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Interview with executive chef of the House of Commons

5th Oct 2022 - 04:00
Mark Hill, the executive chef of the House of Commons, performs a remarkable juggling act keeping MPs, staff and visitors well fed. As David Foad found out, he manages to keep a level head despite the demands.

When it comes to the number of customers served, styles of food on offer, hours of operation worked and the sheer unpredictability of its schedule, there is probably no other place in the UK that can match the catering challenges facing Mark Hill and the HoC catering team.

He says there are approximately 14,000 passholders who have access to the site, including 650 MPs, each of whom will have their own support teams of varying sizes, together with ministerial staff, admin personnel, security staff, cleaners, tour guides and, of course, a catering team that’s 240-strong.

“Not all are on site at any one time, it’s true,” he says, but therein lies a clue to one of the major elements of uncertainty. No one can tell him how many will be there on any particular day. All he knows is, if you’re there then you’ll probably want to eat at some point.

“Parliamentary business being what it is we don’t know from day to day quite how things will pan out. We gain weekly information from the Whips office for the proceeding week but even this info does not reflect the business all the time, with sittings running later than planned, MPs suddenly recalled or the division bells going three times in an hour.”

If the division bell rings then an MP has only ten minutes to be in the lobby to vote. If they have just sat down to eat, the food has to be taken away and kept warm until they return. At best that might mean just re-garnishing a plate, at worst it may mean completely replating.

So when it comes to planning menus and dishes it means that he and his two head chefs – Laurence Colmer and Nick Wort – look back at past patterns of sales across the different outlets spread out over five different sites that they’re responsible for, then come up with their best guess and base the catering plans on that.

All of this work takes place in a building that was built in the middle of the nineteenth century, which means running repairs are simply a fact of life for Mark, who says: “We are constantly working against a background of refurbishment work going on all the time, so there is regular disruption.

"One of the first things I do when I arrive in the mornings is to go around the place and make sure everyone has gas and electricity, because sometimes overnight work has meant the supply has been cut in certain places.

“We never quite know what we’re going to find. No hotel or restaurant has to manage with quite so much regular disruption, but we chefs and the entire catering staff are a flexible bunch and we just get on with things.”

Things have certainly changed over the years. For example, all-night sittings, though not uncommon, are not as regular as they have been in the past.

Against that, though, is the fact that there’s a lot more to the place than the attention-grabbing parliamentary sittings, particularly as the catering team has expanded the scope of the catering operation.

“There are bookings in the restaurants for lunches, afternoon teas and dinners along with a schedule of banqueting events each day – where there can be up to 25 of them - such as meetings, business presentations, report launches and even wedding receptions.”

Visitors who come in through the week to look around or watch Prime Minister’s Questions or debates from the public galleries can attend the Jubilee Café, just off the centuries-old Westminster Hall. And included in Parliament’s catering venues for passholders there is now even an outlet specialising in street food.

“We’ve definitely become more commercial in the last ten years or so, helping the retail side with product development for things they can sell in the gift shop, bringing in weddings and other events.

“In fact, to cope with extra business we are looking to expand the catering team at Parliament. We are definitely bouncing back from lockdown.”

And he has ensured that this growth has not compromised the quality of the food on offer.

“The team prepares 95% of the food we serve on site, the rest is a few items such as some bought-in sandwiches and other lines we don’t have the space to prepare. And all fresh meat and poultry we purchase and serve is of UK origin and meets or exceeds UK welfare standards, which are among the highest in the world.”

To cope with the demands of such a service, the House of Commons has its own butchery and pastry departments, each run by a fully-trained butcher and pastry chef. There is also a fishmongery on site, where all the fish and seafood served are prepared and portioned.

As it operates at the heart of British political life, the House of Commons catering department carries a responsibility to promote British food and drink where possible, and Mark says he ensures this duty is carried out as fully as possible and where available.

“Local to us means looking across the counties so we can plan our menus to incorporate seasonal products and the use of renowned regional ingredients from cheeses to fish and meat and seasonal vegetables and flour.

“We are proud to currently use flour from the Cotswolds area, for example. We are also accredited with three stars out of three through the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Throughout the year we purchase hundreds of different varieties of fruit and vegetables to ensure that our menus are diverse and exciting.

“We will always opt for seasonal products when they are around, but of course there are a great number of exotic and tropical products regularly sourced from outside of the UK, as well as some products not commercially available as UK grown or only available for a limited time.

“We regularly support annual events such as Fairtrade Fortnight and British Food Fortnight, and try to showcase regional produce wherever we can through our other promotions.”

Just as important, he says, as buying the right produce is knowing how best to use it. That means lots of in-house training and mentoring of chefs, but also sending them on supplier visits and courses to improve their knowledge and experience.

“We’ve sent our chefs off to bakeries, to cheese producers in Somerset and Wiltshire and our chefs have also attended TUCO courses on vegan and vegetarian food concepts,” he says.

Teamwork is very much the watchword when you go back-of-house. Mark says he tries to make sure he knows the name of everyone who works there, and as far as possible where their interests and skills lie in the kitchen.

To see him interacting with the chefs and kitchen stewards is to watch a two-way exercise in smiles, gentle humour and respect.

He says: “It’s the sous chefs and the restaurant managers who firstly come together to decide what goes on the menus here. They come to me with their ideas or tell me they’ve seen something somewhere that they would like to try and, as far as possible, I try to support them to put it on the menus.”

Behind the confidence he shows in his team is a knowledge that they have the skills and experience needed.

“We are all about training and we’re constantly looking at opportunities to give everyone a chance to develop. That might be a course or a visit, eating out at a particular restaurant or entering competitions.

“This can include placements at comparable organisations in the wider industry such as Morgan Stanley at Canary Wharf, Vine Yard Hotel at Stock Cross or the John Lewis roof garden pop up restaurant.

“It also means encouraging suppliers to share their knowledge and passion for their products. In the past year we have hosted a seafood showcase, beer and wine tastings and tea workshops.

“We read all the trade press, including Public Sector Catering magazine, to catch up on food trends, new products and new suppliers and then we make sure we visit the trade shows such as HRC where our team get a chance to try them.”

The teamwork ethos is best exemplified by the kitchen stewards, or kitchen porters as they are in many other catering environments, who get involved in food prep and catering training.

Says Mark: “Where possible all teams interact with each other and assist across the kitchens from butchery to staff restaurants and banqueting alike.”

Unsurprisingly for someone who is a two-time winner of the Craft Guild of Chefs ‘Competition Chef of the Year Award’, he is also a firm believer in the development benefits of competing.

“I have always liked the idea of taking yourself out of your comfort zone in a competitive environment – I think you have such a chance to learn about yourself, learn from other people and also network with fellow competitors. Chefs love to talk about what they do and how they do it.

“If we see someone we think would benefit from entering then we encourage it and offer all the support we can. If they’re a bit unsure we will try to give them the confidence they need to get involved because they can get so much out of it.”

As with every other caterer right now, the twin issues of food price inflation and recruitment present significant challenges.

“Like everyone else, rising prices mean we are constantly talking to suppliers about product swaps. We see this very much as a partnership and we have already changed our supply patterns to reduce the number of deliveries to our suppliers cut fuel costs.

“Internally we have tapered our menus. Cooking oil is a big issue and with something like tomatoes, for example, we are marshalling our resources where they are most needed, perhaps using tinned tomatoes if we can or just changing the menu if not.”

You might imagine that the kudos of working at the House of Commons would mean recruitment is not difficult, but Mark says that getting the right people can be a problem, just as it is for everyone else in hospitality.

Written by
Edward Waddell