The culinary director at caterer Bennett Hay has brought with her a fresh focus on nutrition and wellness
You're six months into your new job at Bennett Hay – how are things going?
It's such a fantastic business, very dynamic and no micro-managing. I've moved around a bit to look for autonomy, and if I wasn't working for a company I'd be running my own business, so it's great to not have too much red tape and work for a company that's willing to open doors to new suppliers.
I have a flat management style – I treat everyone exactly the same, and our clients are just as important to me as our employees. I have five chefs directly reporting into me and a team of development chefs, support chefs and agency chefs that feed into them. We've had three new contract wins and two more in the pipeline since I've joined, which is fantastic, and we're just about to mobilise on Providence Equity and the Wellington Landsec building, both in London, which is what I'm working on right now.
Tell us about some of the new suppliers you've been championing
We've got quite a lot of new companies on board: the Estate Dairy in Bristol, the Butcher's Block in Banstead and the Cheese Merchant at Laverstoke Park Farm in Basingstoke to name a few. We've also started working with Alt Cheese in Somerset, which sells about the only vegan cheese I eat. It's an oat protein-based cheese which is made and owned by the Barber family, who are known for their Somerset Cheddar.
For us it's about updating our supply list and making sure the chefs are treating the produce as the pinnacle of what they're doing. At Bennett Hay we get the supplies then fit the budget around that, which has not always been the case as a lot of companies work back from a price point. We have conversations with our clients where, for instance, we might suggest an increase to the price of a meat dish by 10% to get a better product, and use a better supplier that has a better yield with improved traceability and ensuring it isn't pumped with water or bleached. It's a win-win. We've put together a supplier brochure for our clients that tells the story – we want our clients to see the quality and for them to understand that their consumers need nourishment and a balanced diet.
What do your business and industry clients think about nourishing their employees, rather than just providing sustenance?
We partner with clients that have the same ethics and character in their business as we do, and are similar in the way they operate. We have clients that are attracted to us and vice versa and we've said ‘no' to a few because they're not on the same playing field. For instance, if a potential client doesn't pay the London Living Wage and their staff work over 45 hours a week, we don't ethically align.
What kind of food offering can we expect to see at some of your clients' offices?
I feel like I've spent my whole career trying to ban jacket potatoes and increase salad bars! That said, salad bars aren't just about coleslaw and mayo, but should include other elements, such as grains and pulses. Thinking carefully about waste is so important too, for instance, we created a no-waste muffin using leftover quinoa and oil from semi-dried tomatoes, which was going to go in the bin. The media sites in particular are more willing to flex towards great salad bars with loads of amazing produce. We've got clients where we offer warm proteins that match those salad items – think grains with roasted veg and braised fennel with pistachios and a maple chili dressing. And if a client insists on jacket potatoes we'll make four or so and have them ready to whip out so customers can add to them to their grab and go, which ticks the box in relation to requirement.
Is customisation a big food trend?
Very much so. The way we're writing our menus now we often look to create one dish for everyone and swap elements out. For instance, at satellite service provider Inmarsat we have a dish of tamari-glazed Chalk Stream trout with furikake, seaweed salad, soy-marinaded egg, brown sushi rice, sashimi, pickled cucumber and a sesame kale salad. Trout is quite expensive, so the piece isn't huge, but the egg gives another source of protein. We can switch the trout for smoked tofu agedashi, which we shallow-fry and serve with kimchi and the same elements.
What's a big focus for you as culinary director?
I'm quite hot on wellness, health and nutrition, and businesses have a long way to go to supply something for everyone. I'm not just talking about providing gluten- or dairy-free options, it's about things like having knowledge about how nutrition can ease the side effects of menopause, for example. If a customer is going through menopause I want our staff to be able to advise them on what to eat, so we've had workshops internally on subjects such as that. Food and wellbeing is more than just eating – we've even had workshops on breathing, so it's about eating, breathing and drinking well. We can put prompts on coffee machines saying things like ‘have you drunk enough water today?'.
What got you interested in health and nutrition?
I'm an athlete, so in Australia I trained at state level in water polo, hockey, surf life-saving, indoor volleyball and beach volleyball. I've always played sport and kept fit and I've always eaten quite healthily – I have certificates in meal and diet planning, as well as a personal training certificate. I'm all about the happy medium and in our client sites I want consumers to eat with us five days a week and not put on or lose weight. In a previous job I was known as Miss Chia. A few years back I sent a message to my team saying smoothie bowls and chia pots were going to be the next big thing, and they were all laughing, but a few years later… It's about staying ahead of the trend and looking at what they're doing in places like Australia, LA, New York and Japan.
Tell us about your ‘conscientious menus'
We've worked with nutritionist Dorota Cloke on a six-month project to create recipes and to tag each dish under Restore, Revive or Refuel.
Has foodservice changed over the years you've been in the industry?
Oh, massively! One of the biggest things is that when I first came to the UK as a chef in 2002, I would walk into the kitchen through the back door – we weren't allowed to be seen unless it was through a pane of glass like caged animals. The way people view chefs is very different now, it's become an industry people want to become a part of, not because someone has left school and doesn't have an alternative. How chefs view food has also changed – they're not as fickle about how food should be treated and the French techniques and ways aren't held in the same status. People are becoming more adventurous and realising there's many ways to skin a cat… or fillet a fish!
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