Mark Hill, Executive Chef, House of Commons, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th April 2012
Mark Hill has been the executive chef at the House of Commons since 2008, where he is in charge of 15 food outlets, with more than 130 staff. With 15 outlets to make food for, the presentation ranges from modern brasserie to fine dining to banquet style. Mark’s signature style, which runs throughout the outlets, is modern presentation with a large depth of flavour. Mark is also a member of the England Culinary Team, who competed in Luxembourg at the Culinary World Cup in 2010. His main influence and inspiration is his father, who enjoyed a very long career as a chef. Mark tells us what it’s like being in charge of the food in the corridors of power.   Mark thank you so much for inviting me in. Give me an overview if that's possible of your day to day role, including numbers that you cater for, number of outlets, what’s here at the House of Commons. Monday through to Wednesday is our busiest period for MPs and the business of the house, and often or not full to the rafters for Prime ministers questions on a Wednesday. Banqueting cafeterias and visitor tours is also brisk running through the week and including Saturday.  Monday being the start of our working week is a challenge making sure parliament is ready to kick off for the 8.30 rush with most people starting to arrive on site around 7:30 in the morning. We have our own staff that have been working from very early in the morning receiving deliveries to cleaners finishing off who have been here all night, its  important most of our deliveries are in and away from  the premises before parliament starts. So really it’s a challenge every day. But once we're in we're up and running, I make sure I touch base with all of the sous chefs. We have a sous chef that is responsible for each kitchen area and some kitchens are vast… So with 15 different venues across four buildings, so how many staff in your team? I have just fewer than 130 posts in my compliment. All employed by you or some would be casual that you can call on or all on the full time payroll? Yes and like other organisations we do have some fixed term posts. Austerity it’s obviously very high profile, there's lots of talk of it in the press, we're being told by the government to tighten our belts, does that then turn itself back on you? Because of the operation you’re in are you expected also to run a very, very tight ship? Yes we are no different to any other organisation, challenged each day to reduce our costs while delivering ever increasing value for money to our customers. We have specific targets to achieve and everyone in their own capacity is responsible to contribute to maintain these, and like most we have to manage budgets, food costs and waste. We deliver a variety of food offers across the estate from table service, grab and go and cafeteria offers.  Catering organisations are being challenged on a daily basis, customers are continuously changing their eating habits and spend in the face of austerity, and therefore we have to be competitive and inventive. Are you allowed to make a profit? Firstly we are here to solely provide catering for Parliament, we currently have approx 14000 pass holders and staff of the house that can use our facilities, and we aim to provide a variety of catering services across the house to meet our customer needs.  We are at present subsidised though increasingly challenged to reduce this year on year. As a large organisation we aim to   provide good value and quality to our customers within our remit, while managing our purchasing and budgets we cater for over 1.5million customers annually. 15 venues serving different food styles what are the demands on you for allergies, lots of vegetarians, lactose, allergies, are there lots and lots of demands on you for things like that We understand the importance of recognising allergens and work to identify these in our recipes and on our menus, staff are trained on allergy awareness and we are continuously working with our purchasing teams to identify allergens within our products we purchase, it can be surprising to find three or four major allergens in one product alone which we would challenge and seek an alternative if at all possible. We are continuously working to identify and communicate to customers as much information as possible we encourage customers to speak with our teams on their particular needs and requirements with allergens. We talked there about austerity, you have a huge buying bill, lots of diversity, lots of demands and various diets how important therefore is it to manage your stock and manage your waste? It’s a very topical issue at the moment buying in too much, cost of over-storing and then of course cost of getting it out of the building as well, so how do you manage that process? We actively manage our business with cyclical menus and have a good team that understand the value of the food, each outlet has a market list that's regularly updated and takes into account seasonality. We have a purchasing team that negotiates the buying with our in house contracts. We work to recipes and menus and lead chefs are responsible for their costs and cost centre. We have IT systems that also track our spends and volumes though our greatest challenge is to estimate our daily numbers of customers, numbers can change dramatically depending on the level of entertaining parliamentary business and members of the public visiting the establishment and numbers can rise drastically. You talked about benchmarking against the high street, there's no escaping  we're in one of the world’s highest profile operations, so therefore what you put across your counter on a plate it’s very, very important that it’s good but also you understand what that product is and the traceability of that product. So you must be paying I guess more in certain places than the high street, does that make it more difficult to compete against high street prices? Our aim is to make sure that we are giving good food and products to our customers at competitive prices. We purchase with integrity and our suppliers adhere to animal welfare standards and we aim not to provide fish from the MSC fish to avoid list. We purchase the best that we can possibly buy at the budgets we are given, procurement are constantly tracking food and commodity prices on a daily basis. It does alarm me that across the country you will see establishments offering huge discounted prices and wanting to undercut everyone else with products on their menus leaving some question to the provenance and quality of the food on offer. And I guess you've got to be seen to be doing that because you are so high profile. You have to set an example. We are constantly working to provide more information on our products to our customers on menus and our intranet pages; we also have many news letters that circulate parliament that we aim to promote our services and products. It’s bad PR for the members as well isn’t it? If they’re seen to be using something that's not sustainable or eating something that's not sustainable it could be bad perhaps for them as well I guess. Sustainability is high on most people’s agenda and we aim to improve wherever we can, working closely with our suppliers and the industry to keep us ahead or the game wherever possible.  It looks like a phenomenon training establishment here Mark with lots and lots of very detailed procedures in place, how important is it for you to make sure you’re working with schools, working with colleges and getting fresh blood coming in and training them to the standard that you need? It’s very important you can only acquire good staff by having a good reputation. We've got a good reputation here at the Commons, over the past five years we have taken on numerous commis chefs and have nurtured and seen them excel within the industry. We work with many schools and colleges around the country and tie into adopt school where we go to schools each year and educate children from the age of six years and up, just the basics, it’s fun, we do a jelly test where we have five or six different colour jellies all with natural food colourings from beetroot down to raspberry. Of course they all go for the red one which they think is raspberry but we flavour that with lemon so you see all these screwed up faces going, “Oh, we're having lemon,” but what we do teach them is don’t necessarily trust your eyes. It’s all the four senses that we've got. It’s good. Over the last four years with me at the helm we've tied into many industry events, and competitions, and ways that chefs can better themselves and achieve industry status. There is a bit of a barrier isn’t there? It’s a bit of a stuffy barrier if you don’t mind me saying so and I mean that in a nice way, if you look at it from the outside I guess you want to break that down? It is and some people say it’s a fortress here. You usually say that if you can't see what’s inside. Absolutely, you don’t know what’s behind the walls. But we're very much open and I think the industry knows from our accolades, and it’s not just about competitions we aim to be amongst the best in our field and getting noticed within the industry I want chefs to be high achievers and   move on within three or four years, I want them to gain as much good experience and if we can't promote within encourage them out into the industry with all the expertise that they need to do well. What’s the most covers done in a day and most covers done in a week? We cater for 14000 pass holders and can range from anything from afternoon tea for 75 through to 300, 400, through too literally 16, 17 functions and have catered in Westminster Hall for up to 1,000 to 650 sitting down. Well thank you so much for inviting me in it’s phenomenal seeing an operation like this, unbelievable. Thank you very, very much. No thank you it’s great to be able to show someone what we do here and give an insight into what happens every day. Thank you Mark. Thank you.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th April 2012

Mark Hill, Executive Chef, House of Commons, London