Chefs and caterers from across the industry met to talk about how they provide a high-quality dining experience in a demanding foodservice environment. Anne Bruce reports
Whether it was the conclusion that vegetarianism is on the rise in London, or the tip that new, thicker clingfilms can be used for blind baking, The Caterer's recent roundtable in London revealed a wealth of industry insight.
Some of London's top chefs and innovators gathered in the Punchbowl pub in Mayfair for the event, sponsored by Kerrymaid, to share their expertise in all things foodservice and talk about the big issues across the industry.
The topics of discussion included choosing ingredients to ensure consistency of dishes; timesaving ideas; ingredients that allow you to flex menus; the problems of the skills shortage in the industry; and foodservice tips and tricks. One key theme throughout the discussion was catering for special dietary concerns among diners.
Vacherin's Dan Kelly felt that people working in the city were moving towards healthy eating: "Clean eating is getting bigger and bigger. Chefs are getting back to basics."
And Rob Kirby, chef-director at Lexington Catering, said that during the working week the company was serving more grains, greens and vegetarian dishes due to a growing clean eating trend, but that it all changes at the weekend.
Pastry chef Will Torrent suggested that going free-from does not mean sacrificing taste - nut milk tastes great, he said, and if chefs could offer 'free-from' food without making a big deal about it, then non free-from customers might enjoy it more.
Consultant Andy Jones commented that dietary needs are high on the agenda in NHS catering, as some 25% of NHS patients have dietary requirements - whether self diagnosed or otherwise. Jones said he always used non-dairy cream, a product that has much improved over the years, as it fits all dietary requirements. And Kerry's Mick O'Kane suggested that food with positive benefits that take healthy eating one step further could be the next big thing.
The training of young people and the skills shortage in the industry was another major preoccupation. Barry Johnson said that skilled pastry chefs are a dying breed and that even five-star hotels are buying in and cutting the staffing budget.
"When big players start doing that, it makes me worried. Where will the pastry chefs of the future come from?"
The group agreed that suppliers had a growing role to play in training up the chefs of the future, and that training exchange programmes were also vital.
Lexington Catering has launched an apprenticeship scheme with restaurateurs Chris and Jeff Galvin, while Crowe reported that bigger Elior sites were being used as a company-wide training hub.
Richard Skinner said giving young chefs the opportunity to train on-site taught them more about the real world than sending them to college. It's about having the right attitude, he said. "You can train someone who wants to learn, but if they don't, they are untrainable."
Ian Green commented: "You have to take on the young ones and give them training and progress people through from kitchen orter."
Supplier-organised training days to help the chefs understand the products they were using were vital, the group agreed. There was an expectation that suppliers would provide that service and one important question when considering taking on suppliers would be "what training can you provide?"
O'Kane from Kerry said that the key ingredient to success could not be taught. "You have to have passion and a drive - you don't get the time in the kitchen to experiment. You have to do it in your own time, after school - look online or get a book."
Buying in good-quality convenience products was a way to increase the efficiency of the kitchen and allow chefs to focus on more creative aspects of the menu, it was suggested.
Crowe commented: "You have to face up to the reality that convenience products aren't going to go away. You have to show chefs the products that will take time out and be realistic. The quality has improved immensely, there are good ones out there."
But the group agreed that quality was key when buying in products. Stocks were a good example of the adage "buy cheap, buy twice" said Kirby. You could buy a poor-quality one and you'd have to use half a pot to give some flavour, but buy one five times as expensive and you'd only need a tablespoon.
Puff pastry was the one product that everyone would buy in - either in sheets or ready-to-roll, the group agreed. And Torrent suggested that quality bought-in pastry cases allowed consistency and gave the chef time to experiment.
But Kelly emphasised that the chef's knowledge was still vital: "We are talking about quick saves, but you have to watch what you use. You have to learn how to use what's in the larder."
Consistency is key, said Kirby, and buying in bakery products in particular made sense.
"I would sooner have chefs focus on something they are really good at and buy in a good loaf. It always comes down to consistency."
Get the facts
Nutritional information was a growing issue in the catering trade; Skinner reported that one supplier had to be de-listed recently despite a 10-year relationship as they had not been able to provide allergen information.
Nutritional information demands were likely to shrink product ranges, predicted Jones. Suppliers need to include nutritional and labelling information on their websites so that it is accessible to everyone, urged Johnson. Without that, launches could be delayed.
Kerry is about to launch an app where chefs can access nutritional information and exchange recipes.
The 'Instagram effect' of how photos could be used to tempt diners to visit was also discussed, with the chefs agreeing that social media was a valuable tool that everyone could use for marketing their business.
The group finished by talking about what they would have done differently if they had their time again, with "travel more", "plan ahead more" and "be more open-minded" all common themes.
And with that it was straight back to their kitchens, for all agreed that hard work had got them where they were today and remained the vital ingredient for success for those in the catering trade.
Quick kitchen wins
â- Dan Kelly Clingfilm is used across the kitchen in so many ways - for wrapping and for reforming, to create a barrier,
for lining - and chefs are even using the latest clingfilms for blind-baking.
â- Richard Skinner Cartons of liquid freerange pasteurised eggs are efficient and convenient. They save time in weighing
up for products such as macarons, and they tick the food-safety box.
â- Andy Jones We use cream alternative - it's flexible and versatile. It can be used in a hot soup or piped on top of a cold
dessert, and it fits all dietary requirements. It has improved over the years.
â- Rob Kirby Pickled lemons, harissa, pesto and Thai pastes save time - we look for good top-end products that would
otherwise be labour-intensive to prepare.
â- Ian Green Potato starch in the dry stores is a good one - you can always do something with that.
â- Mark Crowe Powdered coconut is absolutely brilliant. You can make coconut cream with it, you can make it into milk
and you don't have to open hundreds of cans. You can add it directly into a curry or use it in sweet dishes.
Mark Crowe, development chef, Elior; Barry Johnson, pastry chef and tutor; Dan Kelly, director of food, Vacherin; Rob Kirby, chef-director, Lexington Catering; Ian Green, executive chef, Green & Fortune; Andy Jones, AJ Associates; Mick O'Kane, manager of culinary innovations, Kerry; Richard Skinner, executive chef, Artizian Catering; Will Torrent, pastry consultant
Kerrymaid offers caterers a portfolio of products that taste as good as fresh dairy, but which perform in the pressures of a busy professional kitchen.
The range is created by chefs, for chefs. Kerrymaid's products include spreads like Kerrymaid Buttery, which performs across many cooking, baking and spreading applications, reducing waste and taking up less fridge space. Or the Kerrymaid cream alternative, which delivers every time, never splits, and has a range of health benefits, including reduced fat levels and being free from hydrogenated vegetable oils, as well as helping caterers achieve Soil Association Food for Life accreditation.
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