Delia Smith readily admits that she knew nothing about business or large-scale catering when she took over the food and beverage operation at her beloved Norwich City FC in 1999.
The fact that, for 30 years, she has been the inspiration for countless dinner parties - through her TV programmes and sales of 16 million cookery books worldwide - was not necessarily the right background for ensuring that she could meet the diverse culinary needs of the 21,467 spectators who trek to the Carrow Road stadium for 24 matches each year.
But, while there may well be a disparity between cooking for a group of friends and catering for thousands of football fans, there's no denying that Smith has an instinct for what people want. In the past, she has met people's needs by giving them tasty, workable recipes they can cook at home; now, she's offering relaxed restaurants that serve comforting, home-cooked food, as well as stylish venues for functions and conferences, to both football and non-football communities.
The football club is now very much the focus of Smith's working life. She has no immediate plans to make another TV series or write another cookery book, but she refutes regular press reports that she has given up TV and writing altogether. In particular, she suggests that her most recent book, Delia's Vegetarian Collection
(BBC Books, £25), will be followed by other collection-style titles.
Changing direction at this time in her life - she is a youthful-looking 61 - is proving to be an enjoyable challenge. "After 30 years on TV and writing books, I love going into the football club and being part of such a dynamic group of people," Smith tells me, obviously relishing the excitement of being involved in a venture that's set to develop and grow over many years to come.
Indeed, recruiting the right people to set up Delia's Canary Catering - which took over the catering operation at Norwich City FC from FoodEast, a partnership between Alex and Lisa Irving and David and Ruth Watson - has been a key factor in steering the company into the position it holds today, with an annual profit of £671,000. The business now offers a mix of catering facilities that includes three restaurants, two large function suites each catering for as many as 500 covers, 17 smaller function rooms, 26 executive boxes and 26 kiosks and bars.
"Our target is to reach £1m profit in another couple of years," says Smith, who is quick to heap praise on the experienced group of people who support her. "I suppose I can do the creative bit, but it's not just about me. I'm surrounded by a fantastic bunch of talented young people."
Smith's first major appointment was Lindsey Greenstead-Benesch as head of catering. Greenstead-Benesch previously worked for 15 years as head chef at party catering company Lorna Wing. She also did some food styling for You
magazine, a role that led her to join Smith as a stylist on her BBC television series, How to Cook 2
, and then on to her current position in Norwich.
"It is a very exciting time to be working here," says Greenstead-Benesch, whose key role has been overseeing the refurbishment and opening of all key catering areas.
The improvement has been dramatic. Out have gone the dreary carpets, dull beige wallpaper and heavy wooden seating. In their place is a mixture of blonde ceramic tiles and wooden slats on the floor, white walls and pale wood furniture. The sleek, contemporary lines of Delia's Restaurant & Bar would not be out of place in many a top London venue.
"We wanted our football club to have modern style and elegance," Smith says. "Football can be desperately old-fashioned. "I didn't want it to end up looking like a 1970s hotel, as so many catering facilities in football stadiums do."
The food is all based on Smith's long-held passion for using fresh, quality ingredients and cooking simple, home-style food, as opposed to elaborate restaurant-orientated cuisine. Most of the dishes are taken from recipes that have been published in her cookery books.
Executive head chef Lucy Crabb, who entered the industry at the age of 14 as a pot-washer at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, close to where she grew up, says she doesn't feel restricted by having to follow another cook's repertoire of recipes. "Delia's food is food that people understand," she says. "It is based on good ingredients and classic ideas, and there are no extraneous ingredients or strange combinations of flavours."
However, Crabb, who trained under Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum and went on to become head chef at the Blueprint Café in the Design Museum in London, has had to get used to working to recipes, something she had rarely done before.
"It wasn't easy at first," she says, "particularly as the recipes are generally written for four or six portions, and cooking them for large numbers is not just a straightforward case of exact multiplication. You might want to cook 30 batches of one dish, but you wouldn't need to multiply the amount of salt or garlic by 30 times. And a recipe asking you to sauté an onion for five minutes needs to be reworded because sautéing 30 onions is going to take a great deal longer.
"With pastry you have to be more exact - it is essential to use the right-sized tins when baking cakes, for instance. What is also important is that we buy very tightly. Because we are restricted to set recipes, we can't easily use leftovers the next day in a creative way, although we can use them for staff lunches."
Besides the 30 full-time catering staff, there are a further 50 staff working at the stadium on a daily basis.
Now and again, either Crabb or one of her team of 10 full-time chefs may come up with a dish that will meet with Smith's approval and make it on to a menu. The lemon posset on a recent menu in Delia's Restaurant E Bar, for example, is one of Crabb's recipes.
Although the recipes were originally written for small numbers in a domestic setting, Crabb says that many of Smith's recipes also work successfully for large numbers - as many as 400 for a sit-down dinner, if necessary. "There are many recipes for terrines and soups which work well," Crabb says, "as do the recipes for the likes of salmon with pesto and pecorino, and chicken in sherry vinegar with tarragon."
The biggest challenge facing Greenstead-Benesch, Crabb and the rest of the brigade now is to build up a larger team. There are plans to recruit a further eight full-time staff. Not only is business constantly increasing seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, but further expansion of the catering facilities is planned when the South Stand is demolished and redeveloped at the end of the current football season.
As well as increasing capacity by about 4,000, the £7.5m stadium will also provide a new function room for as many as 200 covers, a large lounge area, 10 executive boxes, and eight kiosks and bars.
Land belonging to Norwich City FC alongside the stadium is also going to be developed. A deal to build homes on part of the land could earn the club a valuable £6m, while a 156-bedroom, four-star hotel is also to be built. The hotel will be linked to the stadium, enabling the club to develop its conference and banqueting business by putting together packages that will include accommodation as well as meeting rooms.
This will enable the club to compete directly in the 24-hour conference market with the city's existing four-star hotels that offer conference facilities - the Marriott Sprowston Manor, De Vere Dunston Hall and Hilton Norwich.
"The best thing about working here is the variety and the constant change - it's always exciting," Greenstead-Benesch says. "You don't have to have ambition to work here, it simply falls on you." Delia and Norwich City FC
Delia Smith had been a staunch football fan ever since England won the 1966 World Cup. She became a supporter of Norwich City in 1969 when she met her husband, writer and editor Michael Wynn Jones.
The couple became directors of the club in 1996, when Norwich City, with debts of £7m, was fighting for survival. Having each injected £500,000 into the club as a loan, they have since gone on to become majority shareholders, investing a total of £7m.
While the club's debt remains at about £7m, it is now stable, unlike those of many other Football League clubs, such as Leicester City and Derby County, where debts are in a constant upward spiral.
Smith set up Delia's Canary Catering as a subsidiary of Norwich City FC Plc as a means of increasing revenue into the club on both match and non-match days. Extensive refurbishment of the stands had to be carried out to accommodate new kitchens, restaurants, bars, and hospitality areas.
Long regarded as a safe pair of hands, Smith has proved at Norwich City that she is also a risk-taker. She took over the catering operation despite initial scepticism from fellow board directors that she was capable of doing the job, and questions in the Norwich press about why money was being spent on kitchens rather than players.
Her vision is a long-term one. Ploughing money into the fabric of the club, she believes, has created stability, enabling more players to be recruited.Delia's Canary Catering
Director of catering:
Delia SmithHead of catering:
Lindsey Greenstead-BeneschExecutive head chef:
Lucy CrabbGeneral catering manager:
Roland SchreiberCatering operations manager:
Teather Walls, NorwichDesigner:
David Boocock Interiors, Long Melford, SuffolkAnnual turnover:
£671,000Catering turnover on match days:
£55,000 (£26,000 in kiosks)Staff:
30 full-time plus as many as 300 part-time (250 staff are required on match days)
A host of events
As well as all the catering facilities being available for hire for private functions at any time, Delia's Canary Catering has also put together a programme of events to attract business to the Carrow Road stadium.
There are dinners featuring food from around the globe (for example, Greece, Japan and Malaysia), food and wine workshops (hosted by Smith and Alan Mackay, formerly director of Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons cookery school), and three-course dinners at £40 per head for around 350 covers, hosted by celebrities (past guests have included Jamie Oliver, Michael Palin and Barry Norman, while John Peel and Anne Robinson are lined up for May and June respectively).Sample menu from Delia's Restaurant and Bar
Minestrone soup with macaroni
Toasted goats' cheese salad with blackened sherry vinegar onions
Swordfish ceviche (swordfish pickled with coriander, mint, red onion, tomato and lime)
Coarse country pâté served with pickled cornichons and toasted granary bread
Char-grilled gammon steak with Cumberland sauce
Crispy confit of Norfolk duck leg with a compote of sour cherries
Californian grilled fish fillet topped with coriander tartare sauce and melted cheese
Cheese choux pastry filled with mushrooms in Madeira
Chocolate ricotta cheese with chilled pouring cream
Lemon posset with lemon shortbread
Pear poached in red wine with vanilla and cinnamon, served with crème fraîche
Cheese of the match served with digestive biscuits and home-made apple-and-walnut chutneyCatering options at Norwich City FC
* Delia's Restaurant & Bar:
140 seats; open for match-day lunches, as well as being open to the public on Saturday evenings; plans are in hand to open on week-day evenings.
* The Top:
* Jarrold Top of the Terrace:
as many as 500 covers; three-course carvery lunch is served here on match days; during the week, the venue is available for functions.
* Jarrold Norfolk Lounge:
as many as 500 covers; the members-only Gunn Club operates here on match days, offering a choice of drinks, snack meals and three-course grill lunches; new membership costs £85 a year; used for functions during the rest of the week.
as many as 250 covers; family restaurant offering hamburgers and chicken and chips.
* Executive viewing boxes:
there are 26, sponsored by different companies for the season.
* Small function rooms:
17, of varying sizes.
* Bars and kiosks:
26 outlets around the ground, selling Holland pies (£1.60) and hot dogs (£2); when Smith took over the catering, 700 pies were sold on match days, but now 3,500 pies are consumed at each match.
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