May 2004

Feeding the 300. Every day.

Not every chef works in a restaurant. All over London unsung heroes feed hundreds every lunchtime in staff canteens. What's it like to be the man in charge? We talked to our own local hero, Nick Rascle

You may imagine that the london-eating team spend every lunchtime in top flight restaurants, wined and dined by respectful chefs. Not a bit of it. Housed as we currently are in a large 70's building, we're entitled to use the self-service, take-it-away-to-your-desk-in-a-styrofoam-box, canteen for the anonymous office workers that toil away in the tower above us, And we're grateful. Personally I can't stand waiting in massive queues at local overpriced sandwich shops or, worse, picking a delicious sounding sandwich from a chain store only to find it so chilled it tastes of nothing at all.

Catering in this building is taken care of by Eurest, part of the massive Compass group. As you pass the kitchen the authentic Gallic tones of Head Chef Nick Rascle can be heard, a man who is always cheerful as he heaves another great pot off of the range and bustles it outside past the snaking queue of ingrates heading for the canteen. He sounds the part, he looks the part. What's he doing in England and in a canteen?

'I love England , ' is his reply. 'I had my first head chef position in a small French restaurant in Southgate , a nice place but Southgate .'he shrugs. 'Then I went to work in a pub, mostly to improve my English and stayed there 5 months went back home to do my national service, came back and then spent 6 years working in agencies, anywhere from staff restaurants to directors' restaurants. This impressed me, the money was good and the hours civilised.'

His education was formal and long. Born in the Rhone valley in Southern France , he grew up with a love of good, fresh, home-cooked food. At 16, he started to attend prestigious culinary establishments. First at one of the best French catering schools, Ecole Hoteliere de L'Hermitage in the Hermitage vineyard, studying technique for two years, and then a further two years, at the prestigious Ecole Hoteliere "Le Clos d'Or," in Grenoble , were he obtained his Bacalaureat Professionnel de Restauration. 'My training covered international cuisines and techniques, including Mediterranean , Chinese, Indian, North African, European, West Indian, Mexican, South American and Siberian/Mongolian, ' he explains. A grounding that is crucial he believed for the job he does today and what he wants to do tomorrow.

After graduating, he went on to work in Michelin-star, Table Gourmande and Macaron restaurants including Les Sequoas, Restaurant Le Kleber, Auberge Les Trois Canares, Le Val D'Esquieres and The Peacock Hotel, Derbyshire.

So what's it like being a canteen chef. 'Demanding,' he smiles. 'Here I cater for about 300 people at lunchtime which is a lot more than any restaurant but of course it is self service - I don't have to plate each meal as it leaves the kitchen, large amounts of one dish are all going out at the same time, I am not timing food to the individual but to the crowd and I know to the minute pretty much when they will be arriving. We have a salad bar too of course and sandwiches, so not all the 300 are eating the hot meal every day.'

But how do you work out the menus, making sure there is something for everyone? 'Well we have some basics every week,' he replies. 'Steak and kidney pie, fish and chips (three kinds of fish) on Fridays and always one roast dinner a week. Curry once a week. I do try to put as much fish on as I can, it's a healthy option when simply steamed.' Healthy eating is important to you, then? 'Well,' he explains, 'in a way it comes with the territory. In a restaurant the money is there to use butter, cream etc. I don't have the budget for such unhealthy luxuries.' You could of course serve up chips and pies non -stop and no one would complain? 'Yes that's right, ' he agrees, 'but I try to give people lots of choice - mashed potatoes, potatoes Lyonnaise. Sautéed potatoes, boulangeres etc. And always at least two vegetables simply cooked such as broccoli, spinach, fresh green beans.'

And puddings? 'Oh yes,' he laughs,' always a pudding. Classic steamed puddings or crumbles. The English do love their puddings and custard.' So you can control wastage through knowing what people like? 'Yes,' he agrees. 'This is very important for costs. A restaurant first loses money on purchasing and then on wastage. As we are part of Eurest, I have no problem with approved suppliers delivering me good quality at the right price. As to wastage, I regard more than two portions of any one dish thrown away as unacceptable.'

The trick is in recycling and reheating. 'By law I am allowed to reheat a dish once within three days, ' he explains. 'But I tend to know now very accurately what people like and what amounts I am likely to need of any one item. This means I have very little need to bring out the same dish again reheated or recycled.'

Are staff restaurants dying out, I ask him. ' No I don't think so,' he replies. 'It's simply that you don't see them. Over in the City there are still very many. Some of them are very good indeed, delivering food to people who are used to the very best but who don't have the time to leave the building to go to a restaurant for lunch.'

So what and where next? Nick has plans. 'My current project is helping people prepare stunning dinner party meals. I give them suggested menus then, once they have picked one, I give them the list of things to buy. Next I go around to their house and cook the entire meal showing them how to do every little thing. And then they are ready to cook the meal for their friends. I am just a phone call away if they need advice.'

So next time you moan about canteen food, remember the man or woman doing the cooking may be like Nick - a top flight chef delivering the best he can within the budget and restraints imposed. But let him off the leash and the sky could be the limit.