Chef Robbie Robertson recently notched up a high point in his career when he was asked by one of the world’s most renowned chefs to join his team. It may only have been a temporary appointment but for Robertson the experience and the memory will last forever.
“Charlie Trotter is a God,” he announced after arriving back home in Scotland, exhausted from his two-day jaunt to the Chef Conference, where he was among the Trotter brigade that prepared the starter for the finale banquet.
Robertson’s brief stint as a member of Trotter’s team followed a successful week’s work experience at Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago, USA last year. This opportunity was set up and organised by Robertson’s employer, contract caterer Aramark, which last year sent more than 20 of its chefs and managers to the States under a training programme originally devised for its American employees.
Under Bill Toner, ex-chef turned Aramark boss in the UK, contract catering chefs from Britain are being afforded the exclusive training opportunities usually reserved for those working in the hotel and restaurant trade.
“The [contract catering] industry has huge problems with how it is perceived and in attracting young people,” laments Toner. “When you have got talent like Charlie Trotter on board and programmes that give young chefs opportunities to train then you are helping to improve that image. Contract catering offers great career opportunities, travel if you want it and a broad spectrum of placements. But we don’t sell it. Instead we play it down.”
By improving the image of contract catering as a career option for young chefs, Aramark hopes to ward off the effects of the industry-wide skills shortage. The company, which employs more than 3,500 people in the UK and serves a diverse range of clients, from corporate big-guns Arthur Andersen and Nomura to the Royal Navy and HM prisons, aims to double in size by 2003.
Aramark’s partnership with Charlie Trotter dates back five years but it is only since 2000 that Aramark’s chefs in the UK have had the opportunity to train with him. Each month a nominated chef and a manager are now sent out to Chicago to undertake Trotter’s intensive five-day training course.
The course comprises two components – the two-day Charlie Trotter Lessons in Excellence course, based on Trotter’s book of the same title, followed by three days on the Guest Chef Exchange Signature Dish Promotion. This latter “promotional” exercise requires the delegates to produce a dish for two Aramark client units in Chicago. The two delegates cook, serve and sell a signature, UK-themed, dish of their choice at each unit.
According to the course literature, sent to delegates, the objectives are to “elevate the level of culinary expertise with Aramark, by focussing on the four pillars of excellence - food, beverage, service and ambience – found at Trotters.” To learn these lessons the chefs and managers spend time in the kitchen and at front of house. By the end of their week, delegates are expected to be able to translate what they have learnt into an action plan for their own units back home.
In the kitchen two Charlie Trotter principles play a key role and delegates are educated to follow them on arrival. The “working clean” concept requires delegates to understand how improved product quality, productivity and efficiency can all be achieved by following a few basic rules.
Clean-as-you-go, according to Trotter, increases efficiency and creates a happier working environment, while breaking down tasks into easy-to-follow steps maintains kitchen organisation. Even the head chef empties bins and sweeps the floor, while the manager sweeps the street outside the restaurant. And when service is over for the day, the chefs spend a couple of hours cleaning the kitchen at night, which includes polishing the copper.
But probably one of the most important lessons the course instils in its delegates is Trotter’s food pairing concept. By combining flavours, textures, temperatures and food groups delegates are taught that they can create recipes and menus to please the palates of all types of diners. Food pairing is a concept designed to challenge and surprise diners. Two separate ingredients, cooked in different styles, and then placed on a plate together can become an entirely new experience as the diner marries them on the fork. Favourite Trotter food pairs would be a herb and a fruit, such as basil and mango, or oyster and an Italian ham, or cardomon and an ice cream.
Whether they choose to follow his example, delegates on Charlie Trotter’s course are privy to their host’s own creative preferences. Trotter prefers to sauce dishes with vegetable juice-based vinaigrettes and delicate broths, in the belief that sauces which incorporate a lot of butter or cream block the flavours of the ingredients they are supposedly there to support. Typical Trotter creations include lobster tabbouleh with apricot curry sauce, tamarind-glazed roasted chicken with apple, onion, potato puree and buffalo tenderloin on a bed of wild mushrooms with a cardamom and date jam.
“Opportunities such as the Charlie Trotter training course benefit everyone,” explains Jenny Wright, Aramark’s training director. “The chefs want to stay with Aramark because they know they are part of an organisation that takes care of them. The spin-off for the company is that we get bags of new ideas. In addition we are attracting some terrific staff now because everyone is talking of Aramark being a food-focussed company.”
The need to attract and retain top-flight chefs has become more important as eating trends have transformed in the last five years. Wright believes Aramark’s emphasis on culinary skills training is a necessity given the more sophisticated customers they are now serving. The leisurely three-course lunch has virtually disappeared, to be replaced by high quality eat-on-the-run items. Today’s corporate clients have little time to linger over lunch but are prepared to pay a higher price for the items they consume at their desks or the restaurant table in the 20 or so minutes they have to spare.
“Spend per item has increased and most customers are happy to pay more for really good, quality food,” says Wright. “Ten years ago it was unheard of to have roasted vegetables in a sandwich but not now.”
The Trotter course is one initiative Aramark has introduced to cater for this demand. Others include a range of short courses designed and run in partnership with Birmingham College of Food and Technology, the opportunity to enter national cooking competitions and a broader range of career opportunities that allow talented chefs to remain in the kitchen.
“Our chefs were telling us that they wanted recognition, that they wanted to feel important in a company like this,” explains Wright. “We had chefs who had been with us for some time and had been through all the basic training on hygiene, customer service and the like but had had very little training to do with updating their skills.
“Previously to get on in their careers chefs [in contract catering] had to go up the managerial ladder. Now they can remain as chefs. But to keep the good ones you have to offer the same goodie-bag, by way of salary and perks that someone going up the managerial ladder would get.”
Robbie Robertson is embarking on just such a career path. After eight years working off-shore for Aramark he took up the position of executive head chef at the Aberdeen site of petroleum giant Conoco earlier this year.
The perks of his new job are not having to work away from his fiancée two weeks out of every four, a fully-fledged social life and the opportunity to put into practice the skills he picked up from his time in Chicago, including developing and writing recipes and menus. “Charlie is the number one chef in the world and working with him was the most amazing experience of my whole career. He has given me inspiration and bucket loads of confidence, which I am now passing on to the people I work with at Aramark,” says Robertson, who has particular praise for the investment Aramark has made in him. “Aramark gives people the chance to show their talents and provides mega-amounts of training, support and encouragement.”
Robertson has already booked his tickets for a return visit to Trotters later this year. Over in Chicago, Charlie Trotter is philosophical about the educational service he provides to some of the world’s biggest businesses, which alongside Aramark includes United Airlines.
“Aramark is a $7 billion worldwide giant that dwarves my restaurant business. But we can show them enthusiasm, humility and team work,” says Trotter, whose involvement with Aramark also stretches to menu development. “I love challenges and I love the incongruity of my small restaurant, with its 140 covers a night, showing a big business how to do something.
“Contract catering does have an image problem but some of the chefs truly excel and would do so if they ventured into the world of independent restaurants. Hopefully they go away from Trotters with many techniques and ideas that will allow them to excel and do things that are very very special.”