MASTER CHEF: Nick Vadis on building a kitchen fit for the UK’s biggest caterer

Nick Vadis in Innovation Centre

They say that home is where the heart is — but for Compass Group’s culinary director, Nick Vadis, it is more a case of home is where the kitchen is.

The highly respected chef and his culinary development team returned to Compass Group’s head office in Chertsey, Surrey last year following a year-long hiatus when the building closed for refurbishment and they were forced to take their pots, pans and tasting spoons elsewhere.

“When we shut down for a year we moved to rented offices in Weybridge and the development team rented a kitchen in the basement at Fujitsu in Bracknell. They had a redundant kitchen so we rented that for 12 months and the food development carried on in there. It wasn’t ideal — it was freezing in the winter!” smiles Vadis.

Now that he’s back on familiar ground, Vadis and his colleagues have been hitting new culinary heights thanks to the installation of a giant development kitchen that serves as the nerve centre for the food direction that the group takes.

“We used to have two separate kitchens — a development kitchen which is linked to the Innovation Centre and a kitchen that we used to feed the building,” explains Vadis. “But we made a decision when we moved back into this building to combine everything together in one kitchen and sweat the asset. So we now have two ends to the kitchen — there is a development end and a production end, but they share the same facility. It just makes complete sense. The idea of it was one kitchen that does everything.”

The whole Bonnet range is induction and it features 16 hobs with two grills at each end. There is no gas in the building at all”

Essentially the kitchen has five strings to its bow: staff and visitor service; hospitality; apprentice training; food development; and product evaluation. It is also used for presentations and demos.

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With so much ground to cover, Vadis was pretty specific about the hardware that was needed for the build. He says: “I was insistent on Rational combis going in there. There is a Frima for braising and we have gone for all under-bench fridges rather than high-rise fridges to keep the temperature down. All the compressors are in the car park so there is no heat going into the kitchen. We have got a Big Green Egg in there for barbecuing. The whole Bonnet range is induction and it features 16 hobs with two grills at each end. There is no gas in the building at all. We have got Winterhalter dishwashers and glasswashers, a Granuldisk pan cleaner, Thermomixs, dehydrators and VitaPreps. And there are Alto-Shaam holding units under each counter. The kitchen is all air-conditioned and it is a really comfortable environment. When I think back to some of the sweatboxes I used to work in, I always tell the team they are spoilt in there!”

Was energy efficiency a big consideration given the extent to which the kitchen is used? “We looked at the longevity of the equipment, and the reliability — how often we are going to have to renew it. The Bonnet suite comes with something like a 25-year guarantee. So when you divide that cost up over 25 years it becomes a really cost-effective model. Operating costs are also an important factor. That’s why the compressors for the main fridges are in the car park, so that they don’t churn out heat. Running costs and efficiency are considerations; we know the average of everything.”

Compass opted for US brand True Manufacturing’s fridges and the five-year parts and labour warranty was a major factor in the decision. “We did some trials with them before the kitchen was built and it was a good choice when we moved back in to go with them. Our maintenance suppliers don’t like them because they have got a five-year warranty on them!” he says. He even got involved on the tableware side, procuring china from Churchill that was specifically selected for its flexibility so that it could be used for more than one dish. “The crockery was well-thought out in terms of how we utilise it across the different menus.”

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Vadis admits he still gets excited by new equipment (the latest addition to the stable is a Bradley smoker) and compares it to the feeling of buying a new car. “I love the evolution in equipment and how it is changing. It makes the chef’s life easier to a certain degree but it also makes cooking safer and more reliable. There is less room for error,” he remarks.

Is there anything he would like to see done differently from an equipment perspective? “Not really. I just wish the cost of induction pans would come down — it’s so expensive. We have got Mauviel pans in here, which are French and very good, but they are very expensive. Everybody is moving to induction — it is still expensive but all kitchens are moving to it.”

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As culinary director, Vadis has an umbrella view of the business across all sectors and brands, from healthcare to business and industry. His development team is responsible for conceiving all the food concepts and food programmes for the business, and he also works closely with Foodbuy, the commercial function of Compass that sources all its food.

“I would say that 40% of my working week is interfacing with them on ingredients because the chefs sign off all the ingredients that come into our business — it is a real chef-led business and we make the decisions on the food that we think are fit for purpose to serve to our customers. And only then does Commercial go out and do the deals. Commercial and our chef community work hand in glove together, which is a real USP for a company this large.” In many ways, ‘large’ is an understatement. This is a business that turns over £2 billion a year and employs 60,000 staff. On the catering side, it serves one million meals every day across 10,000 sites.

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The primary task of the development team is to create food programmes that can be used throughout the business. Each sector can package and brand the food programme how they want, but principally the recipes are the same. Compass has rolled out six so far, with another six due to be rolled out shortly. The latest creation is a vegetarian-vegan concept called ‘Root Kitchen’, based heavily around the use of plant-based proteins. “There is massive interest in that because it is really on trend at the moment,” says Vadis.

A typical food programme consists of around 100 dishes, each rated with a skill level of between one and three depending on the degree of difficulty in producing it. The ranking is also influenced by financial parameters, kitchen size and size of brigade. The net result is that there is something for everybody.

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Food programmes are a massive focal point for Vadis — but he is also passionate about chef development and retention in the contract foodservice market. The fact that five of the national team that won Gold at the World Culinary Olympics are from the foodservice sector “speaks volumes” for how far the sector has come and the quality of the people that sit within it, he insists.

“I’ve always said that if you don’t give people opportunities they will go looking for them, so it is about creating opportunities and that is one of my focuses — to try and give people within our business a great experience, lots of opportunity to grow and develop without the need to leave the business. Making it possible to move people around through different sectors, giving them the opportunity to get qualifications to better themselves and offering them the chance to be involved in competitions is a great way of giving them opportunities to flex their culinary muscle somewhere else without leaving us.”

It is hard to disagree, especially now the company can lay claim to one of the most advanced and best-equipped kitchen facilities around.

Nick Vadis was coach of the England team that recently won gold at the World Culinary Olympics. Click here for the inside story on the team became global kitchen kings.

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