Food operations in museums and galleries have come of age - at last. Humayun Hussain finds out how they shook off their old image and looks at who the operators are
Diners take a break from their diet of culture in the bar and restaurant of the Tate Modern art gallery London
Time was when the restaurants and cafés in the UK's museums and galleries were almost universally awful. It seemed as if there was no alternative to small, drab-looking cafés serving skimpy sandwiches with tired, boring old fillings and "luxury" items constituting nothing more than fish and chips, or stodgy chocolate cake for afters - all rendered with heartless service and at exorbitant prices.
Much has changed in the past 10 years.
You can see these changes in Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Southbank Centre and the Barbican, and in venues across the UK such as At-Bristol, the Manchester Museum, World Museum Liverpool and the National Museum of Scotland. They have all upped their game considerably, and several of their cafés and restaurants have become destination eateries in their own right.
Duncan Ackery is the chief executive officer of Searcy, which runs restaurants and cafés in several visitor attractions (including the National Portrait Gallery, the Barbican, the London Transport Museum and the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh). "What the gallery and museum operators have come to realise," he says "is that while their food outlets had previously been an adjunct to the venue, they now have to be in line with the aspirations of the venue. In turn, the contract catering companies and individual operators who run those dining operations have come to understand that their food and drink offer is crucial to the kind of venue they are in."
Bruce McLauchlan, communications manager of Digby Trout, which is part of Elior UK and has an annual turnover of £35m, takes the same view. His company operates in 50 different leisure and visitor locations - including Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Museum of London, the Tower of London, At-Bristol, National Museum Cardiff and Edinburgh Castle.
"Digby Trout has been operating for more than 10 years, and during that time we have increased our choice of food and drink immensely in various arts venues. You have to ensure that both the food and the drinks (including juices and wines) are of good quality. You also need to offer a wide choice of healthy options, as well as children's items on the menu."
Rent and turnover
The length and type of contracts vary, but can be for up to 10 or even 15 years, with the caterer generally paying rent to the venue owners, along with a percentage of the turnover. Crucially, though, there are a number of factors that make a visitor attraction venue different from a stand-alone food business.
"You always have to be mindful of the venue your operation is located in," Ackery says. "You really have to know the client base well: for instance, are they mainly international tourists or visitors from the UK? What's their average age, and, most importantly, what is their spending power? You also have to be at ease with the idea of working with a host organisation. The better the relationship with them, the more likely it is that you will get your food offer right. You have to think about what it is that you can bring that will both complement and enhance that venue.
"Ideally, your food and drink offer needs to achieve a balance of simplicity and sophistication. That way you don't exclude anyone. In addition, you have to be prepared to be flexible. At weekends and at school half-terms, there will be more children visiting, so you need to use that opportunity to your advantage. The visitor profile changes all the time: you have to consider whether, for instance, your weekend menu should be different from your weekday menu."
Probably the largest collection of food outlets in and around an arts venue is at London's Southbank Centre, where there are more than 10 restaurants and cafés plus six bars.
"When I joined the Southbank Centre more than five years ago," says chief executive Michael Lynch, "we were in this extraordinary growth phase which followed the London Eye, the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge. The number of people using the riverside where we are located has grown from 10 million a year to 18 million a year. It was also important for us to ensure that, having spent £90m on the Festival Hall's two-year refurbishment (it reopened last year), we improved our food and drink offer. To our surprise, the more eating and drinking outlets we opened, the more people came and now we are one of London's major dining destinations."
At present, the Southbank Centre offers a choice of outlets, including the flagship restaurant Skylon, along with Canteen, Wagamama, Giraffe, Strada, Ping Pong, Concrete and several others - and there are more to come. The restaurants offer different price points, so there's something to suit all customers.
"We couldn't have been located in a better venue than the Southbank Centre," says Patrick Clayton-Malone, co-founder and director of Canteen, which has a projected annual turnover of up to £5m at the site. "As we are open all day, we get the perfect demographic, ranging from children and young parents to elderly people. We also attract diners from the surrounding area such as office workers and local residents. What we are still getting used to in our first year is the flow pattern at such a venue. We can go from being relatively quiet to being completely full within half an hour, but we are very fortunate in that we can plan ahead: the centre keeps us informed about upcoming events and we can even get involved in the programming."
Rather than have contract caterers operate on its sites, the Tate group of galleries, which includes Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives, has its own in-house division, Tate Catering, which operates the on-site cafésand restaurants. It also oversees all corporate and event catering.
"Having our own catering division means we can control all our food operations," says Robin Bidgood, chief executive officer of Tate Catering. "All our profits are ploughed back into the business. We emphasise British cooking and quality sourcing on our menus. We adhere to the basic principle of having three or four ingredients on the plate - and no more. But while the food and drink offer may be more classical at Tate Britain, it's more eclectic and cosmopolitan at Tate Modern as the venue attracts a different kind of clientele. At venues outside London, we would feature more local produce on the menu."
Couture, a new and small-scale contract operator on the arts circuit, with venues including the Institut Français in London and Manchester Museum, in Manchester, is making a point of bringing high-quality producers to the fore in its cafés and restaurants.
"I wanted to work with small food producers," says managing director Marc Wade. "We have been growing very fast and it gives us the opportunity to be able to set up in venues and pay attention to detail."
If there is one operator who has influenced arts venue dining in London recently, it's Oliver Peyton. His company turnover is projected at £17m by next year, and his arts venue restaurants include the Wallace at the Wallace Collection and both the National Dining Rooms and the National Café at the National Gallery. An outlet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts is soon to follow.
"The UK has become a much bigger and better food producer," Peyton says, "and galleries and museums have become a lot more accessible - and eating in them is a lot less intimidating. People are going the National Café, for instance, to eat and meet as they would in any other café or restaurant. So we are bringing in business from outside.
"With museums and galleries I can have an economy of scale. I can give the venue owners exactly what they want, so although I can still use my creative juices, it's without the headache of a stand-alone operation. I really don't think that the large corporate contract caterers can react and meet the needs of the public in the way that small individual companies such as mine can. It isn't just that they lack the personal touch: their food-purchasing methods and whole ethos are different. I may not get expense account types and I may rely more on daytime trade and on the food gross profit rather than drink sales in a museum or gallery, but if I can change the perception of overseas visitors to the UK about our arts venues then I'll have succeeded in what I had set out to do."
Contract caterers at arts venues
Sample venue restaurants:
Portrait Restaurant & Bar at the National Portrait Gallery
Searcy at the Barbican
The Gallery Restaurant & Bar at The National Gallery of Scotland
Sample venue restaurants:
National Dining Rooms at the National Gallery
The Wallace at The Wallace Collection
Sample venue restaurant:
Theory Restaurant & Bar at At-Bristol
Sample venue restaurant:
Café Muse at The Manchester Museum
Sample venue restaurant:
Tate Liverpool Café
Sea Bass with Anchovy and Parsley Mayonnaise, recipe from the Canteen
Ingredients for mayonnaise
6 anchovy fillets
3 gloves of garlic
2tbs of Dijon mustard
2 organic egg yolks
Zest and juice of one organic lemon
350 ml sunflower oil
Half a bunch chives finely chopped
Generous bunch of parsley
Blanch parsley in boiling water for 30 seconds and then refresh in iced water.
Drain parsley and squeeze out liquid.
Place eggs yolks, anchovy fillets, garlic, mustard and lemon in a food processor and blend until smooth (about one minute). Then slowly add oil while still continuing to blend until you have a thick mayonnaise.
Fish: Take a whole sea bass (gutted and scaled by your fishmonger) and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Score both sides of the fish three or four times then pour some olive oil on both sides.
Place fish under hot grill for two to three minutes then place the fish on a metal tray inside a pre-heated oven (at 200°C) for about 10 minutes (depending on size of fish).
Serve with some green salad leaves and a large wedge of lemon.
Poulet bio "Wallace" - Recipe from the Wallace
1 whole organic chicken
250g foie gras
400g green beans
300g baguette rubbed with garlic
2 sprigs of thyme
Good-quality white wine
Take a fresh baguette and rub it with two cloves of garlic and one sprig of fresh thyme. Once covered, cut the baguette into cubed pieces.
Take your chicken and stuff it with the baguette cubes. Season the chicken well with salt and pepper.
Heat a little olive oil in a large pan to medium heat and then add the chicken, placing one breast side down. Gently sear the chicken, carefully turning until all sides are a golden brown.
Preheat an oven to about 220°C. Next take the pan with the chicken and place it in the oven for 30 minutes - being careful to turn the chicken halfway through.
Remove the cooked chicken from the oven and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
Remove the baguette stuffing and place in a bowl on the side. Tilt the chicken, pouring all excess juices into the bowl with the baguette stuffing. Carve up the chicken, taking the breast off the bone and the legs off the joint.
Take another pan at medium heat and seal off the foie gras until golden. Season with salt and pepper.
Then take the foie gras off the heat and let it rest in a warm place for about three minutes, until cooked through.
Remove the foie gras from the pan, leaving the juices in it and add the baguette pieces. Fry on a low heat until crispy.
Take some green beans and sauté them in the butter in a separate pan.
Strain the fat from the pan used to fry the chicken. Now deglaze with some white wine, one clove of garlic and one clove of thyme. Allow the mixture to reduce, then add 100ml of chicken stock and put in a bowl.
Serving: Add a layer of green beans to each plate. Next add the carved-up chicken on top, layered with the seared foie gras and baguette pieces. Drizzle the reduced chicken stock mixture on top. Garnish with a sprig of thyme and one clove of roasted garlic and serve.
Smoked haddock fishcake - from the National Dining Rooms
500g smoked haddock
600g peeled potato (made into mash)
4 poached eggs
250g baby spinach leaves, washed
10ml rapseed oil
5ml lemon juice
4 eggs beaten
Preheat the oven to 160ºC. Set a deep-freyer to 160ºC.
Peel the skin from the fish and cook the fish in the oven.
Gently flake the fish. pulling out the little bones as it is fingered and mix with the mash.
Shape into four equal round cakes.
Coat the haddock cake with flour, egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fry until golden brown.
Drain on kitchen paper.
Place the baby spinach in a bowl and dress with rapseed oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Distribute on to four plates and put the fish cake on top, top with a hot poached egg and coat with hollandaise sauce.