Head chef Robert Szewczyk at Cumberland Lodge, the Windsor base of a royal charitable foundation, was in the happy position of being able to spec a replacement for his 20-year-old kitchen without commercial budget constraints. Diane Lane takes a look at what he came up with
Unique is a much overused word in marketing brochures keen to pull in punters with promises of an experience they won't have anywhere else. However, applying that tag to Cumberland Lodge near Windsor, Berkshire, is in no way an exaggeration.
Situated just 27 miles west of London and with easy access to the motorway network, Cumberland Lodge has 50 large and luxuriously furnished bedrooms, but it is not a hotel. It hosts meetings and conferences, but it's like no other conference centre rather, it is more like visiting a country house as a private guest.
Its location, in the historic and tranquil Windsor Great Park, is outstanding and the building itself is steeped in history. The 17th-century house is a Crown property, gifted by the Royal Family to the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Foundation of St Catharine's (an educational trust whose patron is the Queen) after the Second World War. It was the location for key meetings between Edward VIII's private secretary and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that eventually led to the king's abdication.
Day-to-day running of the operation is in the hands of bursar Martin Newlan, in a role similar to that of general manager. In keeping with the original aim of the foundation, which was to encourage the exchange of views between students, the lodge is used by more than 3,500 students and their teachers from various educational institutions, including the University of London and the Inns of Court.
It also has a loyal customer base among professional groups and organisations such as the NHS. Weddings are occasionally catered for when they can be accommodated.
Besides meeting rooms, various drawing and sitting rooms, a library and a bar, plus recreational facilities, including a tennis court, croquet lawn, a gym and a games room, there are three main dining rooms. The Cumberland room seats up to 60, the Prince Christian room 40 and the Princess Helena room 20, and it is here that head chef Robert Szewczyk and his brigade serve up modern British cuisine befitting the lodge's royal status. The fact that the three most senior members of the brigade - Szewczyk, sous chef Ross Brooks and senior chef de partie Carl Barnett - have amassed more than 50 years of service between them is testament to how special a place it is. Even porter Danny Carty has served seven years, so chef de partie Derek Sharkey is very much the new boy, having joined only two years ago.
This year saw a major refurbishment of the old kitchen which had produced more than a million meals in its 20 years of service. Much of the kit had been second-hand, with a linear cooking suite against the wall and prep tables in the middle of the room, which made for an awkward arrangement. "Although we had good practices, it was getting harder to maintain and keep the EHO happy," says Szewczyk.
Whereas most operations would work a kitchen design to fit a budget, Szewczyk was in the enviable position of coming up with a design first, then submitting costed plans to the charity's trustees for approval. Just under £250,000-worth of equipment was purchased for the new kitchen, with structural changes and new wall and floor surfaces coming in at an additional £315,000. "The design we came up with was based around an island suite," says Szewczyk, who worked on the plans with Gerry Oakley, director of CEDA member Airedale Catering Equipment, and Colin Leonard, UK sales manager for Charvet Premier Ranges.
"We were trying to achieve a situation where we all work around the stove, so we can see what's going on and communicate with each other." The Charvet bespoke central island suite sits at the heart of the kitchen and measures 3,600mm x 1,800mm x 900mm, about the size of a tournament snooker table. It comprises two double induction hobs, two single induction hobs, four Volcan gas open burners, an 800mm gas salamander which reaches full power in 30 seconds, a gas tilting bratt pan and a gas deep-fat fryer.
Szewczyk particularly wanted a mix of induction and gas. "I like having a bit of both," he says. "We use burners for browning anything off, but use induction 90% of the time, because it's much faster to boil, takes big and small pans and there's no residual heat. The induction hobs are super energy-efficient and so easy to clean with just soapy water."
He chose not to have ovens in the suite because he felt that the two 10-grid Convotherm combi-ovens designed into the kitchen would cater for all his needs. "There's nothing I could do in one that I couldn't do in the combis," he says.
Having the advantage of natural light from large windows at one end of the kitchen was a major factor in opting for a ventilated ceiling in preference to traditional canopies, which would block out some of the light.
The stainless-steel work benches either side of the suite are wall-hung, again for optimum hygiene, and were fabricated by Caterform, part of the Airedale Group. They provide plenty of space for plating up about 100 meals and incorporate four drawers into which gastronorm containers are slotted for storing knives and utensils. A sink in the worktop, fitted with a wall-mounted pre-rinse spray from Mechline, has a stainless-steel bowl cover to maximise the plating-up space.
Just outside the kitchen are two further prep areas. One is kitted out for veg prep, with large sinks and a Hobart peeler, while the second, larger area is officially designated as a cold prep/pastry kitchen and is home to a Robot Coupe ice-cream machine and a Foster blast chiller. In reality, though, pastry work is generally done in the main kitchen, where the combination of induction hobs and ventilated ceiling ensures the temperature doesn't climb too high.
The Charvet suite offers plenty of prep space between elements where the chefs can work without turning their backs to food on the heat. The flat surface of the induction hobs and the fact that the burner racks turn over to sit flush with the 3mm-thick titanium-steel top means chopping boards can be placed on much of the surface for prep work.
There is no pan rack along the centre to spoil the eye line, and Szewczyk chose not to have a rail around the edge. The suite stands on two plinths, so the centre is lifted off the floor for ease of cleaning.
The two double and two single induction hobs are used for 90% of the cooking. They each give 5kW of power and will boil two litres of water in four minutes, compared with eight minutes with 10kW of gas power.
The Volcan open burners each provide 9kW of power but because they create a vortex flame which is directed on to the base of the pan rather than lapping up the sides, the output is more like 12â'13kW of power.
Where possible, equipment has been kept off the floor, allowing easy access for cleaning all the way back to the walls. The stainless-steel work benches are mounted on stainless-steel tubular wall brackets and have nothing built underneath them, not even a shelf, to avoid the accumulation of clutter.
An Electrolux 1,200-litre double-door upright refrigerator holds all the fresh ingredients for the day, in preference to underâ'counter cabinets, because Szewczyk didn't want anything under the workbenches that would need to be pulled out for cleaning purposes.