With over 750 restaurants and a number of strategically-positioned brands to its name, menu development is a year-round exercise for hospitality sector giant Whitbread. Senior quality and innovation chef Paul Fletcher outlines the finer details behind creating classic dishes for multiple sites and the significant role that the right kitchen platform plays in successful execution.
Paul Fletcher is busy in the kitchen of one of Whitbread’s restaurants before breaking to speak with FEJ over Zoom and a few moments ago he’s just done something that would have felt alien only a few months ago: removed the visor he was wearing.
The lack of condiment bottles on the table he is sitting at and the presence of signage indicating that a one-way system is in place are further markers of the new safety and social distancing protocols that operators in the foodservice sector have quickly had to get used to in this new Covid era we find ourselves in.
“Those visors aren’t the nicest things to wear and you joke and laugh the first few times you put them on because you feel self-conscious, but actually it’s like anything, you get used to it,” smiles Whitbread’s senior quality and innovation chef, who has now been with the business for five years.
It’s fair to say things have changed a bit since the start of the year, but he’s just delighted to be able to get back into the kitchen again after the industry’s enforced closure due to coronavirus.
An 80% reduction in revenues for the three months to the end of May reflects the fact that the Premier Inn owner’s entire operation — with the exception of 39 hotels kept open for key workers throughout the crisis — was forced to close its doors at the end of March.
But since July, the company’s restaurants have opened in a phased approach and service has resumed, albeit with some modifications. The introduction of a ‘Generous Serving of Safety’ — Whitbread’s gold standard set of measures around hygiene and safety — has been crucial for building confidence among guests seeking the peace of mind to eat out again.
“Quality and consistency are very important factors for us but obviously at the moment the most important thing is guest and staff safety during these times that none of us could have expected,” says Fletcher, who honed his craft on the London restaurant scene with the likes of Gaucho, Jamie’s Italian and Scott’s.
It will naturally take a little while for things to settle down, but with the majority of Whitbread’s sites back open for business there is finally room to start planning how future menus will look again. Before lockdown, Fletcher’s role was one that required him to be very much on the move. The early part of his week would be spent on administration and paperwork, followed by visits to sites, meetings with colleagues and trips to farms and factories, sometimes abroad, to see suppliers.
He estimates that around 20% of his time is spent in the kitchen, although this increases during certain stages of the menu development process. Living an hour-and-a-half from Whitbread’s central facility in Dunstable, he often cooks off from sites closer to home.
“It’s all about the detail and quality from farm to fork, and innovating wherever we can to support that,” he explains. “It can be quite a broad spectrum of things and it does go back to the equipment we use. We’ve got different chargrills at different sites, for example, so it’s about looking at how a product will react when it is cooked on different platforms or different ovens, and managing that.”
Whitbread presently comprises eight brands: Premier Inn, Hub by Premier Inn, Brewers Fayre, Beefeater, Cookhouse & Pub, Bar + Block, Thyme and Table Table. Fletcher’s immediate team includes two lead development chefs — separately responsible for pub platforms and grill platforms — and a kitchen assistant.
“It’s about looking at how a product will react when it is cooked on different platforms or different ovens, and managing that”
They liaise closely with the brand teams on the kind of dishes that need to be developed, constantly playing with new ideas and analysing if menus and menu items need to be enhanced further or pared back.
With the creation of a menu typically starting up to 12 months before it is due to launch, the current focus has already shifted in the direction of spring-summer 2021. Production specification and industry benchmarking are intrinsic parts of Fletcher’s work, but that’s only the start of the process.
Once a dish has been developed or sourced, the emphasis is on training, timings and implementation.
“You need to know that if it takes X amount of time to cook in an oven, can the chefs achieve that at site because obviously they’re a lot busier. You have got to remember that sites have to worry about breakfast, lunch, dinner, maintaining kitchen labour. There is no point developing great menus if the sites can’t achieve them, so there is quite a lot that goes on in the background to support that.”
The company has successfully streamlined its menus in more recent times and fine-tuned the classics that diners always return for, while analysis of customer values has been the catalyst for renewed focus on British-sourced produce and sustainability.
Whitbread operates to strict animal welfare standards and achieved 100% cage-free status on whole shell eggs last year, 12 months before its target. “We believe we are ahead of the game, but we strive to be the best out there,” says Fletcher.
Of course, when it comes to dish execution, Fletcher is very clear on the significance of the right kitchen infrastructure. He worked closely with Whitbread’s kitchen platforms manager Michael Jessop on the back-of-house design for Bar + Block, the contemporary steakhouse brand that Whitbread launched four years ago for instance, and enjoys looking at how new equipment can be adopted to make operations more effective and user-friendly for chefs.
“The menu feeds into the kitchen platform and vice versa, but there is a lot of stuff that we need to look at going forward for kitchen equipment. My motto since I started chefing has been to make guests happy and I want the best food to go on the plate, so anything that can make the overall experience for the guest better but also makes the chef’s life easier is the way we need to look.
“We have great equipment in our kitchen — Rationals and Falcons, Synergy Grills and Winterhalter dishwashers. We don’t have cheap equipment, which is great, but obviously if you’ve got a Porsche then you need to be able to drive it correctly and look after it. It’s very hard to get that balance between having great equipment that lasts and been able to maintain it.
“I was involved in building the kitchen platforms at previous companies I worked for and it’s quite interesting because I think you get a preference for what you like or what you use — flat tops or six burners, one brand of combi oven or another. Certainly if you look at the big brands they are great but they come at a cost and you have to get behind the detail — what is the cost of a call-out charge, for instance.”
“I’m a firm believer in undercounter fridges with drop wells to keep all your salad nice and fresh but they don’t fit a lot of kitchens because of how big they are and you lose space to put food on, so there are pros and cons of everything. It’s always about going back to the original kitchen platform and understanding what we want it to be.”
The format of the operation is key to any specification and what may work for one brand within the group could be unsuitable for another. Charcoal ovens and wood-fired pizza ovens give a nod to authenticity and freshness, but they need to be used confidently and correctly to do the food justice.
“We recently put pizza ovens into some of our Cookhouse & Pub sites and the main cost of that wasn’t actually the pizza oven, it was putting the extract in the kitchen to allow for it”
Then there is scale to consider. To roll out a piece of equipment across dozens of sites becomes a major capital investment exercise. “We recently put pizza ovens into some of our Cookhouse & Pub sites and the main cost of that wasn’t actually the pizza oven, it was putting the extract in the kitchen to allow for it,” explains Fletcher.
Undercounter refrigeration is a “big one” on his priority list because of the direct impact it has on food quality, while he has recently taken a look at what state-of-the fryers from Henny Penny could bring to the table. What he really wants is a toaster that that can be used in a buffet scenario without causing burnt bread.
“It’s one of the biggest bug bears,” he says! “No matter where you go across the world, it’s exactly the same. There is a switch for the guests to select their preference but they never seem to be able to get the volume through. That is one thing we do struggle with.”
The coming months will undoubtedly throw up some of the most difficult menu development challenges yet. In order to accommodate all the safety and social distancing guidelines that are incumbent on the hospitality industry, it has consciously modified its existing menus by retaining its most popular dishes and those that its teams can capably construct under the current restrictions.
Dishes that were intended for launch in March will also make their first appearance on new autumn-winter menus that are due out from next month.
“It’s about finding that fine line between the full menus that we’ve had before and the newer menus. With the smaller menus you can get the food out quicker, you need fewer chefs, there is less waste, and there is obviously a knock-on effect. But we need a big range because that’s why our guests come here and have done for so long. We have got to find that balance between keeping guests happy but also innovating.”
You can bet that not even a visor or a whole new set of kitchen protocols will prevent that innovation from happening.