Tim Fletcher couldn't believe it when he heard he had won Caterer's £60,000 kitchen competition. It means he'll soon be in a position to cope properly with the extra demand his freshly cooked food has created at Beechen Cliff school in Bath, and he's looking forward to the big refit at the end of this month
Goats' cheese tart, moules marinières, game terrine. It could be the menu at a high-street brasserie. But this is no brasserie: these are just some of the dishes the pupils at Beechen Cliff School in Alexandra Park, Bath, have been treated to since Bristol-born chef Tim Fletcher took over the school's kitchen.
Fletcher came on board as head chef 16 months ago, initially as an agency chef and now in a permanent position, following his redundancy from a development job in airline catering. In that time he has transformed the catering at the comprehensive school for boys, resulting in a significant increase in uptake in meals among the school's 1,084 pupils, including a co-educational sixth form of 259, and a surge in demand among the teaching staff. He encourages pupils to be adventurous by offering a wide variety of dishes such as pigeon pie and Piri Piri chicken, in addition to traditional roasts and home-made fishcakes. "The emphasis is on freshly-prepared food," he says. "I don't want to serve food cooked three hours in advance and reheated."
However, the increase in popularity of school meals has brought with it a problem in that the kitchen facilities are somewhat overstretched. Besides some of the equipment being quite old and due for replacement, it would benefit from a redesign to improve the workflow and make good working practices easier for the in-house catering staff.
"The site of the kitchen was previously a craft area which was converted to a kitchen in the early 1990s," says Helen Sherwood, the school's facilities manager. "When Tim joined in May 2007 and introduced new menus and more fresh food this resulted in increased demand but it exacerbated the problem of insufficient capacity."
How timely, then, that Fletcher should be the winner of the Caterer and Hotelkeeper/CEDA (Catering Equipment Distributors' Association) Win a £60,000 Kitchen competition, which he entered at Caterersearch.com on a visit to this year's Hotelympia exhibition at London's ExCel. Although his response of "Is this a wind-up?" to the news of his good fortune suggested disbelief, he later said, "A lot of our equipment is very old and the space was not originally designed as a kitchen. We are always discussing ways to improve the flows and to be given the opportunity to fulfil our plans is amazing."
Now months of planning and preparation are coming to fruition as Fletcher and Sherwood look forward to a whole new kitchen and dining area, courtesy of several CEDA members including Aspen Design, whose managing director, Martin Felstead, took on the design and installation.
Besides the design advice, Fletcher was able to choose equipment from a possible 16 supplier sponsors, up to the value of £5,000 per supplier, and the school is funding an estimated £30,000 of building works to make best use of the opportunity to revamp the food operation.
The makeover is taking place in two phases. Building work and provision of services such as the electrical supply for equipment were carried out during the five-week summer break, while the fitting of the kitchen is scheduled for half-term at the end of October.
The size of the catering facilities means that the school currently has to run a double lunch hour to cater for the numbers coming through. "Overall capacity and a bottleneck at the servery, where the boys take ages to decide what they want, are the main issues," Felstead says. "The aim is to give a better-flowing servery area without losing any of the seating capacity."
The new design involves replacing the existing flat-frontage servery with a curved one incorporating serving islands. The islands are designed to split the line of pupils as they enter the dining hall via a door to the right of the kitchen, reducing queuing at the servery.
Clearing, which presently takes place on trolleys and a trestle table at the side of the dining hall, will also be sectioned off by the construction of a curved wall down one side and will include recycling facilities which the pupils will be encouraged to use when clearing their own trays. "Any clearing area is a rubbish area so screening it off will make for less noise and an altogether more pleasant dining area," says Sherwood. "The new design is making the very best of what we've got and will enable us to give a better dining experience."
The removal of an existing snack kiosk for sandwiches and paninis in the centre of the hall will make way for another 12-seat dining table to increase capacity. Fletcher wants all the tabling to have perspex tops so he can slide in literature about the food and his suppliers for the pupils' information.
Structural changes to the kitchen involve removing some partition walls and building new ones to create a revised layout. The effect is a defined dishwashing and pot store area and enlarged drystore and chiller space. As a result of the relocation of the servery, there is extra floor space for prep areas.
Although not ideally placed (but too expensive to relocate), the existing ventilation canopy dictates the position of the cooking suite. The existing range is too small and will be replaced by a six-burner Charvet range. Currently there's a Fagor 10-grid combi-oven used for roasting and steaming and this is to be joined by a second combi, which will allow all vegetables to be steamed.
The existing pastry section is made up of an undercounter refrigerated unit which also provides the section's work surface. However, its current location is directly in front of the door to the coldroom, making access to chilled storage difficult - one of the problems expected to be resolved by the new design.
It has been eight months since the project began but there's just one month to go before the transformation is complete and Sherwood's wish for the facilities to provide a better dining experience for pupils is fulfilled.