I certainly don’t know everything, but I’m fortunate to have had a wide and varied work life - from toilet cleaner, through to cold room forklift driver at a pizza factory.
I once worked in catering (briefly) as a chef and had attended catering college, therefore I was really looking forward to spending time with some of our Catering Team members in Lancaster recently.
The Catering Team, I feel, is really a ‘Care Group’ not a department. This isn’t just semantics; what they do plays a critical role in the experience and health of everyone who works for our Trust or is cared for in our hospitals.
Running a busy kitchen is a logistical and regulatory challenge, with numerous important health and safety rules and laws to abide by.
When we go in and order our lunch in the restaurant, for the food to get into the bain-marie first:
- Someone needs to monitor stock levels to ensure ingredients are ordered when needed and that we don’t hold unnecessary stock on our shelves.
- Once the delivery arrives someone has to unload it and put into the relevant food storage area, be that unrefrigerated or refrigerated or frozen. It also all needs to be recorded and stock levels adjusted.
- Each day the catering staff need to draw up the ingredients they require and start the prep. You might think making lasagne for five people is a chore – imagine making it for 505 people! The carrots and onions don’t peel and dice themselves!
While all the prep is going on I witnessed really high levels of hygiene, not like when I started out as a commis chef in a hotel kitchen. In those days I was sent to jump up and down in the hotel bins on my first day so we could get more waste and stuff into the large external bins while in my new chef whites!
No such practices here! We have good handwashing and sparkly white uniforms. Some technology I hadn’t used before such as the dishwashing machine that works on a conveyor system enabling everything from some pans and food trays through to crockery and cutlery to go through together.
The machine was around three metres long and two metres high; a real beast of a dishwasher. My kids argue about loading and emptying ours at home so they would faint at this one.
I had a good smile with my catering colleague who got to scrub the really tough pans clean – by hand. It reminded me of coming into college hungover – I was 17, come on! And the punishment was to spend the afternoon in the copper pan room cleaning them by hand with lemon juice and salt! I’m sure that’s stopped now, I hope!
Catering is tough as it never pays as well as people think and people work really hard.
If I had a hat I’d take it off to them. Think it’s hot in the summer in you work? Think of your colleagues making sure 100s of patients and thousands of staff are fed each day.
Catering is a strange business as you’re at your busiest when everyone else wants a break. It is essential for good customer service that they stay cool under the collar even with the most demanding of customers.
The Sahara Desert is one of the driest and hottest regions of the world, with a mean temperature sometimes over 30 °C (86 °F) and the averages high temperatures in summer are over 40°C (104°F) for months at a time, and can even soar to 47°C (117°F).
Did you know it has reached 50C in the kitchens in the last two years? The caterers can’t really roll their sleeves up or take their hats off. Heat or not, you don’t want hairs falling into your lunch while it is being cooked - and the uniforms also help to protect from splashes and spills.
Ok, I’ll declare I have a soft spot for the catering team. I secretly wish I was in the department!
What would I change? From what I saw I’d change very little. I didn’t get to see if the ePoS (electronic point of sale/ the till) controlled stock levels and automated ordering – also cash handling is no longer needed for the workplace – and a more efficient system would be a staff payment card with online account – as seen in most schools now). The coffee machine a bit slow too.
What I did see was an incredibly proud, professional and dedicated team working in tough conditions.
If I had a wish it would be for my colleagues on the hospital wards to give feedback to the teams on what patients are saying about the food. I could tell that a number of staff didn’t feel fully appreciated for their work and its value. I know everyone is busy, but please try to pop in, say hi and let them know - good or not so good - about the food please.
The special diets chef was a new concept for me, as with different allergies and food preferences to consider someone is constantly working with our Dietitians to get particular diets right.
I did sample a pureed meal and, honestly, it was ‘ok’. A bit salty but they’ve taken that comment on board and are acting on it.
I’m surprised how well they were able to present it. I’ve also tried the fluid thickener, which I don’t think really tastes of anything, but I wouldn’t ask others to eat or drink these things without trying myself.
It must be hard to satisfy everyone’s tastes because at Trust the Catering Teams create and serve around one million patient meals a year.
My ‘shadow days’ are taking me to the Works Department at the RLI soon. I’m scared of heights so I’m worried I’ll find myself on top of a building, but looking am forward to it.
If your ward or department lights flicker on Wednesday 13th at the RLI, I promise it isn’t me messing with the electrics!