Tuesday, 9 September 2014

I recently sat in on a round table debate ... Fuller's Tenants Extra, July 2014

I recently sat in on a round table debate which saw a group of chefs discuss various aspects of kitchen practice.  Since I was present in order to take notes and turn the discussion into an engaging magazine article afterwards, I was required to keep quiet rather than chip in – something which, as my friends and colleagues will testify, doesn’t always come easily.

However, with those around the table representing pubs, hotels, fine dining, quick service restaurants and workplace catering, there was no shortage of robust view expressed. One interesting aspect was that, despite the different types of businesses they worked in, there were certain topics on which there was more or less total agreement.

One of these was the general unsatisfactory calibre of new entrants to the industry emerging from catering colleges up and down the country. Now, I always take this type of debate with a fairly large pinch of salt. There is no profession in the world where a group of old hands sitting round a table don’t insist that standards have fallen.

The quality of skills training in the catering industry has been a topic of controversy for decades. If colleges focus on the traditional craft of restaurant food preparation, they’re criticised for not recognising the reality of today’s market, but when they teach students how to programme a commercial microwave they’re accused of lowering standards.

One point that was well made in the debate though, was that was that the high cost of ingredients means that trainee chefs have rarely had enough opportunity to ‘practice’ the  art of turning a joint of meat or whole fish into plate-sized portions.

Understanding yield is at the heart of a profitable menu. Most suppliers will quote a price by weight, but If a chef doesn’t know how many portions he can expect to serve from a kilo of cod, or if the quoted weight of a leg of lamb includes the bone, he has very little chance of hitting his GP.

A whole beef striploin might seem better value than buying pre-portioned steaks, but trimming the fat and gristle could reduce the yield by 20% or more. There are some fish species where the fillets represent only around a quarter of the weight of the whole fish.

There is definitely room for closer working relationship between pubs and their food suppliers.  If kitchen skills, as well as preparation time, are in short supply, good communication can help bridge the gap:

  • Share your menu with key suppliers so they understand how the food is to be served;
  • Order cuts individually rather than by total weight –e.g. 20 x 8oz sirloin steaks’;
  • Give suppliers details of how produce is to be served, e.g. ‘potatoes for baking’ or ‘white fish fillets for deep frying’ so they have a clear idea what you need; 
  • Measure the additional cost of the supplier doing the preparation  against the reduced waste and time saved;  it may work out cheaper to buy fish ready-filleted or a joint with the bone removed;
  • Mistakes happen; check the weight and cut of deliveries against what was ordered, and advise suppliers of any discrepancy as soon as possible.
This column originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Fuller's Tenants Extra

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