Cooking in the capital: Chef mentors talk supply, sourcing and the fruits of their labour

Cooking in the capital: Chef mentors talk supply, sourcing and the fruits of their labour

Ganor Sel
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As part of the Fresh Careers Fair, Dale DeSimone, executive pastry chef at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and Covent Garden-based School of Wok owner and chef Jeremy Pang, were on the “Meet a Mentor” stand giving advice to the next generation of fresh produce and foodservice industry talent. PBUK spoke with them about the different set of challenges they face sourcing produce in the capital as well as their thoughts on the high-calibre students looking to break into the UK industry.

Dale overseas “anything sweet or sugary” at the historic Mayfair hotel – an enviable job by most people’s standards.

But sustaining a fresh high quality source of fruit for the hotel’s infamous afternoon teas does pose some problems for a pastry chef who wants to make every dish as perfect as possible for the eclectic mix of guests staying at London hotel and dining in its elegant and traditionally English Park Room.

From January to December getting hold of high quality strawberries and ensuring a consistent supply of fresh fruit to decorate the delicious desserts that make up Grosvenor’s popular afternoon tea, can be tricky at times.

“We use absolutely mountains of fruit, we go through stacks of it. Sliced fruit, whole fruit, frozen fruit, produce in all its forms. We can easily buy 40 kilos of apples in the blink of an eye,” he tells PBUK.  

“We can have difficulties sometimes with consistent quality. In a hotel, it can be tough to meet the needs of all your guests which of course you have to do; you may have a guest who wants a strawberry 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. And it’s the middle of January and the fruit comes in and they look like little white stone – as a chef, what do you do?

“That is the kind of challenge we will face; having perfect bananas every day, having the perfect apple every day and the perfect berry every day and so on.”

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It’s more important to find the “absolute best quality possible” says Dale, and as a chef, to be as creative as possible.

“In Autumn you’re obviously focusing on the autumn fruits and in the winter focusing more on citrus and just trying to get a little higher quality and less variety – that’s the idea at the moment because it’s much better to have a nice premium clementine than a bowl of berries that are sour.

“Right now we are using a few different suppliers. I believe one that we are dealing with now is getting fruit from Longes in France and selects our fruit from there and then brings it over.

“We have one side of it where we are going to provide the same menu for one year and we have to prove it at the same quality all year. That’s where the challenge is when it comes to produce. We have to find these items that are consistently good all year long.”

Dale also explains how afternoon teas will start to incorporate more exotic fruit, while also keeping the traditional English theme.

“It’s nice to throw in some other produce. right now we’re playing around with lychee and elderflower – which is the English element and lychee, which is a little more exotic – in our pastries and various products. We run the full spectrum in what we need.”

School of Wok stirring up its supply

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Fresh Careers Fair mentor, Jeremy, has a very different set of challenges, at the other end of the spectrum compared with Dale. He needs to source a range of fresh produce for students of his award-winning Asian and oriental cookery school.

Having started off teaching foodies how to cook in their own homes, he has grown the business into a flagship cookery school, a stone’s throw from London’s Chinatown.

“More or less every food business starts from fresh produce and we actually find it quite difficult as a small food business to find suppliers of fresh produce who are willing to give us small quantities,” he says.

“I think London is still not quite ready for that; there are a few suppliers that we can count on one hand that might help us out. However, the key thing is there are more and more companies willing to work with smaller businesses, so we’re looking at urban farms and things like that.

“We are starting to look at aquaponics and there is a company called Farm Drop that we are starting to work with as they work with lots of businesses and are therefore able to provide smaller quantities of really great produce to businesses like mine.”

Speaking about the opportunities within the UK’s food industry, the entrepreneur was impressed with the high-calibre and “vibrant” young people he spoke with with during the event.

“Being on the “meet the mentor” stand gives me the chance to chat with students who want to take something from my experience, and how my business has grown over the year, as well as the general ideas about the huge opportunities within food in the UK,” he adds.

“There is a huge opportunity for people to start from something really quite small, as I did, in quite an organic way. I’ve had some interesting conversations during the Fair.

“If you get your websites, social media and marketing right, it’s actually quite a cheap way to start a business and there are a lot of consumers who are ready for independent business and are more than willing to back them as opposed to just going to large restaurants and chains all of the time.

“For me, from a small business owner point of view, it’s a huge opportunity for a lot of people and it’s much less scary than it used to be five or ten years ago.”

Jeremy is also planning to visit an aquaponics farm in East London to see the potential for typical Asian ingredients to be used at his cookery school.

“They are growing everything; as an oriental cookery school, produce like Thai seed basil and southeast Asian herbs, are a must.

“You would think these products need to be imported or at least go to a bigger grower in a slightly hotter part of Europe for supply. But interestingly, it’s getting a lot more accessible much closer to home, which is great news for our company.”

 

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