Food is the raison d'être of all contract catering companies, but how many truly put it at the forefront of their businesses? One company that does - and is very keen to prove it - is Avenance. In an attempt to promote the fact that food is its priority, it has sent a group of its operations and general managers back to the kitchens.
"We decided to take an active role in getting a larger proportion of the company - beyond the chefs - directly involved in focusing 100% on food through purchasing, hearing about trends in the marketplace, writing menus and, most importantly, cooking," says Avenance group managing director Timothy Gurney. "It's all part of our determination to give our clients and customers the very best, freshest and most seasonal food."
So 13 operations and general managers are spending two days taking that active role: preparing, cooking and serving a three-course gourmet dinner for a group of clients.
As soon as the managers gather for the first day of this experimental training initiative, the company's commitment to food swiftly becomes apparent. The venue - the Food Centre at Sainsbury's HQ in London's High Holborn, where many of the supermarket's dishes are developed - could not be more apt. Avenance runs the catering contract there for the company's 2,600 staff.
The participants themselves are very enthusiastic about the project. "To be able to focus on food and nothing else is fantastic - that is what I came into the business for but, unfortunately, so many of the big operators are now only interested in the finances," says Roger Verrall, operations manager of 12 contracts in the South of England.
The first day of the workshop centres on Avenance's commitment to serving quality food, food trends and menu planning, and rounds off with a wine tasting and food/wine matching session at wine merchant Layton's in Elliott's Place.
Leading the session entitled "Fresh Food Promise", marketing director Ian Styles speaks about a series of pledges that Avenance intends to make to clients and customers. "This will include things such as all staff knowing what ingredients are in every dish, and the amount of fresh and ambient food versus frozen food available," he says. The pledges, of which there will be about 30, are to be trialled in September and October before being introduced across the group.
There is also an inspiring talk from vegetable supplier, and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Veg Talk, Gregg Wallace, on how to get the best from suppliers, and the importance of buying British seasonal produce.
Following a cookery demonstration and discussion on menu planning by group executive chef Rob Kirby and City of London development chef Mark Parfait, it's time for the managers to take the first step towards the challenge that lies ahead - the planning of a three-course gourmet menu that they will prepare, cook and serve the next day.
Kirby gives the group some guidance, with suggestions for the main ingredients to be used for the starter and main course. "I've told them to think seasonally and keep everything as simple as possible, but beyond that it's all down to them," he says.
Three teams are established and each allocated to a different course. It is agreed that the starter will be based around scallops and crab; lamb is to be the centrepiece of the main course; and the dessert is to incorporate a jelly and some chocolate.
On the second day, the group meets at 7.30am at London's New Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. The visit has been planned to inspire the managers' choice of vegetables and fruits for their meal.
It works. "Coming here has made all the difference to how we're going to finish the dish," says Shirley Genever, general manager for the Hanover Group, which operates 24 sheltered accommodation units throughout England. "We've seen some lovely samphire and have decided to serve that with the scallops, and a wonderful box of mixed cress which we'll use on top of the crab."
In planning the starter, it has been decided that a salsa would complete the dish. Only by visiting the market and being stimulated by the juicy mangoes, fragrant limes, spicy chillies and plump red onions do the starter team finalise its ingredients.
Meanwhile, the main-course team are working their way through boxes of peas, runner beans, baby leeks, spinach and little gem lettuce, which will be turned into a velout‚ and served inside a swirl of mashed potato to sit alongside the lamb. Girolle mushrooms, baby carrots and button onions are also selected for a garnish.
For dessert, there is a wonderful array of sweet, plump, summer fruits to select to complete the dish, which began life as a jelly and chocolate combo. "You can't underestimate the value of coming to market," enthuses David Jones, responsible for nine contracts in the City of London. "We've come across some flat peaches that many of us have not seen before - they're beautifully sweet, so we're having some of those."
They also select pink grapefruit, raspberries, strawberries, plums, chervil and chillies. The quality of fruits so inspire the team that extras are ordered to fill a display case on which the petits fours will be served.
With all the fruit and veg selected by 9am, it's time to sit down and enjoy a hearty cooked breakfast, after which the managers are keen to get their hands on the produce they have just purchased and get down to some practical work. But first it's time for more theory and practical demonstrations with company dietitian Raffaella Plovesan.
The introduction of dishes containing super foods (rich in specific nutrients and plant compounds which help to fight heart disease and certain cancers) is explained, and Parfait cooks up some examples, including slowly cooked salmon, served on a bed of salad leaves with avocado, cherry tomatoes, almonds and sunflower seeds, with a dressing made from blanched garlic, olive oil and tomato concasse.
At 1pm, the time comes for the managers to don their whites and chefs' hats and get to work preparing everything from scratch, including the bread, canap‚s and petits fours.
"We've had difficulty in getting the chocolate to adhere to the ice-cream and ended up with something that looks like a Snickers bar - hardly the dainty petits fours we'd like to serve," says Kate Stewart, general manager at City law firm Linklaters. Strawberries dipped in white and dark chocolate are the chosen replacement, and are made by Wendy Berry with no problems.
At 2pm, the managers split into their course teams and work gets under way on the main part of the dinner.
On starters, the team - Genever and Verrall, with Chris Sprague, Jamie Styler and Martin Westcott-Wreford - deal with live scallops and crabs without batting an eyelid. Silence falls on the group as they painstakingly pick the crab meat out of its shell.
Over on the mains section, Stewart and Mary Turner are preparing and then blanching the vegetables for the veloutâ and garnish, while the lamb is being trimmed by Mark Withyman and Howie Allen.
In the pastry section, what is probably the most ambitious dish of the menu is coming together. When Kirby advised the managers to keep their dishes simple, the pastry team obviously ignored him. Among the tasks the team of Jones, Berry, Malcolm Hill and Paul Johnson have set themselves is the making of a Champagne jelly in individual shot glasses with a raspberry suspended in the centre. Chocolate cones are also being made, a sabayon is being whisked up as the basis of a white chocolate parfait, and a fruit salad is being prepared.
Some of the managers have kitchen experience, having started as chefs, but for others, putting together a meal of this calibre is quite new. "Preparing this meal has certainly highlighted my admiration of the skill level of chefs," says Howie Allen, responsible for 30 London contracts as operations director.
By 5.20pm, all the preparation is done, and it's time for a breather before service begins at 7.30pm. Kirby gathers the team together at 7pm to say that he's delighted with their work so far. "I didn't quite know what to expect, but I've been amazed by everyone's passion," he says. "Let's enjoy the rest of the evening and have some fun."
While the starters are being plated, the main-course team hits a problem with the mash and girolle mushrooms. "The mash is too gloopy, because the potatoes we used were too old, and the mushrooms are gritty," Stewart says. More cream and butter is whipped into the mash and it is deemed to be acceptable, but the girolles are ditched.
The rest of the evening runs smoothly and when the managers are called out for "Santâ des Chefs", they're exhausted but elated.
Gurney is thrilled, too. "The two-day course has satisfied many aspects of our ambition in an innovative and interactive manner," he says. "The clients have recognised our determination and were delighted, but maybe not surprised, by the quality of the food served during the event."
Kirby is relieved it's over, after so long putting the event together. "We've encompassed team-building, innovation, people and, most importantly, fantastic food, showing our own people and the industry that we take fresh food very seriously," he says.
There's no doubt that the course will be run again for other operations managers, and possibly for other Avenance personnel. There is even talk of offering the training to clients.
The managers' menu
28 July 2004 Cornish crab on a tomato concasse with cress leaves, and seared scallop on samphire with a mango salsa, with lemon oil
Lamb cutlets with chicken and sage mousse, served with a veloutâ of summer vegetables and mash with baby carrots and caramelised baby onions
A shot glass of Champagne jelly with a raspberry froth, a dark chocolate and white chocolate marbled cone filled with a white chocolate parfait, and a fruit salad of strawberries, plums, peaches, limes, chervil and chilli, served with a pink grapefruit sauce