The Caterer interview: Kevin Watson, Levy UK and Ireland, on catering at COP26

11 November 2021 by

COP26 is a huge, high-profile undertaking, with heads of state galore in attendance. Caroline Baldwin gets the inside story on the F&B offer from Kevin Watson, business director of the event's official caterer, Levy UK and Ireland

Catering at COP26 was provided by the SEC Food team, part of Levy UK&I, the catering partner at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC).

What is the challenge of feeding so many people at an event the world has its eyes on?

We are catering for 10,000 delegates a day – around 150,000 over the fortnight – from 7.30am throughout the day, with a mixture of retail, head of state catering and exhibition catering, as well as 24-hour catering provided to those delegates that require it.

We plan it the same as any other big event. At Levy the volume of 10,000 people a day is in our comfort space, so the planning is no different, but the attention to detail is higher because we knew there would be a lot of scrutiny to this. And after all our planning, no one could say we didn't have the right intentions in delivering COP26, but we had to make sure everything we've said on paper was delivered.

One of the key things was to make sure all food is affordable and accessible to all, with local and seasonal ingredients that could allow us to deliver a low-carbon menu. While the Championships, Wimbledon, also focuses a lot on seasonality, the seasonal menu in Scotland in November is very different. You think turnips and carrots, but the land is still very bountiful and we have amazing grains, oats and dairy farmers.

Graham Singer
Graham Singer

How long have you been planning for COP26?

We would have been planning it for around 12 to 14 months, but it was split over two years because the event was meant to be held last November and was put back a year because of Covid, which did allow us to have a bit more time to plan it and make sure we get it right. Now we're actualising it, it allows us to take a step back and ask ourselves if we got everything 100% right. I'm a professional caterer and I'm in hospitality because I love it, but I have a new passion for it now, and my role will also look at how we take these learnings into Levy afterwards and drive it into the future.

From a profile perspective, COP26 is one of the biggest events I've looked after, with 140 heads of state coming into town. I genuinely love what I do, and there's excitement and it's so energetic at the minute. With Covid, that got taken away from us, so it's good that we got that back again in the hospitality industry. I have hospitality running through my veins and it's all I've ever wanted to do, so it's great to be surrounded by like-minded people.

Tell us more about your local and seasonal approach to food COP26 is a UK event focusing on the best of Scottish produce. We currently have over 80% of our suppliers from Scotland, and 80% of those are from within a 100-mile radius of Glasgow. This has really helped us look at the supply chain and work with every local distributor to make sure we're not driving the carbon footprint up any more. The remaining 20% of suppliers are from elsewhere in the UK.

Woodland mushroom and kale ramen and beetroot-infused nicoise salad
Woodland mushroom and kale ramen and beetroot-infused nicoise salad

The culinary director of Compass Scotland, Graham Singer, has been instrumental to this, and is the driving force behind the food delivery. He's based in Aberdeenshire, so he knows a lot of the suppliers already. He went out to meet them all individually, working closely together to make sure they deliver the quality we needed. After all, we're still a fresh food company, and all the meals are prepared on site.

How have you designed your menu with plant-based food in mind?

About 40% of the menu is plant-based, and a further 20% is vegetarian. Where we use meat, we wanted to reduce the animal proteins and replace them with good-quality plant-based protein. For example, a regular burger may have 150g of meat protein in a 190g patty, while our ‘plant-forward' burger has 90g of meat protein with the remaining 100g topped up with kale, barley and mushroom, which gives great flavour but also helps to deliver a lower- carbon product.

Why did you make the decision to go flexitarian rather than avoid meat altogether? We needed to be inclusive for people and we tried to do what is right for everybody, while being accessible and affordable. The 40% of our menus which aren't vegetarian aren't necessarily red meat – out of the 60 items on the retail menus, only two have red meat. The rest are chicken and fish, but it's local, seasonal and high-welfare. The menus are designed to be very inclusive, and every station gives you a plant-based and a meat-based option.

How are you communicating the carbon information to delegates?

We're working with a Danish company called Klimato, which uses lifecycle analysis of food products to conduct carbon footprint calculations for each dish. On every retail and hospitality menu the dishes will have a Klimato label to help attendees at COP26 understand its carbon footprint. The label is a little circle with a wave; the lower the wave in the circle, the lower the carbon footprint. The delegates are here for 15 days; one day they might want to eat meat, another day they might like to eat a lower-carbon option. Labelling enables people to make the right choice, because education is key to people understanding and driving this forward.

How are you avoiding food waste at such a large-scale event?

Food waste is important to us and key to what we do. In terms of preparing the dishes, we're conscious about using the whole vegetable. For instance, in our bang-bang cauliflower, we use the florets, which are rolled in Scottish breadcrumbs and then fried, and we use the rest of the cauliflower to make an Asian salad to go with it. In the food business the outer cauliflower usually goes in the bin, but this allows us to use the whole vegetable.

We have two menus for the event, one for the first week and another for week two. This allows us to pull a dish into day two if we don't use all of a product in one day, and we can bring in fresh product to top it up. We're also feeding a workforce of 1,500 people every day, which is another way for surplus food to be diverted as an add-on for those people in the evenings. Ingredients will also be replicated across the conference menus to ensure produce can be repurposed for other meals. While we do have VIP delegates, there isn't a formal gala, it's a day-time delegation, so there may be a langoustine cocktail appearing on a hospitality menu, but our bang-bang cauliflower will appear on both hospitality and retail menus. Whether they are boxed up or handed to you on a plate, the menus will remain similar, allowing us to mitigate even more waste.

Fish and chips and roasted cauliflower salad
Fish and chips and roasted cauliflower salad

We'll also be using our POS data to help us understand the delegates and make changes to quantities of food and dishes on a daily basis.

How else are you avoiding waste?

Aside from food waste, we have reusable cups for hot and cold drinks that can be used 1,000 times and beyond COP26. Before the event we forecasted this would save 250,000 cups from going to landfill. All the cups are unbranded, because if you brand something you can only use it for that one event, but we want to use them again and again, so there will be signage for delegates to drop off their cups saying ‘please put me here, I'm reusable'.

We are also using best-in-class takeaway boxes, which are a very compostable product, and we already use Ecolab for cleaning to avoid washing chemicals down the drain.

How does it feel to be delivering this event as a Scotsman yourself?

Well, I do live in London now, after many years in Ireland, but it is great to be back in Scotland and I'm proud to work with the team to deliver COP26 here. Checking into a hotel for 32 nights is always tough, but it's good to be on home turf. I've been here two weeks already, and the Scottish slang that has started to come out of me in the last couple of days is funny, but I think it helps deliver a more authentic experience for the delegates.

What on the menu excites you the most?

We have a lovely venison Scottish roll which I've already had for lunch. Venison is a sustainable meat and it's just coming into season. There's also the bang-bang cauliflower and good old sustainable fish and chips, with fish from Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, and Scottish potatoes fried in Scottish rapeseed oil, so I expect I'll have a couple during the event.

Scottish suppliers

Eighty per cent of the food served at COP26 will come from Scottish suppliers, including:

  • Amity Fish Company from Peterhead
  • Lomond Foods from Glasgow
  • Mackintosh of Glendaveny from Aberdeenshire
  • Mara Seaweed from Edinburgh
  • Stoats Oats from Edinburgh

COP26 menu

  • Scotch barley broth (0.1kg CO2e)
  • Carrot and thyme soup (0.1kg CO2e)
  • Potato, leek and rosemary chowder (0.1kg CO2e)
  • Red lentil and root vegetable broth (0.1kg CO2e)
  • Spinach and cauliflower salad, with pickled romanescu, Scottish carrot, candied roots, pearl barley and aromatic cress (0.2kg CO2e)
  • Loch Duart smoked salmon and fennel salad, with aromatic cress and a beetroot dressing (0.4kg CO2e)
  • Shredded chicken salad, with pickled radish, root vegetable, cauliflower heart, crispy kale, barley, spelt and aromatic cress (0.5kg CO2e)
  • Winter squash lasagne, with celeriac, glazed root vegetables, winter squash, and a vegan Cheddar (0.7kg CO2e)
  • Organic kale and seasonal vegetable pasta, with spelt fusilli, field mushrooms, kale and seasonal vegetables (0.3kg CO2e)
  • Braised turkey meatballs, with organic spelt penne in a tomato ragu (0.9kg CO2e)
  • Organic spelt wholegrain penne, with a tomato ragu, kale, pesto and oatmeal crumble (0.2kg CO2e)

COP26 in numbers

  • 84kg of locally harvested seaweed will be used as a sustainable salt substitute.
  • 250kg of Scottish Heather Hills honey was used instead of sugar to preserve 750kg of summer-picked Scottish berries.
  • During the two weeks of COP26, delegates will consume 120,000 apples, 11,000kg of Stoats porridge oats, 88,000 portions of plant-based soup, 36,000 baps (baked fresh each day from Scottish-milled flour), and 23,000 portions of fish (sustainably caught) and chips fried in Scottish rapeseed oil.

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