At your service

University catering is changing on a regular basis. Luke Dormehl discovered the trends re-shaping today’s HE kitchens

In a world where higher education continues to grow, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that university kitchens are doing the same. Particularly given the domestic trend toward sprawling, open-plan kitchens, it would make perfect sense for HE food preparation facilities to be following a similar trajectory. Except for one problem: according to Keith Williams, head of trading at the University of Kent, they’re not. 

“The most noticeable change that I’ve seen during my time in the sector is that industrial kitchens have got smaller,” he said. “We used to have some kitchens which would require 10 or 12 chefs in at any one time. Today it’s often nowhere close to that number. 

Forget crowded kitchens sealed off from daylight; modern university facilities, Williams said, tend to emphasise the comfort factor for staff. “Something you see with a lot of newer university kitchens is an emphasis on providing adequate daylight for people working in them. 

The reason modern university kitchens seem, as a rule, to be getting smaller rather than bigger has nothing to do with less students and faculty members to feed. Instead, much of it owes a debt to modern food preparation equipment, which allows a lot more to be done in a unit that is physically smaller than its predecessors, and requires fewer users to operate it.

“We recently added a Rational oven, which is a combi-oven that allows you to do baking, steaming and various other types of food preparation in one oven,” Williams said.

“On top of that, it’s also self-cleaning. Not only does that cut down on the amount of equipment you need to
have in a kitchen, but it also has the effect of limiting the number of chefs you require at any one time. It means that chefs can use daytime hours to do preparation of food to the plate, getting it ready, and can then re-generate that food for service – whether that refers to a blast chill, or heating.

“When it comes to an evening banquet, you no longer have to have between eight and 10 chefs working simultaneously, since you can do much the same job using between two and four chefs. It makes things far more efficient.”

Pushing the envelope

As Williams is keen to point out, there’s also the matter of changing tastes when it comes to what consumers are looking for in terms of food. “I’m very proud to have chefs who are incredibly adventurous,” said Williams. “They are always willing to push the envelope by trying new dishes, and our students overwhelmingly respond positively to that.

“In 2013 we were fortunate enough to win the CUBO award for Best Catering Service’, and I really believe that a large part of that was our willingness to change what we offer on the food front.”

While (admittedly delicious sounding) dishes like red Thai chicken curry, beef rogan josh with rice, and lasagne may all be standard issue meals for university chefs, Williams stressed the various unusual creations that have appeared on the University of Kent specials board over the past year: with one striking example being a coffee bean salad. 

These new dishes often require new equipment, which needs to be purchased and fitted so that Williams’ team can keep up with trends. “I’ll give you the example of pork burritos,” he said, “which have proven a very popular part of our menu. This was something we added after noticing a real explosion in the popularity of street food going on in cities. As caterers, you need to understand that customers’ tastes and desires are constantly changing, and you need to be able to adapt to fit those requirements.

“We recently added a smoker to our kitchen which lets us smoke meat, make pork burritos for our Tex Mex bar, and also offer smoked fish for our conference menus.”

Part of the service

Williams’ noting of “conference menus” is one indication of another way in which university caterers, and by extension, their kitchens, are changing in 2014. At the University of Kent, as with many universities around the UK, there are a variety of restaurants and food vending places situated around campus: from the Rutherford dining hall, to several bistros and cafes, and a more upmarket dining-style restaurant. Each of these comes with its own kitchen facilities, which have to answer to their own set of criteria regarding what customers are looking for. For some, it might be bespoke dietary requirements such as Halal food. For others, it may be a focus on quick, light dining or else heavier, more traditionally substantial meals.

What this demonstrates is not just that with so many options available on one campus it is difficult to draw conclusions about what your typical university kitchen needs to offer, but also that modern HE catering is as much to do with form as it is with contents.

To put it another way, university catering isn’t limited to what is being served, but also how it’s served.

“A significant trend we’ve seen within university kitchens relates to convenience,” Williams said. “The main competition I see for us as caterers is students and academic staff cooking their own meals. That competition is driven partly by supermarkets, who will now deliver food directly into university halls of residence, which means that we’re fighting against the ready meal market. There’s also the threat offered by the takeaway trade, which is significant because many restaurants will deliver within half an hour of an order being placed.” 

Since the majority of new student accommodation is built with ready access to well-equipped kitchens, universities must now focus on providing value and accessibility for students. To this end, Williams said that from 2014 the University of Kent will offer a multi-food court, which will provide a variety of takeaway meals created on campus until 2am each morning. “Keeping an eye on environmental concerns, we will deliver by bicycle on campus,” he said. “This will be everything from fish and chips, and pizza, to grilled meats and fresh salads.”

The student experience 

The subject of sustainability is another factor influencing university catering, with many HE institutions now offering recyclable and biodegradable packaging, as well as using solar panels and sustainable sourcing as an element of their catering plans.

If there is a reason why the subject is relevant more than ever, though, it is because of the importance food plays in the overall university experience. “Students will scrutinise every aspect of the university offering prior to application, and food and drink is no exception,” said Julie Barker, chair of the University Catering Organisation (TUCO), which analyses catering trends within HE.

“In TUCO we know that we operate in a competitive world where university catering is seen as part of a holistic package alongside facilities, infrastructure and academic standards, so there is an onus on caterers to be the best, encouraging students to stay on campus, and be recognised for excellent cuisine by those attending for conferences and the like. Gone are the days when it was simply about providing a food service. Today, it is a pivotal part of enhancing the experience on campus and can be a huge draw in attracting students. The more savvy universities are already using their food and beverage offering to their advantage in marketing to prospective students.”

To help universities capitalise on this, everything from kitchen design, to green credentials, to the ways in which food is prepared and served is being rethought, and as much work as it is for the hard-working chefs and catering teams within HE, the results are more than worth it.

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