesn't spend enough time shouting about how big it is, how exciting it is and how many opportunities it offers those of you with talent, drive and ambition. Our guest editor, Kevin Bigg, head chef at Aramark, believes it's time to quit being modest and start telling it how it is, so we've taken him at his word and invited some of the most innovative or unusual contracts around to sing out about what they're proud of.
A sporting chance
Wimbledon Tennis Championships
The caterer: FMC (or Facilities Management Catering) a division of Compass
The challenge: Nearly 500,000 spectators descend on Wimbledon over 13 days in June every year to watch tennis aces such as Tim Henman or Venus Williams slog it out with their opponents on the famous grass courts. The contract covers all F&B operations, catering for everyone from Royal Box guests to the court-coverers. FMC isn't allowed to sub-contract any aspect of the catering so the team has had to be flexible enough to cater for an international public as well as provide high-quality hospitality to more than 100 blue-chip companies.
The boast: Catering during Wimbledon fortnight is a 24-hour operation. Deliveries have to be received and distributed, the production kitchen has to prep for the following day and some of the restaurants have to stay open through the night to cater for the international media. The team feeds the 7,000-8,000 spectators who choose sit-down meals every day, mostly between 11.30am and midday before play begins. Meanwhile, customers are grazing from 10.30am until they leave late in the evening.
Getting organised: Planning starts on the last day of the previous championships and during the year meetings are held between FMC and the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Competition off the courts can be stiff, with 3,500 job applicants for 1,600 temporary catering positions. These include 150 chefs, 125 managers and supervisors, waiting and bar staff, general assistants, cashiers and store people. A management induction day is then held to brief the team on client service needs, health and safety, security and so on. A full menu and wine list presentation is also given. Training of all staff begins two days before the games start.
Nitty gritty: The catering operation includes a take-away food village, tea lawn, the Renshaw restaurant for debenture holders, the public waiter-service Wingfield restaurant, the Caf‚ Pergola wine bar, separate eateries for the county lawn tennis associations, umpires and stewards, competitors, ball persons and media - plus 35 hospitality suites.
Strange fact: For security reasons the caterers aren't usually notified that a VIP is expected in the Royal Box until about 15 minutes before they arrive, so the team needs to be able to react quickly to dietary needs.
Other strange facts: FMC serves nearly 500,000 visitors with 12,000kg of poached salmon, 30,000 portions of fish and chips, 22,000 slices of pizza, 190,000 sandwiches, 150,000 glasses of Pimm's no 1 cup and 17,000 bottles of Champagne. Some 28,000kg of strawberries are bought, all of which have to be grade A and English.
Trends: Yogurt is now served as an alternative to cream, and as one in 10 customers chooses stir-fry, the caterer now employs six Chinese chefs.
Grandstand views - 2004 Olympics - Aramark
- The Grand National - Letheby & Christopher, Sodexho and Heathcotes
- Henley Royal Regatta - Letheby & Christopher
- Royal Ascot - Sodexho
Charity bashes Elton John's big bash
The caterer: Rhubarb food design
The nitty gritty: Owner Lucy Gemmell has cooked and planned for people and organisations all over the world, but has discovered a gap in the market for inspirational, visually enticing and high-quality catering on a large scale.
The boast: Last June the caterer worked on Elton John's Fifth White Tie and Tiara Ball, which raises millions annually for the Elton John Aids Foundation.
The challenge: The brief was to recreate Imperial Russia so, working closely with Matt James of DNA Productions, the Rhubarb team presented a dinner that included a serious "wow factor".
Proof of the pudding: The event raised £2.1m
BallArena in aid of Hospitality Action and Springboard
The caterer: Sodexho, Aramark and Compass, plus Chester Boyd.
The nitty gritty: Catering for a gala event for 1,500 people put on for the hospitality industry by the hospitality industry.
The boast: Ten years ago, who would have guessed that a massive fundraising celebration of the hospitality industry would be catered for - not by the major London hotels - but by the country's main contract catering companies. So Sodexho, Aramark and Compass all set aside traditional rivalries and mucked in together with the help of event company Chester Boyd. It was a memorable night and a fantastic achievement.
BallArena: 24 February 2004, 1,500 guests
- £92,000 raised for Hospitality Action and Springboard
- 175 waiting staff
- 14,000 loaned pieces of china
- The event would cost £1m if organised privately - about £650 a head
- Tickets cost £200 or £1,750 for table of 10
- Starter: Roast sweet potato, coconut and sweet paprika soup with goats' cheese wontons
- Fish course: Pan-fried skate and mussels and a tartare garnish
- Main course: Hay-baked lamb with artichoke barigoule, pommes mousseline and banyuls jus
- Dessert: Frangipane tartlets with warm balsamic-marinated strawberries and frozen lemon curd or Pear financier
Tea Party in aid of the
Roald Dahl Centre
The caterer: BaxterSmith
What and why? The Roald Dahl Foundation helps children with dyslexia to read and write. William Baxter, executive chairman of BaxterSmith, is dyslexic and has spent time fundraising for the charity.
The nitty gritty: Last summer, the prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, asked for BaxterSmith's support in organising and catering for a fundraising tea party at the writer's former home, Gypsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.
The boast: The caterer devised tailor-made picnics for adults and children, ensuring everything was home-made and hand-packed. The picnic boxes were bought from the USA and were stuffed with a selection of sandwiches such as cream cheese and cucumber, as well as fruit scones with cream and jam and cake for the adults. The children's picnic box got a Roald Dahl makeover, so there were George's Marvellous Jam Sandwiches, Bruce Bogtrotter's Cake and Scrumdidlyumptious Snacks and Treats. In between mouthfuls, the guests were entertained by the likes of Rowan Atkinson and Jamie Theakston.
The proof of the pudding: It raised money towards creating the Roald Dahl Centre, which celebrates Dahl's life and the written word.
Five big boasts
- The pinkest waiters Kitsch was the theme at the Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts 2003, so The Admirable Crichton shipped in pink flamingos, a giant topiary pink poodle and somehow managed to persuade its waiters to wear pink tutus.
- The most star-studded English National Opera - Wilson Storey Halliday started providing staff dining and visitor hospitality at ENO earlier this year, following the £41m restoration at the London Coliseum. At ENO's reopening party there were 2,400 VIP guests including Princess Alexandra and opera diva Lesley Garrett. But that's small fry. According to the caterer, the great thing about the contract at the ENO is that its staff regularly bump into famous people from theatre, TV and radio. Just some of the famous guests that the team rub shoulders with include Melvyn Bragg, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Sue Lawley.
- The poshest clients Event caterer the Admirable Crichton can do a lot of boasting in this department, listing Sting and Trudie Styler, Prince William and Prince Charles as clients.
- The best places
And the Admirable Crichton again… which likes to think outside the hotel function suite. In fact, it lists more than 70 glamorous venues on its website www.acplaces.co.uk including the Natural History Museum, Kensington Palace, the Wellington Arch - and that's just London. Further afield, its staff cater at bashes at the Amenjena in Marrakech, the Cipriani in Venice and the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.
- The wildest animals Leith's does the catering at London Zoo. Not for the animals, of course, although they play a part in proceedings, providing an extraordinary back-drop for anything from weddings to corporate team-building events. Staff are at home serving in the Lion Terrace, giving clients a bite at the Mappin Pavilion on Bear Mountain or throwing a party at the reptile house. Besides functions, Leith's provides food and beverage in eight outlets, plus staff-feeding. It has held the £1.5m annual turnover contract since 1995.
Innovative food design
The DVD Canape tray
The caterer: The Admirable Crichton
The challenge: To show guests at the wedding of a party production specialist some of the wild events he had helped cater for and create.
The innovation: Johnny Roxburgh, co-founder of the company, came up with a portable DVD player-cum-canapâ tray. He encased the keypads in Perspex to act as canapâ trays so that while the guests selected tasty morsels they could watch some of party-boy's best achievements on the screen.
The benefits: Besides getting the guests' attention, this DVD tray can be used by businesses for, say, product launches, or at private themed parties.
Any other brainwaves? The company isn't modest about its flair for food design and so holds seasonal menu tastings four months before each season. The menu designers, kitchen and party designers taste and approve about 40 dishes which are then photographed. The menu cards are then sent out to clients so they can see what a dish will look like and choose accordingly.
Staging good ideas
The caterer: Parallel, a division of catering giant Aramark, which provides managed services to the UK hotel and leisure sector
The client: Really Useful Theatres (RUT), a group of 12 West End theatres that is equally owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group and Bridgepoint Capital.
The nitty gritty: Parallel bagged the RUT contract in 2001 to provide catering across 11 theatres - each of which normally trades on an eight-show-per-week basis. It has about 120 staff in the team.
The challenge: A whopping four million theatre-goers pass through the 44 bars plus other catering operations every year, which represents more than 30% of the West End theatre market. Besides the public catering, Parallel also looks after all the hospitality, VIP events, Gala events and banqueting so it's a big role.
The star turn: In a bid to increase sales and improve service, the caterer has devised an interval ordering system (mobile based terminals) at the London Palladium. This consists of eight hand-held units shared between RUT front-of-house staff and the Parallel team. Its charm is that theatre-goers can order from their seats or even while buying their tickets. During the interval, they then simply pick up their orders from the pick-up point which, needless to say, helps cut those ghastly queues at the bar during intervals.
Taking a bow: Parallel has introduced a restaurant at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It offers a three-course pre-show dinner with dessert and coffee served in the interval at £19.95 per head. Despite a decline in theatre attendance, the new service has increased spend per head by 15%. Similar services are about to debut at the Palace and Palladium theatres.
The encore: Parallel has worked with the RUT to introduce an honesty bar at the Gielgud Theatre. A member of the Parallel team is on hand to ensure people have access to change and the old optics have been replaced with miniature double measures to ensure a quick, clean and efficient service. Clear signage, accessible money-boxes and easily visible tariffs have been key to the success of this service.
A workplace to write home about
Vintage steam trains
The caterer: Acclaim Food
The inside track: Acclaim Food is contracted by Steam Dreams to cook up a treat for corporate events and parties on board vintage steam trains. It provides full restaurant service for Champagne brunches and three-course meals. Passengers who don't want restaurant service can order luxury hampers.
The boast: Catering manager Tim Holt and his team of chefs and service staff reckon they have turned the traditional view of rail food on its head by serving brasserie-style fare with the quality, service and wine found at a top restaurant.
The challenge: The constraints of catering on board an old steam train range from regular health and safety issues to the practical problems of serving at speed - jolts and all. Holt is now feeding 150 diners and supplying 40 hampers per trip, so menus have to be flexible enough to serve large numbers in a confined space with the added problem of time constraints. On some train journeys, seats are sold twice (eg, London-Oxford and Oxford-Worcester), so there are two sittings for both brunch and dinner.
The solution: Like most top-end train caterers, the team preps the food at a central kitchen and then cooks it all on board - including bread and pastries. The team of three chefs, 10-15 waitresses, kitchen porters and a catering manager boards the train at Clapham Junction at 7am every day to cook and set up for the journey.
Going places: Four years ago, Acclaim was catering on 15 Steam Dreams trains a year visiting two cathedral cities. Now it caters on 47 trains, which chug into 23 cities. Destinations include Poole, Winchester, Canterbury and Bournemouth.
Nitty gritty: The team cooks for 31-48 people per carriage. Diners will be served a Champagne brunch on the outward journey and a three-course gourmet dinner on the way home. The menu might include Tuscany bean soup with herb croutons and deep-fried basil followed by roasted suprËme of guinea fowl stuffed with wild mushrooms and sage served with Duchess potatoes and a thyme and basil cream sauce.
Strange fact: The team has learnt by experience to close windows when going through a tunnel - otherwise soot covers everything.
The Marketing Awards Dinner at Old Billingsgate, London
The caterer: Red Snapper Events
The challenge: There were time-constraints so event organiser First Protocol wanted to continue with the awards as the starter was being served. This meant the first course had to be served silently.
The solution: After a lot of deliberation, Red Snapper came up with an answer to noisy crockery - baskets. So, the menu naturally became Asian and guests were served individual steaming baskets full of Oriental-style nibbles, including duck pancakes with spring onion, cucumber and mango; chilli and peanut marinated chicken skewers, Thai beef skewers marinated in soy and ginger with chilli sauce. This Asian menu also solved the demands of vegetarians and guests on special diets (unusually high, at more than 10%). Their baskets were filled with vermicelli rice paper rolls with Oriental noodles and Thai herbs, vegetable crisps, soy and ginger tofu and shiitake and vegetable sushi.
The boast: Service was aided by the fact the baskets were stackable and easy to clear, so it got the thumbs-up as a new innovation for events of this number.
The result: The concept was deemed a success and is to be used at a forthcoming awards dinner for 700 at the same venue.
The whacky way
The caterer: Artizian
The boast: All team leaders, chefs and head office staff have to go on an extra training day four times a year.
So what? It's no ordinary training day. So far, the staff have been coached in confidence by a West End theatre director so they can give customers a more creative, buzzy atmosphere; had their personal image overhauled by a consultant to BBC newsreaders; and spent a day with a specialist examining their pre-conceptions to help them understand clients, colleagues and customers.
What next? Walking on coals, of course, to "Unleash the Power Within" with life coach Anthony Robbins.
Why bother? Staff relations and attitude has improved, nudging uptake by customers to an average of 70%. And it's fun.
"Some of the innovations that are coming through from contract caterers are fantastic and the places where we can provide services are very diverse - from the Olympics in Athens to the courts at Wimbledon! What really stands out for me, though, is the BallArena event earlier this year. Contract caterers led the food side together for the first time and the results were amazing."
Kevin Bigg, Head chef, BP Sunbury Aramark