Last month, ingredients supplier Wellocks hosted an open day and chef conference to discuss the issues surrounding supplier-chef relationships and showcase British and European produce. Amanda Afiya, Katherine Alano and Lisa Jenkins report from the Perfect Ingredient Show 2012
The provenance of ingredients has never been more important. While operators up and down the country are keen to support local produce, both from an environmental point of view and to shore up the local economy, local suppliers might not always be the perfect match for your business in terms of volume, quality and affordability.
Last month Lancashire-based ingredients supplier Wellocks pulled together leading chefs and suppliers from all over Europe to debate this and many more produce-related issues.
Called The Perfect Ingredient Show 2012, it was held in Nelson, at the Wellocks headquarters and warehouse, and drew in the likes of Michelin-starred chefs Sat Bains, Daniel Clifford, John Campbell, Frances Atkins, Michael Wignall and James Mackenzie. In three separate sessions, chefs, suppliers and producers discussed the management of relationships, the pros and cons of local sourcing - and, for some light-hearted relief, life on the small screen featuring a panel from BBC2's Great British Menu series.
Hundreds of chefs and operators from across Britain attended the conference and exhibition, with more than 60 artisanal suppliers and producers from the British Isles and Europe displaying their products during the conference.
Here's what was discussed...
The management of chef and supplier relationships
The panel: James Wellock, Wellocks; James Mackenzie, the Pipe and Glass, South Dalton, East Yorkshire; Chris Warwick, chef-director, Marco Pierre White Wheelers Group; John Campbell; Michael Heathcote, the Duke of York Inn, Grindleton; and Frances Atkins, the Yorke Arms, Pateley Bridge, near Harrogate.
The first panel of the day discussed the effective management of chef and supplier relationships, first looking at the secret to a good partnership. For John Campbell, the most important thing was trust. "You have to work at a good relationship [with your suppliers]; you have to work with them," he said. "And you have to realise that you can't possibly know more than the supplier [about the product]."
For James Mackenzie, it was equally important that the supplier understood what the business was trying to achieve. "They need to understand your volumes and let you know what's available - and you must tell them immediately if you're not happy with the quality of produce."
Chris Warwick said that he often relied on his suppliers to source particular produce for him. "[When I joined Marco's restaurants], the first thing I had to do was understand my geographic dynamic - we had to have the same supplier standards at all of the restaurants. It's about relationship and needing a core range. Loyalty is important, too," he said.
Michael Heathcote said that he valued the communication between his kitchen and his suppliers, which he described as "vital" and said that it was also important to go and see the produce at source where possible, while Frances Atkins stressed: "relationships are very important - respect is key."
Moving on to the ordering process, the chefs discussed the dangers of late-night ordering. "Late-night calls are important but it's best to pick up the phone when your mind is fresh," Warwick said.
"Online works well for me at the end of the day as part of my next day planning," said Heathcote, "and it can impact on my menu planning - you can see at a glance which ingredients are less expensive and mix them with the more expensive ones."
Touching briefly on local sourcing, Mackenzie told delegates that door deliveries didn't ensure consistency all the time but that he believed it was important to mix and match local suppliers with his other suppliers as it develops a relationship with the local community and provides a great PR message.
But, Heathcote warned, you need consistent quality and the volume to be available [and local suppliers can't always offer that]. "Wellocks looks after the smaller producers to keep standards constant," interjected Atkins. "We should support the growth of our industry by investing in our suppliers," concluded Campbell.
The Great British Menu
The panel: Sat Bains, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, Nottingham; Daniel Clifford, Midsummer House, Cambridge; Stephanie Moon, Leeds City College and consultant chef to Rudding Park; Kenny Atkinson, Rockliffe Hall, Darlington; Ian Matfin, Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury (launching later this year); and Tim Bilton, the Butcher's Arms, Hepworth
In an afternoon discussion featuring past and present chefs from BBC2's Great British Menu series, the panel were asked about the benefits of exposure on national television.
Sat Bains kicked off the conversation: "They come to vet you as any TV company would. Initially I said no, but my wife thought it would be good exposure for the restaurant, she just said 'make sure you're yourself'.
"They [the producers] are like chefs, we have ingredients to make a dish, they have plenty of footage to edit and make a show. One day's filming can be up to seven hours. They are only going to show 20-something minutes.
"What has been great is, there are customers now that are doing the 'GBM tour', where they are going to all the restaurants [featured]. There is a family feeling. If someone says they have been to Kenny's [Kenny Atkinson's] or Daniel's [Daniel Clifford's], for example you want them to have a good time and experience what is happening in the British Isles not just in London. A lot of us aren't based down there."
Stephanie Moon added: "It has certainly risen my profile. I have done more this year than I did the last couple years altogether. The first night it was on TV, Rudding Park had extra 3,000 hits on the website."
For Daniel Clifford, who has just filmed his third Great British Menu series, the experience has improved with time. "The first year was a bit of a rollercoaster. I had Sat as my mentor, and was cooking against Glynn [Purnell], which meant I had no chance at all. Glynn is a natural on TV and I had him stressing me out all the time!
"The second year was a blur. Profile-wise it was brilliant, but also you learn a lot about yourself. When I saw myself on the TV I realised what a nasty person I was to work for. So it made me look at myself and say, right, things have to change within my business.
"To be honest, we are stuck in kitchens all day long and when you have a camera put in your face you either accept it or you don't. I think the first year I felt a lot of pressure, it was a completely different environment, and totally out of my comfort zone. I did what Sat did and went along doing restaurant dishes and it wasn't really the brief. And the thing about GBM is that you have to follow the brief and impress the judges. And that is the hardest thing. But it is a brilliant experience and hopefully I do better this year.
Ian Matfin believed the hardest thing about cooking on television was the time constraints. "You get seven hours and you get so used to being in the kitchen and doing this and that. Each step has to be followed by the camera, and all you want to do is get on with what you are doing. It's a natural instinct to just carry on, but the TV crew stop you and say 'no we need you to do this again' and you're thinking 'I've already done it'. But you have to go back and do it step-by-step, which was the most frustrating part for me."
Kenny Atkinson agreed: "The regional heat is on TV for five days, but in reality it's done in three. We spend the morning doing the starter, followed by lunch then the fish course. So mentally you have to set yourself up for two services or think this is a new day. It is full on, you've got cameras, the banter with the chef, but you have to remember it is a separate day."
Asked what sort of feedback they had all experienced since being on the show, Tim Bilton said: "Absolutely superb, the scariest thing for me when I did the show was being up against Kenny (who was in his second year), and I looked across the kitchen and he was getting everything out and he starts ploughing on and I felt like a complete fish out of water. Kenny said just get on with it and not to worry about what the director is telling you."
Moon added: "The amazing thing is you have two-and-a-half hours to cook a dish, which is a long time, but what they don't tell you is that and hour and three-quarters is interviews and chat and the director getting other shots of you in the kitchen. It is quite demanding."
"The outtakes are the best bit," said Clifford, "they are absolutely nuts. To be honest, for me, it has been one the best experiences of my life. You make some great friends and this is the bit that people don't see. The year I was up against Glynn, people thought we were enemies, but actually Glynn is one of my best friends and we had a brilliant week. You are so focused on your own food you don't care what the others are doing. But when Glynn put up his monkfish dish, I thought it's over. That dish is going to make the final - and it did."
The pros and cons of local sourcing
The panel: Michael Wignall, Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Surrey; Aiden Byrne, the Church Green, Lymm, Cheshire; Leigh Myers, Grosvenor Pulford Hotel & Spa; Paul Dickson, The Deckers Group; Reg Johnson, Johnson and Swarbrick (Goosnargh duckling); and Mitch Mitchell, True Foods
When sourcing your produce, what does local mean and does using local produce always mean you are getting quality produce? For Michael Wignall, about 70% of the ingredients on the menu at Pennyhill Park are sourced within England. "It is great to have, but for some speciality ingredients such as red or white asparagus we have to source from Europe.
"You don't get squab pigeon in the UK any more, so I get them from France. But I do put that alongside Surrey beetroot, for example. Marrying the two together is very important - anyone can use asparagus from Peru 365 days a year," he adds.
Working with produce that is only sourced from the British Isles is a difficult discipline that few can achieve, according to Aiden Byrne. "The one person that is missing from this panel who absolutely personifies writing a Great British menu is Simon Rogan. He refuses to use lemons and he won't use vanilla because it is not from the British Isles. For me that discipline is unbelievable. When he writes a menu, he will change it to suit what he has on his doorstep and to pull that off on a day-to-day basis is admirable."
Goosnargh duck producer Reg Johnson said that chefs' use of local produce was very important for the slow producers. "Without their support a lot of money would be taken out the local economy. It is chef driven - they drive the trends," Johnson said.
Paul Dickson added: "The good thing about working with locals is that you can actually go down and chat to them. If something is not right the produce can stay in the ground longer or the animals can grow a bit bigger. You can actually bespoke your food to your requirements."
However, using local shouldn't be at the detriment of quality - for example, using battery hens from a local farm. "Personally I wouldn't buy into things like that. Local means good practice," Wignall said.
This was a view echoed by Johnson. "What you put in, is what you get out. If the product has been reared right, with the right numbers, the right ethics and right feed it gets noticed. Local produce tends to be produced in small amounts which is good practice."
"The term local is overused now," said Byrne. "There are people like us that make an effort to find the best quality produce which may not be necessarily local. I never use the word local - I actually say where the produce comes from.
When asked what defines fish as local the panel agreed that it was again dependent on where you where based in the UK.
Leigh Myers commented: "We are based in Cheshire and we source our mussels and sea bass from north Wales. We get shrimps from Morecambe Bay and trout from Grange-over-Sands. As a large hotel I have to do what my customers want to see on the menu. At the end of the day they [the customers] are my wages - so we have to adapt."
True Foods managing director Mitch Mitchell added: "If you are on the coast you can get a daily catch. I don't think there is any problem with buying shellfish from Scotland or fish from the South Coast. We are a small island and shouldn't be shy about doing that."
For Dickson, buying locally means he actually saves money. "You are buying something that is in season and cutting out transport costs. You can hold less stock and turn over stock quicker. I personally think that the more local I buy the more money I am saving."
Johnson admitted that even as a producer he could not afford to price himself out of the market. "I don't want to sell six chickens a month and be on the specials board. I want to be able to price my chickens and ducks right so that the customer makes a profit and I make a profit. The bottom line is if their profit goes down, our order goes down next month. It is paramount as a local producer: no matter how good your product is, it still has to fit in with the price structure of the kitchen."
Finally, the panel discussed the impact social media had made in providing a great marketing tool for local producers. "As soon as the fish comes through the door I take a photo [to post it on Twitter]," Wignall told delegates. "This is the way the world is now. You become prouder of what you do. You can't make a fantastic meal out of mediocre products."
Byrne agreed: "If I saw a dish that Michael had tweeted I wouldn't hesitate to tweet back and asked about the carrot he used, for example. And that is what it's all about - it's about creating that relationship with each other and social media is just phenomenal."