Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)


Chapter Nineteen 

Norfolk, The Better Hospital Food Programme and more

It must also have been 2001 that I first started working for the NHS, yes the NHS, by the end of this book you will realise that I have worked in almost every aspect of catering there is, with the exception of cooking in a field tent with the army, I have cooked in tents just not with the army!

I recall it was early Friday afternoon, I think it was around the middle of 2001, I got a call asking me if I was able to scale up a number of recipes, each one was originally written for 4 covers but needed to be scaled up to feed 400. “Well yes, I guess so, please tell me more”. “my name is June and I work for the NHS better Hospital Food Programme, set up by Tony Blair and headed up by Lloyd Grossman” Well I had heard of it but that was about all, more  as a political gimmick by someone that seemed to be obsessed by celebrities than a serious effort to improve hospital offerings. It was one of those times when you think, why on earth would you ask someone like Lloyd Grossman to head something like this up? I mean think about it, okay he has some bottles of tomato sauce on the supermarket shelves and is a minor celeb but still the question remains – why? It is akin to asking Jeremy Corbyn to design a Formula One car.

“Okay June how many recipes are there and when do you need them back by?”. “I have 40 recipes to start with and can you get them done by Monday, I know its already Friday afternoon but our deadline really is Monday, late afternoon will do!”

“Scaling up a recipe does not just simply mean multiplying the amount it is for by the number of covers you need it for then divide by 4. It’s not that simple. I will do it but I will not guarantee the recipes will then work, I don’t even know if they work in the first place.”

“Well, they should all work they are all written by celebrity chefs after all”.

Some of the chefs concerned that were recruited by Mr Grossman were the likes of Shaun Hill, Anton Edleman, John Benson Smith to name but a few, so okay I accept that they probably will work as 4 portion recipes, although this is not always a given just because they are celebrity chefs, I have in my collection a number of books written by celebrity chefs in which many of the recipes do not work. I have written books myself and I have to admit that there is one recipe (yes only one!) that does not work, no, you can find that out for yourselves!

So, I agreed to do it, 3 days to do all 40, some were dead easy some not at all, I did try a couple of the slightly more complicated ones out and yes they worked for 4 but I didn’t have the time or the capacity to try them out for 400. Some were totally impractical, I mean think about a 700-bed hospital for instance that is not only catering for patients but for staff too, that’s a lot of food every day, much of it pre-plated and delivered to wards from trollies across a one-hour window. It was a paper exercise and I was happy with what I put forward but with a caveat, if they do not work you will not and cannot hold me responsible in any way. I charged for 3 days work and all was good. About a week later June called me again. “Can you cook all of these recipes and deliver them down to St Barts Hospital in London on a Tuesday morning in a few weeks’ time, we will need about 10 portions of each as we want to put on a tasting?”

Could I? Could I really conjure up around 400 portions of food and get it all delivered, reheated and served up into London from my home in North Norfolk? I had no idea but I would definitely give it a bloody good go!

The date had not yet been set but she would let me know but it would probably be early September 2001. I think all of the dishes at the time were hot ones, main courses all, lots of pies and stews predominantly. I roped in Paul who I was working with at the Hotel on the Norfolk Coast and together we got the dishes together. In the end I think we made up around 25 different dishes as a cross section, it was all they needed, 40 was just too many. We, Paul and I, made them all in my small farmhouse kitchen in the Norfolk countryside, a monumental effort and thank you Paul for your invaluable input, which I then packed into the car and drove down to St Barts. Thank you also to Jane too as she was, in Paul’s words, “a star” doing all the washing up and keeping us supplied with tea!

I well remember working on some dishes for this in my kitchen and the TV was on in the front room for some reason, it was the 11th September 2001, and in between working in the kitchen I heard some commotion kicking off on the TV, it was the report of the plane crashing into the twin towers, needless to say I got very little more work done that day!     

In total I think I worked for the NHS on the Better Hospital Food Programme for about 3 years in all and I worked in at least three different hospitals, one of their production units in London and did presentations in a number of places around the country. All in all, a very enlightening and enjoyable experience. I went on to produce some 400 recipes for them over the years, only 40 of them coming from the celebrity chefs panel, but now have no idea at all if any are still in the system. At the time, if you were either in a hospital or working in one you would have seen some of the dishes I had developed as they all  had a little blue chef’s hat next to them on the menu. However please don’t blame me if they weren’t very good. Producing the recipes is all well and good but money also needed spending on wages, training, ingredients and equipment and not forgetting the amount they could spend on each patient each day (which was, and probably still is, pitifully low) in order to improve the quantity, quality and diversity of the food delivered.

From the work I did with the NHS though I was then contacted by a company in the Netherlands. Marfo Martinair. A food manufacturing company linked to Martinair the airline and primarily producing food for airlines. 

The NHS had put out to tender dishes from the Better Hospital Food Programme so that they could be bought in, preferably frozen, right up Marfo’s street. They had submitted their versions of complete dishes as per the recipes supplied to them by the NHS (my recipes and those of the chefs that I had re-worked). To be honest though they’d made a bit of a pigs ear of them, not just some of them, all of them.  I realise that sounds a bit harsh but they really were no where near getting them right. I have always found it odd that people can follow a recipe and come up with something so diametrically opposite to what the dish was meant to be. All the ingredients were there, all the words for the recipe were there too, not only there but also all in the right order but still, a bit like Eric Morcombe, they didn’t necessarily all come out in the right order somehow. I did and still do find it difficult to explain what was wrong with what they had produced, it just wasn’t the way it should have been. So, as I was the one that wrote the recipes would I go over and help them produce acceptable dishes, ones that would be accepted onto the list of supplies for the Better Hospital Food Programme. 

To be fair I had been on two or three food tastings, trying out offerings from a number of the major food manufacturing companies that were attempting to replicate the recipes for sale back into the NHS and all of them were dire. It was not just a Dutch fault, it was a failure of every company that submitted their dishes to understand that the recipes they had been given were meant to be followed, not improvised in an attempt to improve them or cut costs! I recall one such tasting where there was a total of 300 submissions, all to be tasted and commented on, accepted or rejected. Not only was trying to taste and winkle out the best from 300 difficult, nigh on impossible in fact, but it was also sole destroying. I think out of the 300 offerings we approved in the region of 6. After the first 30 offerings trying to remember and compare that many dishes while still expecting our tastebuds to continue to perform at peak levels was too big of an ask. I didn’t want to eat any food, and especially not hospital food, for some considerable time afterwards.

I ended up going over to the Netherlands for around 4 years, around 4 or 5 times a year, spending 2 days at a time working with their development chefs, redeveloping the recipes to suit their production environment. In the end I believe they sold a good number of dishes into the NHS. I thoroughly enjoyed working with them, it was a great experience and it only came to an end when I bought our hotel.

Around a year after I started working with Marfo I was also doing quite a bit of work in London and found myself travelling from Norwich to London a few times each week. A two hour journey each way plus 30+ minutes to get to the station each morning and another 30+ mins home again made these trips long and tedious. The journey down each morning was made easier by having breakfast in the restaurant car, as the train was always busy and full from Ipswich it was far more comfortable in the restaurant car than in the standard carriage. Not only was I getting fed but I was also in a 1st class seat for the price of a standard ticket and breakfast, still cheaper than a 1st class ticket on it’s own. Win win all round as far as I was concerned. I could never understand why more people didn’t take up the opportunity.

While the breakfasts were good the dinners on the return leg, still subject to the same ticketing arrangements, buy a standard cattle class ticket and eat in the restaurant car and get a 1st class seat, were pretty abysmal. I wrote to the then CEO of Anglia Railways, the franchise holder at the time and suggested that they not only could, but should, do better. After some gentle prodding I got myself an audience and subsequently a job, improving the food in the restaurant cars of the intercity trains from Norwich to London Liverpool St. and back again of course.

A job I thoroughly enjoyed, it was not easy, there was a lot to do, but given the manager in charge of catering, Darren, was well on board with me joining them, it was made a lot easier. The train team were great, the stores crew, less so. One of their biggest problems was not having the proper provisions loaded in the first place. You can not serve a kipper for breakfast if none were put on the train in the first place! 

In total I worked for Anglia Railways and subsequently ONE, their replacement franchise, for around 4 years. I rode a lot of trains, I spent a lot of hours working in a lot of train kitchens, both for breakfast and dinner.  I even worked on trains while they were in the sidings, teaching the crews. I even had my own keys to a train; it was like having my very own train set! I never got to drive one though!

I was still doing bits of work for Harrison Catering, Geoff was determined to make Harrison Catering the best contract caterer in the country and I feel he got pretty close, not due to me sadly but to his tenacity and commitment to his dream. I eventually helped them find a really great cook, Mark, I think he went into the FSA, but I know he stayed with them for many years, going on to be their company Executive Chef/Director of Food, indeed as I write he is still with them, and eventually negated the need for me to continue with them. My job with them was complete. It must have been late 2001 or early 2002 that I met up with Mark Herman, he was MD of a small contract caterer called In House Catering, another small company keen on serving and delivering quality throughout all their units, the majority of which were in the City of London and Directors dining. They also had a contract for catering in a function venue just off Park Lane and wanted more like that in their portfolio. 

I think I met Mark at Skills for Chefs 2001 but I may also be dreaming that part of it. We got together and talked through how we could work together, what I could do for the company, the units and the chefs in particular. 

Willi Elsner once Exec Chef of the Dorchester had been doing some work with them, workshops if I remember rightly and Mark asked me if I would like to take over where he left off.

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