Steve Pooley spent 15 years as Jamie Oliver’s right-hand man in the kitchen, serving as head of food development and special projects and then chef director of special estate and projects before leaving the TV chef’s restaurant group last year.
He is now a freelance chef consultant and spoke recently to Sprint Group as part of a special series featuring individuals the distributor has worked with over the years. In this edited version of the interview, he discusses kitchen trends, business success and chefs’ tips.
In what ways has the pandemic affected you and your business?
50% of high street clients have postponed development, for food or prospects, mothballed sites and pressed pause on their ideas. Slowly, they’re now getting back on their feet. That said, it seems that 50% of the high street has gone by the wayside but the rest are looking to the future. Personally, I’ve hibernated during the summer months, using my time fruitfully, looking at ways to increase nutrition and health — but without income.
What are the positives that have come from such a huge change to the industry?
I guess the biggest positive outcome has been to see that the independents are faring slightly better than they were as they’re able to flex much quicker than the ‘big boys’. The pandemic has given them a bit of a jolt too, and the hubris that they had should allow them to be okay. That said, without innovation or the evolution of offers, for example, it now means that people have to work very hard to make a business be a success, and being nimble is the key to this. As a consequence, the big boys have learnt to put more resource into developing and innovating, which is exciting.
In what ways have you changed to accommodate the ‘new normal’?
Other companies, for example those who supply fish, have created pathways to get the best quality fish delivered directly to our doors now. I’ve seen meal kits for pizza or burger kits delivered to the door — and from Michelin-starred restaurants, too! That wouldn’t have happened before Covid-19. It’s amazing what some of these guys are doing! For those of us in the hospitality business, this coronavirus has opened up a new element or arm of industry.
Do you have a word of advice for the hospitality and catering industry as we move forward?
Yes, these tricky times have highlighted how much the public need our business — people miss going out. We need to treat people like individuals and respect that they’ll come back. The same applies to staff. As an industry as a whole, we treat our customers as individuals — with respect. Respect for us and with us. Be as good as we can. And with the same ethos, the industry will get stronger and grow. Make your shift count. It would be great to have less lax attitude and more sense of urgency and respect for people you work for and work with. If we get into a quicker stride perhaps people will go more often. Don’t allow them an excuse to not come back.
What qualities do you look for when partnering with a company?
I’m pretty fortunate. On the whole I work with like-minded people — those with similar ethos, culture, food, goals, realistic goals and expectations, with an abundance of flexibility. But it’s always nice to work with people who are experienced and have good knowledge of the industry.
What’s your ultimate favourite dish to create?
That’s very difficult to answer! I get excited when something is first in season, like mirabelle plums, and the supermarkets smell incredible so I want to cook with them. I made a Japanese dish —Umeboshi — and a jam. I will do the same with peas and asparagus, and blood oranges when they come into season, as soon as they first land in the market. In fact, it’s difficult to create one dish using eight different fancy things. I love cooking really simple classic things, such as a margarita, arrabiata pasta with the best ingredients. It may sound clichéd but it’s genuinely much harder to make a dish with four components brilliantly.
How does seasonal food affect menu development? Now we can buy soft fruit all year round, do you offer them?
Tough question! I think that a chef respectfully uses seasons. For example, I only use mirabelles in season as they don’t freeze well. Lemons are at their best unwaxed and from the Amalfi coast and I wouldn’t have strawberries on a Christmas menu. It is difficult if you want to do a dish out of season, but I am strong enough and brave enough to say no.
What are your pet peeves in the kitchen?
I’m a cranky old git, so operationally it annoys me when people try to fit a massive menu into a kitchen not fit for purpose. It’s too demanding. A bigger menu doesn’t mean more sales. In terms of a kitchen, those who stand by and be obnoxious are simply annoying. The stronger and more experienced people in it should motivate the younger guys and gals. We should all be sharing and using team work.
With regards to the industry, it would be great to see the girls have more opportunities in the kitchen. I’ve worked with many women and noted that skillsets mean they’re much better organised than men, they lead better, are more compassionate, but they take lots of shit and I honestly don’t know why they’re not more predominant in kitchen. A blend of men and women in the kitchen is a great fit. Again, I’ve worked with many teams and it’d be nicer with more of a balance of the genders. It would also be good to see the guys step up. I think that a perfect ratio of women to men would be ideal, a perfect storm of organised and respectful plus diverse cultures in higher positions.
If you could dine with one person, who would it be and why?
Chris Bianco, the chef-owner of Pizzeria Bianco, with two locations in Phoenix and Arizona, along with two Pane Bianco restaurants , is one of the best chefs I’ve ever worked for. He was a great mentor and inspiration, so an hour with him would be awesome. His attitude is: ‘whatever you do, do it well and they will come’. Chris champions food producers properly with his vast knowledge.