As a measure of standards in business and industry catering we asked Observer food critic Jay Rayner to step out of his fine-dining comfort zone to eat at three staff restaurant contracts. Here's what he found
It was almost enough to make me retrain as an IT consultant: there, on the counter in the staff restaurant at software giant Oracle in Reading, was a magnificent rib of beef. The quilt of luscious fat was amber and crisp. The meat was pink. The juices ran - both mine and the meat's. It was only a little later that Rob Mercer, executive chef for contract caterers BaxterStorey, admitted - or, to be generous, explained - that the rib roast was there for my benefit. Not that they never put one on at lunch. It was just that they had done so today because they knew I was coming. There was also, among other things, one more dish than usual over on the international station, and three kinds of pie rather than just one.
Oh well. At least he was honest. Then again, I knew when I was invited to review three in-house staff restaurants that this sort of embellishment was a real possibility. When I review restaurants for the Observer I book under a pseudonym and, while I accept that courtesy of a gruesome picture by-line I am increasingly hard to miss, there's not much the joint can do to change the menu once my knees are under the table. Here, however, the three contract caterers had to agree to let me in, confirm a date and issue me with a pass.
So let's accept that BaxterStorey had rolled out every bell and whistle in the marching band purely for my benefit. Even so, theirs is a class act and, happily, nothing like what I had expected. I work for large media businesses, have eaten in their canteens and have nearly completed the course of counselling required to deal with the trauma; too often I have been faced by grimly overwrought dishes, way beyond the skills of the "cooks" involved, left to fester under pass lights. Clearly, the bosses at Oracle hold their employees in higher regard than do most of Britain's media moguls.
The Oracle restaurant is a serious operation. There are in excess of 2,000 people working on the campus in Berkshire, more than 900 of them in the shiny glass-and-steel building where we ate, 600 of whom eat lunch there. That presents both the benefits of economies of scale and the challenges of volume. The solution is a horseshoe of stations - grill, say, or deli - the most impressive of which was called the International. Here they offered seared scallops wrapped in pancetta, cooked to order in front of you and served with a tomato concassé, crushed new potatoes and a herb foam. There was also a bavette of beef, served rare, with - deep breath - fondant potatoes, carrot purée, confit shallots, buttered cabbage mined with strands of slow-cooked rib and a soubise sauce. Yours for the silly, hyper-subsidised price of £3.60. Both dishes were impressive. If there's a criticism, it's only that the pancetta on the scallops should have been crisper, but that's to take the caterers at their own standards.
Depth of flavour
The Mamma Casa station, which changes its offering weekly, was today doing Indian food with about as much aplomb as most Western chefs usually manage. Yes, the onion bhaji may have been a sad, floppy, greasy thing that deserved to be taken out and shot to put it out of our misery, but the rogan josh had a real depth of flavour and spoke of long, slow cooking. Next to that, smoky pieces of chicken breast were coming off a charcoal grill for a more-than-passable, if bastardised, Caesar salad. There were nine types of bread on the deli counter; a salad bar with goats' cheese, Stilton and bacon-wrapped chicken; and, over to one side, a cheerful woman enthusiastically flogging made-to-order crêpes with the kind of sweet, luscious fillings that type-two diabetes is made of.
What was most striking was the sense of purpose. These cooks wanted to be here serving this food, which isn't always the way. The one overambitious offering was asparagus with a hollandaise sauce, which had to sit amid the heat of the pass lights. Naturally, it split, and when it did the cook looked genuinely bereft, like a relative had died.
By contrast, in the basement canteen at the London headquarters of a major FTSE100 company, I was the one who needed consoling. The contract here, to feed the much smaller 120-plus staff, is held by Holroyd Howe. Or, as I quickly wanted to call them, Holroyd In God's Name Why? What were diced carrots doing in the salmon fishcakes, and why was there so little fish and so much potato? And in what universe did serving this lump of stodge with a dipping sauce of mirin and soy make sense? Next to that was a sloppy, underseasoned bowl of spaghetti carbonara. The vegetarian option was Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce with a huge mound of fried rice. So that was a choice of carbs, carbs or carbs. Presumably, nobody at this office block gets any work done in the afternoon; they just snooze off their lunch.
The menu for the rest of the week was no more promising. Among the dishes there were representatives of the culinary traditions of India, Mexico, Greece, the Caribbean and Singapore as well as China, Japan and Italy. I know of few chefs who can manage two or three of those well, let alone all of them.
In the middle of the room, as at all three sites I visited, was the salad bar, here complete with heaps of dreaded sweet corn. Intriguingly, sweet corn also turned up in the limp, tasteless vegetable broth and pearl barley soup, as if that salad bar was somewhere through which ingredients passed. Again, why?
Added to this was a cavalier approach to the English language. Baked potatoes were called "juicy jackets". In what way is a baked potato ever juicy? Over on the dessert counter was a sign that read: "Today's lovingly-prepared cold pudding is chocolate éclair." Was the cook really loving? Perhaps the whole thing - heavy pastry, meagre cream - was stuck to the plate by the set-solid chocolate because the cook had loved them so much he or she couldn't bear to let them go. Helpfully, to one side of this whiteout of a basement space, there was a rack of leaflets offering advice to staff. They were called Conquering Panic, Overcoming Anxiety and, best of all, Understanding Depression. I took copies of all three.
It's worth rehearsing the arguments for these staff canteens: stop your employees going outside to eat and they will probably be back at their desks sooner. They will also sit down with their colleagues and continue talking about work. Slap on a good subsidy - and everything here cost no more than £2 - and you appear to be taking care of your staff. But it's also worth remembering the competition. Just outside the building are numerous sandwich shops, cafés and restaurants. I cannot deny that the canteen here was doing a brisk trade, but it struck me more as a victory of inertia over taste. They simply couldn't be bothered to go elsewhere - which might have something to do with all those carbs.
Getting it right
Holroyd Howe may argue that it's unfair to compare their Lilliputian operation with the epic works of BaxterStorey at Oracle. But less than half-a-mile away, at the HQ of Hammerson Plc, Lexington Catering is getting it right with the same small-sized audience. Hammerson develops funky, modern shopping centres and is, therefore, skilled at creating soothing spaces that make you want to linger. Just a few months ago it did so here, opening the nicest of the three staff restaurants, named the Source. It is a sleek space of dark wood floors and tables, fitted out with screens and panels in dark grey. Trays are banned, so that it doesn't look like a canteen, and staff serve themselves from something more akin to a buffet than a counter. Bravely, the picture windows look out at a branch of Eat, but I think there's little chance of the staff trying to push their way through the glass to reach it. Partly that's because of the 100% subsidy here, but mostly because of the quality of the food.
Lexington has kept the offering small and (almost) perfectly formed. There's a soup - on the day on my visit, a bold and sprightly celeriac and sorrel - and just two mains. One of these, linguine with crab, prawns and peas with roasted lemon shouldn't have worked. This sort of dish needs to be eaten immediately. But it was great. There was a lovely burst of chilli and a solid bite to the fresh seafood. Over on the salad bar there were piles of exotic leaves from the wonderful Secretts Farm and plates of rare roast beef with horseradish cream, or sesame-crusted tuna loin with marinated strips of cucumber. A dense almond and plum tart with overengineered pastry completed the offering, save for the one thing I didn't like: an aubergine stuffed with a "broad bean pesto" and laid with Cornish Yarg cheese and tomatoes. The aubergine merely soaked up the fat from the cheese and the broad beans did not a pesto make. But this was a rare misfire from what was an intelligent piece of catering.
All in, a very much better experience than I was expecting, and proof for pompous old cynics like me that the office canteen is not necessarily the place where ingredients go to die. That said, we must allow for the fact that this was a self-selecting sample. These companies knew - or in Holroyd Howe's case, thought they knew - that they were good.
It's worth noting that a bunch of other caterers also agreed to let me in, but bottled it when we tried to take them up on the offer, and refused me access. At the very least it indicates a gross lack of self-confidence. We are not naming them to protect the guilty.