THE BIG INTERVIEW: In conversation with Compass Group’s culinary director Nick Vadis

Nick Vadis, culinary director

Compass Group’s culinary director Nick Vadis is one of the most well-respected and experienced chefs in the industry. Andrew Seymour sat down with him during the recent HRC show for a wide-ranging conversation about the kitchen challenges that its customers are asking for help with, his new role as chef ambassador to the NHS supply chain and the catering equipment that he think is really going to make a difference to the way operators work in a rapidly changing market landscape…

Nick, you spent the early part of your career in the Royal Navy. Did you always have your heart set on that role?

I didn’t actually join the Royal Navy as a chef; I joined as a helicopter mechanic! It was just bad careers advice in the sense that I had fairly good qualifications and cheffing at that time was seen as the lowest of low, and I got talked into being a helicopter mechanic, which I absolutely hated. I then asked to leave the Navy unless I re-categorised into another role and that’s how I came to become a chef!

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What was it like cutting your teeth in that kind of environment?

The Royal Navy is a strange beast because it is not like a normal job. You go from ship to shore, ship to shore, but you just treat it as if you are moving jobs every two or three years, although you are still with the same organisation. And it is diverse. We had a couple of wars, which weren’t planned. But it gave you travel, it gave you excitement and it was never dull. We had fantastic training facilities and the military gave me a great grounding for my career.

How important are cooking competitions in terms of supporting chef development and growth?  

I class competitions as one of the most important things for a chef. I think chefs do need to challenge themselves. You can get the excitement out of your workplace, but I think you need to pitch yourselves against other chefs. It creates camaraderie and it also gets you to meet other chefs. Chefs are naturally competitive people and we have got to give them the avenue to flex their culinary muscle, not just in their workplace but also in the theatre or on the stage.

You have a long association with Compass Group. How has the contract catering sector evolved during your time with the company?

The contract catering market has changed massively. In the past, it was kind of seen as the poor relation to a hotel or a restaurant. People want decent hours, they want decent money. The money is comparable now, and in Compass Group we attract many named chefs to our business. Jason Atherton works with us, he has one Michelin Star with us in City Social, and we work with Michel Roux — in fact we have worked with the whole Roux family for dozens of years. Having those ambassadors on board with us can help elevate our chefs.

What key trends are you seeing in the market at the moment?

We all know about the plant-based movement — there are a lot of plant-based products around. I think we are going to see more of that in our business. We are making a commitment with our net zero commitments and our menus. Over 40% of the menus in our restaurants are plant-based, as part of a programme called ‘Plant Forward’. Everybody was saying after the pandemic that everything is going to be packaged. People have had enough of packaged food and sanitised food, as in nobody else has touched it. They now want to get into restaurants.

We have seen our restaurants in the city filling back up, we have seen people coming back to the workplace and I think it’ll go back to where we were. Everybody has said it has changed forever; I don’t think it has. Yes, we are aware of the pandemic but food is a sociable thing and people want to break for lunch and go and eat with their colleagues. And we are seeing a lot more of that coming back.

You also now serve as chef ambassador to the NHS supply chain. What does that role entail?

That came about after the first lockdown. We procure food for the NHS at Compass Group and I was asked to start looking at the NHS chefs, so we launched the Chefs’ Academy. It is a training programme for NHS chefs where we get them out of Trust, get them out of hospitals and give them a day’s training. We have put 110 chefs through the training so far and we’ll increase that to 200.

We are working with Phil Shelley, who wrote the Hospital Food Review, and it is about trying to lift standards, lift training and invest in NHS chefs. A lot of chefs go into college but nobody says, ‘go and work in a hospital’. And you’ve got to ask yourself why. It needs to be made more attractive and it needs to be made more of a career as well, because you can do great things in hospitals. And the food can be good and should be good.

That post must be different to the normal day-to-day role. What has it taught you so far?

I find it absolutely enlightening. It was quite unnerving at first. My career path is completely different to a NHS chef, so I have never met these chefs in my life. And going in there and working with them, they don’t know me, I don’t know them, but there are so many stars in hospitals, so many good people doing great jobs day in day out, supporting the doctors, the nurses and the clinical staff that work there.

I think Covid has highlighted how great our NHS is and how we need to support it and how we need to develop and encourage people to go into it. It has been a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a diversion that I wouldn’t normally have taken but it something I am embracing and really enjoying. And I can see it getting bigger and better. I want to get more people back into the NHS and I want to see more NHS chefs competing in competitions.

The Hospital Food Review referenced the need for hospital kitchens to requipped with solutions that allow them to operate on a 24-hour basis. Are you involved in that side of things as well?

We are looking at some solutions for 24-hour vending and that’s not just a Mars Bar and a Coke, that’s proper food. I am looking at upskilling chefs by giving them better recipes because they are feeding more of a B&I offer. That’s what it should be, it’s a retail space and you should be able to make money out of that. Invariably you’ve got a captive audience in a lot of those arenas. Patient feeding is always being looked at: new ideas, new recipes.

There are some great bits of automation going on at Southmead Hospital in Bristol where they use robots to take the trolleys to the wards, and they are all pre-programmed. They have been there for a while. That is not doing a porter out of a job, but what it does do is free up porters to do other things. I saw that down there and I thought it was great. It is a very simple solution and it is quite quirky to see trolleys taking themselves to the kitchens, but it works. I think automation in hospitals and getting the food closer to the patient — bedsides technology and bedside ordering of meals — will stop food waste. It will also make things fresher, hopefully, and provide a better experience for the patient.

Let’s talk about some of the key challenges facing the industry, starting with energy costs. Kitchens are becoming more expensive to run, aren’t they?

Energy is a big issue and it is something we discuss with our clients, but you have got remember that they contract us in to cook and manage the team and feed their people. They are the ones paying the bills and the energy. But obviously we advise on kitchen equipment, we advise on stuff that can keep those costs down and innovation in that platform. We are well aware of that and we work with our clients on it. Each client is different, but each of them usually has a net zero target to hit and they are looking at their own energy costs. If we can help in any way with advisory on the purchase of equipment we will.

Is it fair to say that net zero is shaping a lot of business decisions right now?

Yes, massively. We actually ran COP26 last year, up at the SEC, so all our menus had to show their carbon footprint. Every single dish had to be run through the machine to verify the carbon footprint. Everything that was used, from the Clingfilm to a piece of greaseproof paper, had to have a carbon footprint on it, so it taught us a lot of lessons. We have got a great piece of software now that allows us to analyse the carbon footprint of all our recipes and we work very closely with Foodbuy, our procurement arm.

There are going to be huge changes there on what we purchase. And to me, the positive to come out of it is that we are going to start looking more local for our food, which is really important and something that has been dear to me for a number of years. I see it as a win-win, but it is going to be a tough journey for a lot of contractors and suppliers. Our net zero commitments are massive.

Presumably that means you will be scrutinising suppliers more closely on their carbon footprint?

Yes, we will be. We are looking at the carbon footprint of our whole supply chain. But equally we are getting the same questions from our clients — what are you doing to offset your carbon footprint? — because we are inextricably linked as a business.

In terms of your role, what does the picture look like over the next 12 months?

I think the most exciting part is that we have got to attract and retain chefs; we have got to encourage the chefs we have got to stay with us. We are investing in training massively and have just launched a training programme with Marcus Wareing called ‘Forward’, where we are developing our senior chefs on further into management. We will carry on working with the NHS and supporting it with its aspirations to attract more people into that part of the business. We will be working with the Chef’s Academy even more. As I said, we are going to put 200 people through that this year. We will carry on encouraging Compass chefs to take part in competitions and grow themselves from within. Obviously we want our chefs to grow organically — we don’t need to keep going out to market for them.

I’d like to explore the idea of innovation in the kitchen. What does that mean to you? We’re seeing the next generation of equipment released and there is a big focus on connectivity, energy efficiency and usability. How is the Compass Group feeling about that?

I think equipment is really important and it is another big part of the whole jigsaw, particularly with our net zero commitments in mind. Yes, we are looking at food, we are looking at all of our supply chain in a more holistic way on the net zero side of things. But with equipment, we have been going down that route for quite some time.

We moved to induction from gas, there are efficiencies in the kitchen that are making the environment a better place to work, and there is equipment that makes speed of service quicker and reduces touchpoints. That is all going to be more relevant in the future — and it is now. I think Covid has accelerated a lot of these things that we were wanting to do but never got round to doing. Automation, ordering systems, apps and technology has accelerated massively over the last 24 months and I think the pace of it is going to carry on.

What would you say has been the most transformative piece of equipment that you’ve encountered during your career? Has there been anything that you would truly class as a game-changer?

The simple answer to that is just look at how far the oven has evolved. The old traditional ovens that you see in colleges and places are built to last. They were put in 15 to 20 years ago and they are not going to break down — they will still be there in 10 to 15 years’ time. If you look at the combi oven then the automation within those is impressive. I shouldn’t really mention names, but Rational and Unox are really innovative in that space. Those ovens can do so much and I think a lot of chefs don’t utilise their equipment to its fullest value — they just see it as a hot cupboard with a door on it and you set your temperature.

The reality is that they can do so much more and we do see that once they learn that they can use it for a multitude of things they understand the real value of it. I therefore think that the biggest innovation for me in terms of how it has evolved is the oven. It is the core piece of equipment in any kitchen is the oven and it’s amazing how versatile and multi-use it can be.

Are there any kitchens challenges that you don’t feel have been solved — things that you remember troubling you at the start of your career that still remain an issue today?

Food waste, to me, is an education piece for chefs and I don’t think that’s got anything to do with equipment — it’s educating chefs to batch-cook, to cook small amounts, and this is where speed of service comes in. If you have got a speedy way of doing something then you can batch-cook quickly, so if you get an influx of people you can service them quickly because people are very impatient and they won’t hang around if it has got to be cooked for them and takes time. Also, anything to do with energy consumption and making the environment better for the chef. The fact is there are fewer chefs in kitchens, there are fewer chefs out there in the market place that we can recruit, so we need to address that problem and technology will help us do that.

We’re starting to see things like robotics, artificial intelligence and automation become more common in kitchens, especially in the fast food segment. Are they going to do chefs out of a job?

I don’t see them as a threat to the chefs. Any kind of robotics systems, there is a market place for those. Take big stadiums where you have got half-time at a football match and supporters have got 15 to 20 minutes to buy a pint and get something to eat. Automation in that arena is a given. Firstly, it helps the staff, and secondly, it can drive more sales, so it will pay for itself. It also takes a lot of the risk out of it because anything that is automated has usually been tried and tested. People are people, they will make mistakes. Machines generally don’t if they can cook things to the right level, so automation is key.

We talked about energy efficient and the fact that the bills for most of the kitchens that your teams operate in will be paid by the client. Is there anything as a caterer that you can do to support clients with cost management?

There are certain things we can do. We can change menus. It is about working in partnership with the client and the issues that they face. They will have, in the current climate, energy issues. We have seen the price of gas and electric going through the roof. That is going to impact them and they are going to question how we can make things more efficient, so we need to be armed with answers. We need to have solutions to this because there are solutions – and that can be changing the menus, changing the offer, cooking things differently, looking at energy efficient equipment. If there is an opportunity to replace equipment then we replace it with the right type of equipment. All those things can come into play.

It sounds like the industry finds itself at something of a crossroads in many ways…

I think we are going to be dragged faster into the middle of the 21st century just by what’s going on in the world. We seem to have gone from one crisis to another over the last two years. Addressing the chef shortage problem is a big issue. Working with our clients on their net zero commitments, on our net zero commitments — those are things which are not going to go away, we are going to be challenged on it; we are going to be measured on it. And a lot of our clients are going to have the same issues, so it is about working in partnership.

I think what may come out of this is better relationships with clients because we will be working together in more of a joint venture or joint partnership. Rather than just client and contractor, you’ll work together with efficiencies you can achieve together. I think that could be a positive.

FIRST LOOK: A CGI peek at Compass Group’s flagship kitchen training and development facility

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Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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