Picture the scene: it’s the day of the British Grand Prix. The sun is shining, the mercury is rising and 140,000 spectators are going wild as the world’s most famous cars take up their position on the starting grid, braced for action.
Away from the fanfare, one of the biggest corporate hospitality operations of the year is in full swing, or at least it should be. Instead, the kitchens and corridors are deathly quiet and the dozens of chefs that inhabited them just minutes earlier are nowhere to be seen.
There is good reason for the emptiness, explains Dean Hoddle, head chef at Silverstone Circuits and the man charged with overseeing one of the most fascinating catering operations around.
“We always have a rule: because we work so hard in the run-up to the Grand Prix, the first five laps are the chefs’ laps because as soon as the lights go out and the cars start going, nobody is eating — everybody is out watching the track! I always say to my chefs, no matter what, we are out there watching the first five laps and then it’s back inside and crack on.
“When you have got a chef working for you that is from an agency, is a motorsport fan and has been doing 16-17 hour days all week, you have to let them see it! And it really helps morale as well; they all get their phones out and watch Lewis Hamilton go past and they feel like they are a real part of it.”
While the British Grand Prix is synonymous with the famous Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire, the perception that Hoddle and his team spend all their time gearing up for that single weekend in July couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Everyone thinks it is all about that one day, but we are so much more than that,” he explains. “To give you an idea of the space, the Silverstone Wing is the biggest conference facility space between London and Birmingham, so we can do anything up to 5,000 in it at any one time. Race day-wise, we obviously have the Grand Prix, but there are seven other major events that we do a lot of hospitality for and then there is always stuff going on the track from March all the way through to November, every weekend.”
Indeed, on the day Hoddle is speaking to FEJ, his team have already served a thousand covers for corporate events taking place within the vicinity, and he insists that’s a pretty “standard’ order for the operation.
I would imagine we are probably going to be looking at another four or five kitchens at least and they are going to be fully operational most of the time”
He has no fewer than nine kitchens under his control, but the physical footprint of the Silverstone estate means it’s not your average set-up.
“Because we are a circuit, three and a half miles all the way round, I’ve got lots of different venues and different areas and we are very much in and out of a lot of these venues, depending on what the clients have requested. For service time at the Grand Prix, for instance, we do it via my office and a radio because I have got eight of my nine kitchens operational and I physically can’t get round them all!”
The main CPU kitchen in the Wing takes on the bulk of the workload, ably supported by two regen kitchens and a separate third floor kitchen to service the banqueting halls. Smaller kitchens spread around the site provide additional resource to meet hospitality demands.
Hoddle typically has a team of 30 kitchen porters and 40 chefs beneath him at the busiest times. Six of these are full-time, but the majority are regular zero hour contract staff and agency workers. This gives the organisation the ability to manage the fluctuations in workload that it faces.
“Between the Grand Prix and the Classics we have got a two-week period, so I will go up to 40 chefs for the Sunday of the Grand Prix and then that will drop down to just a few on the Monday. Then we will slowly start building up our prep ready for the Classic weekend and we will be back up to about 40 again,” he explains.
More kitchens on the horizon
Hoddle has been at Silverstone for three years and while he does get involved in the cooking, his day-to-day role is more about organising, scheduling and directing. There is always a huge amount of seasonal project work going on and planning has already started for next year’s Grand Prix and major race meetings.
“I very much jump from today to tomorrow to next month to next year and then back to today and next week. It is just about keeping it moving, so we are talking with suppliers and looking for new products and new bits of equipment all the time. Then occasionally, like today, we’ll have bowl food on for a thousand people so I’ll be told, ‘chef, you need your chef whites on at 11 o’clock and we need you in the kitchen.’”
We could end up moving towards having a development chef full-time. I am running 215 menus at the moment and I have written 1,500 recipe specs, so there is a lot going on”
Work is due to commence next year on a new hotel, which will double Hoddle’s operation within the Wing alone, while an Experience Centre poised to open in the spring will feature another kitchen that he has to operate. Further catering spaces are planned in the coming years, with the venue predicting it will welcome two million visitors through its gates within the next two years, up from 1.5 million in 2017.
“Kitchen-wise, I would imagine we are probably going to be looking at another four or five kitchens at least and they are going to be fully operational most of the time. For the first time in my career I was stood on a block of concrete recently looking at an open space and trying to envisage a kitchen, with the walls, ceilings, extraction and equipment! It’s a really exciting time.”
When you are in charge of so many kitchens and deal with such huge volumes of food, you quickly get to learn which cooking techniques and items of equipment are intrinsic to the operation.
So what’s the one thing Hoddle can’t do without? “Definitely a Rational oven, without a shadow of a doubt,” he reveals.
“We have just teamed up with Rational and have now got a VarioCookingCentre in place too, so we are just getting to grips with that. It has been in the kitchen for two weeks now and the fact that it can all hook up online means I can sit in the office and program it all, so the guys haven’t got to think about it too much. You can tell it when to stir, which I know sounds really strange but you are not losing that five minutes of someone standing there stirring it, they can get on with something else and when the beep goes they can go back and give it a stir and away they go. We are getting some great results from what we have been cooking.”
The Silverstone kitchens are full of Robot Coupe machines to assist with the enormous quantity of food prep work it undertakes, while it is currently talking with Falcon Foodservice Equipment about the possibility of looking at Lainox ovens.
When Hoddle first joined the firm, the whole solution for foodservice was out of chafing dishes, which he admits wasn’t ideal for such a large amount of buffet work but it has since worked closely with catering manufacturer Rieber to devise a proposition around front-of-house induction cooking plates and live cooking stations.
“The wing is all induction because of the size and importance of it — it’s a £40m building. It makes the kitchens cooler and it helps with the insurance as well.”
Hoddle abides by some pretty rigid criteria for selecting equipment, starting with making sure the build quality is sufficient and it is fit for purpose.
“It has got to do the job that we need it to do, but then it is also about the support for me as well. I don’t want someone to sell me a bit of kit and then disappear off and I never see them again because I might want to invest in add-ons or get accessories. I also want someone there to make sure we are getting the best out of it. A lot of these bits of equipment now are all software-related, so have we got the latest update? Are we using it in the right way? Is there something that has changed that we need to know about? It is about working with suppliers to make sure that we are getting that kind of support after the sale, and to be fair we are getting really good support at the moment.”
He concedes that if there was one thing that would make his life easier, it would be greater standardisation among isolated pieces of equipment, particularly from a HACCP perspective.
“It seems that all equipment will give you some kind of HACCP information, but it is not all uniform. Our fridge will give me a little print-out or something, but then an oven can send me a report, so it would be nice to have it altogether so that it can be formulated into one piece of software. That would really help everyone because chefs spend half their time filling out forms and taking temperature checks.”
Most of Silverstone’s menu development work takes place in the Wing as it is most suitably equipped in terms of infrastructure. Hoddle foresees a scenario where the set-up might need to change in the not-too-distant future.
He says: “We could end up moving towards having a development chef full-time. I am running 215 menus at the moment and I have written 1,500 recipe specs, so there is quite a lot going on and it is always continual. No two days are ever the same. And because of the type of client that we attract here, a lot of it becomes bespoke. So you will get your standard kind of corporate client that will come along wanting a nice buffet-style hot dish, but you also have a lot of the big racing car manufacturers and that’s a different world entirely because they all want something special and bespoke.”
It seems that all equipment will give you some kind of HACCP information, but it is not all uniform”
In such a fast-paced environment, no two days are ever the same and with the Circuit expanding all the time, it’s a wonder that Hoddle has any time to catch his breath. So what is the most rewarding aspect of doing one of the toughest jobs in hospitality?
“Sitting back at the end of the day on the Sunday evening of the Grand Prix knowing that I have been the man that’s just delivered X amount of thousands of meals throughout the whole of the site and everyone has gone home happy. That is very satisfying,” he says.
Bringing skilled chefs into the kitchen
The UK chef shortage is well-documented and Silverstone has seen the impact of that firsthand as it has struggled to find dedicated temporary catering staff over the years.
“It first dawned on me when we were in the summer of my first year and we had an awful lot of students here through agencies and none of them really wanted to be here,” says Silverstone’s head chef Dean Hoddle. “It turned out that the agencies were just getting students in that were learning English, or accountancy or drama but the one thing we were missing was all the catering students.”
Hoddle decided things needed to change and set about exploring a partnership with Northampton College, where he gained his catering qualifications many years ago. Silverstone now takes in catering students and helps them fulfil the 45 hours of work experience required to complete their course. Some have even secured paid summer work at the circuit as a result.
Hoddle is now looking to repeat the arrangement with other local catering institutions, including Moulten College, Milton Keynes College and Banbury College. He sees it as a valuable way to give budding chefs the experience they need, plug the skills shortage and provide Silverstone with a conveyor belt of talent.
“There is a lot of investment there that I would like to see us do as a company to build that skill-set up and then bring that in line with all this new equipment that is coming in, so that things are a lot more automated, but in the right way.
“I am not looking for a food solution, I am not looking for a bank of microwaves — we make 95% of the produce in-house. I have got some really good guys and some really good skill-sets and it is just finding that happy medium of bringing the skill-set in to help the teams and having the right equipment for them to do it in the right way.”