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Chef Richard Hughes: In praise of the staff canteen

PUBLISHED: 19:28 29 March 2018

Richard Hughes at The Pod, one of the food outlets at the Norfolk & Norwich university hospital. Photo: Bill Smith

Richard Hughes at The Pod, one of the food outlets at the Norfolk & Norwich university hospital. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2013

The humble staff canteen has been much maligned over the years, but a good canteen is a thing of beauty that can bring workers together and increase productivity. Is it time for us to rethink our attitudes about canteens?

Hellesdon High School canteen in 1992.Hellesdon High School canteen in 1992.

Workplace canteens don’t only nourish the body, they nourish the mind and, if you think that sounds slightly pretentious, bear in mind a recent survey revealed that global companies who introduced or improved their canteens reported operating margins which shot up by four per cent– that’s a lot of bang for your tuck.

Canteens are a place to mix with colleagues you might not otherwise talk to, much less share a meal with, and encourage a sense of camaraderie, even if it’s to collectively moan about the standard of the day’s soup: think of it as a real-life example of bonding over the eating challenge in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out

of Here.

While we all know that in reality there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there are definitely benefits to offering staff a place to eat a hugely subsidised lunch or to make certain meals cost-free. Google is rumoured to have a 150ft rule meaning that no worker should be more than this distance away from a food outlet – I’d like to extend this policy to everyone, personally, especially if the food outlet was mine!

Richard Hughes EDP Norfolk Magazine summer 2016 recipes. Heritage tomato tart.Richard Hughes EDP Norfolk Magazine summer 2016 recipes. Heritage tomato tart.

Canteens are a dying breed. In 1995, more than 80 per cent of large businesses boasted their own canteen, a figure which has been dropping steadily ever since (to 66 per cent in 2000, by 2010, 88 per cent of businesses with more than 1,000 workers had a canteen) as the traditional canteen makes way for a range of vending machines or, if you’re lucky, a visiting sandwich van. Businesses are missing a trick. A great canteen is a thing of beauty.

Last year, an Oxford lecturer looked at the reasons why students decided to choose particular degree courses and found that the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 had turned students into consumers who were more interested in the university ‘experience’ than furthering their knowledge – top of their shopping list? How good the university canteen was.

Only last week we heard that Manchester United striker Alexis Sanchez eats alone at the club’s canteen. It was reported that this was because the Chilean feels isolated and miserable, but who knows? It could just be that he’s keen to enjoy the canteen experience free from distraction (I admit this is unlikely).

It’s unfair to tarnish today’s canteens with images that haunt us from our school days. Gone are the industrial banks of stainless steel tubs where gruff matrons stood as sentries ready to slop something indistinguishable on your plate – while the Mad Men-style two-martini executive lunches enjoyed in the 1950s are also a thing of the past. Today’s canteens are a far brighter bet.

The Harmers canteen which catered for 250 people at a time. Picture: Archant libraryThe Harmers canteen which catered for 250 people at a time. Picture: Archant library

Yeo Valley’s canteen began its life as a staff restaurant but everyone loved it – and its picturesque location – so much that the yoghurt manufacturer opened it to the public. You have to book to visit and the menu constantly changes to reflect the seasons. Workers pay a couple of quid for meals such as fish cakes, roasted cherry tomatoes, chervil hollandaise and pea shoot salad, visitors pay very little more.

At financial services company Morgan Stanley, there’s a top class kitchen serving up high-quality food to the executives (think foie gras rather than baked potatoes) and Tricia Guild, the founder of Designers Guild, built a café at her company’s headquarters where main courses such as lemon chicken soup with stellette pasta sell for £3.

On a local level, I have been working alongside staff at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital canteen since 2012. It not only caters for the staff who need fuel to carry on their hard work, but also for patients, their families and visitors. It’s quite literally the busiest restaurant in the east.

At least 2,000 people visit the NNUH’s restaurant daily and more than 7,000 staff work at the site. This month, the night kitchen reopened at the NNUH from 5pm to 1am to serve food for those on late shifts either at work, or as a visitor.

We have worked on schemes that see eligible patients given the opportunity to eat their meals away from their bedside with friends and family and staff and management work tirelessly to promote healthy eating – to this end there’s a lively set of events held at the canteen which have included a Valentine’s Day, a themed menu for Chinese New Year and Moroccan classics.

Next up will be Italian Favourites on April 10 and a host of events for National Vegetarian Week from May 14 to 20, including a cookery demonstration.

For those without a canteen – boo! – or who prefer to take their own feast to the table, here’s a simple and delicious recipe that travels well in a tub and brings a bit of sunshine to a day at work. If you’re feeling nostalgic, you could always ask a gruff matron to cut it into slices for you...

Ingredients

500g block puff pastry

2tbsp black olive tapenade

300g selection of ripe heritage tomatoes, sliced

Salt and black pepper

Beaten egg to glaze

100g goats’ cheese

A little olive oil and a few basil/thyme leaves for garnish

Method

1. Preheat oven to 220C (200C fan assisted) /425F/Gas 7.

2. Cut the pastry into a rectangle sized 18cm x 10cm,

3. Place onto a lined baking sheet, spread the tapenade down the length, leaving a 1 cm border all round. Cover with overlapping slices of tomato and season lightly. Brush borders with beaten egg and bake for 10 minutes until pastry is risen and golden brown. Sprinkle on the goats’ cheese and bake for a further two minutes

4. Scatter with shredded basil or thyme leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil just before serving.

Working lunch facts:

1 A third of UK employees never leave their workplace after they arrive in the morning and more than half don’t take their full lunch break with 69 per cent of people justifying skipping lunch on the basis that they have too much to do.

2 A study by the University of Queensland in 2013 revealed that people who took a lunch break with colleagues or friends reported feeling more relaxed and productive afterwards.

3 Almost half of workers aged between 16 and 24 take their full lunch break compared to 30% of those aged between 35 and 44.

4 A third of the UK’s workforce eat the same lunch every day while the average worker has a repertoire of just three lunches on rotation.

5 The most popular sandwich for UK workers is filled with ham followed by cheese and then tuna mayonnaise.

6 According to a recent Deliveroo survey, British workers spend an average of 13 minutes a day talking about food.

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