The idea of trust between chefs and customers has been fundamental to my thinking since I started cooking over 25 years ago and is still uppermost in my mind with every dish I send out.
The key pillars of this contract are that first and foremost it is safe to eat, then it should look appealing and taste great. But beyond that, what responsibility do we in the contract catering world have when it comes to the wider implications of the health and wellbeing of our customers – or is it all down to them and the choices that they make?
The nation seems to be involved in a constant conversation about salt, sugar and fat; and how much of it is in our food. Is the food industry making us fat? If so, what can be done about it? One thing for certain is that today, it is more difficult to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle than it has ever been.
Money spent on food as a percentage income is dropping sharply. Lives have become ever more pressured, making us increasingly susceptible to making all the wrong food choices.
Also, the amount of time people spend cooking is dropping (don’t let the omnipresence of cooking programmes on tv fool you), and for many, lunch in the staff restaurant will be the main meal of the day.
I believe it is more important than ever to provide a daily food offer that will help people eat well during the time they are at work. That feeling is shared among employers, as staff restaurants up and down the country now serve healthy and delicious dishes that help their workforce make healthy choices.
In the past, “salad” bars for instance consisted of mayonnaise, flecked with the occasional carrot, pepper or peas. Nowadays you’re more likely to find beautifully cooked seasonal vegetables, naked or lightly dressed and great flavoured proteins to go along side.
Should we feel guilty then about bringing out a tray of all butter croissants – golden, crispy, delicious and hot from the oven just at the time people are queueing at the coffee bar for their morning brew? No, of course not – we are not in the business of telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat, but we do have a responsibility to give equal prominence to the coffee bar and more nutrient dense foods and promote both every bit as much.
When proposing a healthier food offer 15 years ago, we would often be given short shrift with feedback like “all we want is pie, chips and beans”. Now that phrase has almost disappeared, as people recognise the value of offering more choice and including delicious, healthy options.
While our sector sometimes reflects the offer of the restaurant chains out on the high street in terms of style, our customers and our responsibilities are very different. In our environment we serve the same people every day.
It’s a very different relationship and, I would argue, a very different set of responsibilities compared to a restaurant which might serve the same person only five or six times a year.
So, while everyone is ultimately responsible for what they eat and the choices they make, in order to maintain that vital trust with the diner we hold so dear, health and wellbeing has to be part of the conversation every time we plan a dish, event or daily menu.
By Chris Ince, chef director at Angel Hill