Chef Mark Hill Q&A: "The industry changes, we will change with it"

03 April 2018 by
Chef Mark Hill Q&A: "The industry changes, we will change with it"

Mark Hill, executive chef at the House of Commons, takes Katherine Price behind the scenes of catering at Westminster

We have about 250 members of staff and we never know what business will be like from one day to the next - one day we could be doing 500 covers more than we were the day before, and it affects everybody from back of house to front of house. Under Richard Tapner-Evans's leadership [the director of catering], we get information from the house regarding house business and react to that. We've got 22 different outlets across the estate and we can serve anything up to about 9,000 people on a busy day.

How are you ensuring you retain and attract staff?

We continuously support the education of our chefs, whether it's getting work experience or competing. We've got a good reputation for education and that helps the business.

If a chef is competing we'll work with their managers to look at where they need developing, and maybe internal training, going on to do further NVQs or going out to get experience.

We ask our chefs to plan out their time and where they see their future with us - whether it's a position or a skill set - and we plan that with them and their manager. By educating our team it helps the business as well; we get dedicated staff who help to deliver the best we possibly can.

We open our doors a lot to schools and colleges, and we've had a lot of work experience, whether it's a couple of days or a week. That's worked very well for us over the years. We don't sit them in a corner and have them peeling vegetables - we get them involved, we have them on the front line, cooking, meeting MPs and members of staff, working in the kitchens, getting them to taste. So even if it's not their desired career path, at the end of it they know how to cook.

Is that particularly key right now with the chef shortage? Do you see return on that?

We have taken people on from work experience. Earlier on in the year we go to colleges when we know they are due to finish in May.

So you're not struggling to recruit?

We're not struggling. We have our own butcher on-site, our own fishmonger, our own dedicated pastry department, we have different types of food and outlets. There are not many sites that could offer that array of work environments.

If we don't have an opportunity to promote within, we keep in touch to find a post available in the industry. That person will then leave with such an array of education, internally and externally, that they'd be well sought-out within the industry. We are very attractive within the industry when we go out to recruit because we can offer this.

Are you concerned about Brexit?

We haven't got many staff showing concerns. We're going to embrace the change, whatever it looks like. We can be very resourceful. The industry changes, but we will change with it, so we're not unduly worried.

What about the £3.5b restoration of the Palace of Westminster, is that going to change the way you operate?

We're working with the House - at every part of it we are being included, we are approached to say what may impact on us, and we are being kept up to date so as things move, we will move with it.

Tell us about the Canada-UK Parliamentary chef exchange you had last year, how did that come about?

Judson Simpson, executive chef of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada, and a past team captain for the Canadian culinary team, approached our sous chef Matthew Jones and head of pastry Andrew Ditchfield at the Culinary Olympics and said they were celebrating 150 years of the Canadian Parliament and it would be great to do an exchange.

Matthew Jones went across and was involved in planning and creating an eight-course 'chef's table' menu, and a 'Pairing of Parliaments' menu. It was a really good introduction to the way they were working. So when Matthew was out there he got to understand how they worked, the similarities between the food styles, service styles, and try to pick up on some of the daily workings - trying to work out and share best practice.

We've built up a good relationship since Matthew's been out there, and on the lead up to when Judson came here.

How differently do they operate?

There are a lot of similarities between what they do and what we do. We were more similar to Canada than we are closer to home, even to Scotland and Ireland. We were reassured that we're working in certain areas to our optimum capacity.

They have a lot of external competition in Ottawa, same as ourselves. We were using various in-season foods, the same as themselves, there was an emphasis on trying to use an array of food, and Matt did a British menu while out there.

What really came out of it was how similar we were despite being so far apart. Our mindsets are about value for money, providing a different array of foods, and the uncertainty, because we never know from one day to the next how many covers we're going to do.

What else did you learn from the exchange?

Certainly some of the equipment they had which was different to ours gave us an idea of what we could be looking at in the future, and if restoration and renewal mean the building is going to look different in years to come, there's some knowledge we've gained from that.

We also looked at how many visitors they have and how they cope with visitors and the workplace at the same time, and how they do maintenance on the building as well, because they're looking at moving out to rebuild as well - that could potentially be us in five to 10 years' time.

They have central production kitchens, for instance, off-site, which we don't currently have, but it might be a consideration for the future, one of many, but at least it gives us a point of reference to look at when we're looking at what we might do in the future.

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