Celebrity chefs add glamour to contract catering but the relationship brings more practical benefits to the industry as a whole
By Louisa Roberts
24 July 2008
Gordon, Jamie, Marco - celebrity chefs are officially the new rock stars. Our cookery-obsessed nation has even made celebrities of chefs who sell us books and TV programmes but have never owned their own restaurant, or barely set foot in one as a cook (Nigella, Hugh, Delia).
It's easy to see why young people with aspirations for Gordon Ramsay-style wealth and fame may be drawn into a catering career, but the reality is that 99 per cent of them will be jobbing chefs in restaurants, cafés, bars and hotels. A lucky few might one day run their own kitchen but fewer still will achieve Michelin-star recognition. In fact, a highly regarded and talented chef may only become a celebrity by being in the right place at the right time.
Nevertheless, the allure of these big names has also attracted partnerships between the fine dining arms of many contract catering companies, such as BaxterStorey, Compass and Sodexo, and celebrity chefs.
The attraction is clear. The contract caterer benefits from a service that is personally overseen by the chef who, in turn, will reach another high-end audience through the partnership - and one that can afford to eat in the chef's commercial restaurant too. Yet, all parties insist that the relationship brings many more advantages to the industry as a whole. The true value, they say, lies just as much in training and development, and filtering expertise from the top of the industry down to the contract caterer's staff.
Two Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux, chief-patron of Le Gavroche, says he is excited and inspired by working with a catering company. Signed to the Compass Group's fine dining arm, Restaurant Associates (RA), Roux is following in his father Albert's footsteps, who has worked with RA for the past 30 years. Roux Jr says that the food produced by RA could be Michelin-star quality food. "I'm constantly amazed by the passion of the staff and the quality of the food. We work with RA, along with Roux Fine Dining (a division of RA), and help with training and development by regularly bringing chefs into Le Gavroche for training and tasting sessions."
John Campbell, executive chef at contract caterer BaxterStorey, is another example of a two Michelin-starred chef who teaches the company's chefs through regular bespoke training sessions, often one-on-one, at his restaurant, The Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury, Berkshire.
Having gained his stars without working for any of the big-name chefs, Campbell seems critical of the "Michelin egos" of the catering industry. Those who work in the background, he says, are the unsung heroes, demonstrating high standards of cooking in a far more rigid environment.
"If you want to know why I do this job, it's that I can help and guide chefs who are starting out or progressing through their careers, by adding to their confidence. Expectations of food quality and presentation are far higher than ever before, which is a major challenge for all of us."
Dean Lindsay, managing director, business and industry, at Aramark agrees that partnerships such as these benefit the industry when thought out properly. Lindsay says the key to using this in the broader business context is to align with the company and its client's objectives.
Jason Leek, managing director of RA, is keenly aware of this fact, having recently launched a new partnership with Gordon Ramsay, on top of the Roux partnership and also commercial restaurants run with Gary Rhodes. Although in its early days, the new partnership is concentrating on branding and menu development, while the first Jason Atherton RA site (Michelin-starred Atherton and Angela Hartnett will both be involved as both come under the Gordon Ramsay umbrella), is close to launching.
Again, all chefs will spend time at Atherton's restaurant, Maze, while head chef at the RA site will be a Ramsay or Atherton-trained chef. Eventually, Leek says that he'd like to see four to five sites open under each Ramsay chef. "The key is keeping it tight - this is a very high-end product that we're offering and clients will want to be differentiated.
"But there's no benefit to this type of relationship if we just put the chef's name over the door and leave it at that. It's all meaningless unless there is training and support."
And what does Ramsay himself think? "It's an exciting venture that enables us to have a presence in the City without the constraints of running a restaurant with little or no evening and weekend trade."
Few multi-millionaire celebrity chefs could argue with business logic like that.